Keene, New Hampshire — On Tuesday night, Bernie Sanders took another step toward securing the Democratic nomination for president, the establishment wing of the party went three ways at once, and the state of New Hampshire put on an exhibition of electoral competence that made the doomstruck Iowa Caucus look like the sorry contest it was.
With most precincts having reported, Sanders pulled down 25.7 percent of the vote, followed by Pete Buttigieg’s strong showing of 24.4 percent. Amy Klobuchar roared into relevance again, landing in third place with 19.8 percent. Elizabeth Warren placed a disappointing fourth with 9.3 percent, but gave every indication she intends to remain in the race.
Andrew Yang and Michael Bennet had the writing on the wall rubbed in their faces, and dropped out of the race before New Hampshire’s winner was declared. Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer and Deval Patrick brought up the rear with a combined total of 8.2 percent, and Patrick will reportedly be “talking with his family” before continuing with a campaign that most had forgotten existed.
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The big story of the night, beyond Sanders’s victory, was the inglorious collapse of Joe Biden’s effort in New Hampshire. Biden spent the run-up to the vote making his usual optimistically shouty noises, but the vultures were circling before the weekend was out. The “mainstream” press started reporting on his campaign in the past tense — “What Went Wrong?” — and one Washington Post headline on Tuesday morning went so far as to describe the atmosphere within his campaign as “surreal.”
The weird rumblings began on Tuesday afternoon, hours before the polls closed. It was difficult to believe, and then there it was on film: Joe Biden, boarding a plane to South Carolina long before the deal went down. The erstwhile frontrunner, vessel of establishment Democratic hopes and dreams, was fleeing New Hampshire like a rabbit trying to out–hop a prairie fire.
Biden’s supporters here in New Hampshire were aghast, their sense of betrayal written on their faces, and the result was predictable. Buttigieg and Klobuchar should send Joe some flowers and a thank you note, as their vote totals were both infused with Biden backers who would be damned if they were going to cast a ballot for the guy who didn’t even stick around for the after-party.
The success in New Hampshire of Buttigieg and Klobuchar was due to some shrewd campaign moves made as Biden’s already-tepid momentum was visibly deflating. Buttigieg’s strong showing in Iowa and Klobuchar’s very solid performance during Friday’s debate put them in position to go big here in the run-up, which they did.
South Carolina, 17 very long days away, is now the Biden campaign’s Alamo, and the establishment wing of the Democratic Party has cracked into three distinct pieces. The Nevada Caucus is next up in 10 days, but election officials there are scrambling to shore up the process in the aftermath of Iowa, and none of the top campaigns are putting many eggs in that basket. Klobuchar’s weakness with Latinx voters and Buttigieg’s ongoing struggle to collect Black support make the next two contests perilous for the pair.
All of this, every last square inch of it, is a boon to Bernie Sanders. It was amusing to witness the “Oh God, not Bernie” crowd here trying to pick their way through three conservative-lite choices. In the end, their strength was spent in the split, while Sanders — whose supporters never wavered and whose vast donor base is built for the long haul — watched the pile-up in his rearview mirror.
Sanders, like the others, faces a stout test in South Carolina. Mainstream critics often assert that he lacks the support of Black voters needed to secure the nomination — ignoring the many Black organizers who have helped to build his 2020 campaign. Sanders’s current lead in California and other diverse states strongly suggests these critics may be stuck in 2016, erasing the many activists of color who’ve played integral roles in the Sanders effort.
Sanders’s path to the nomination is becoming clearer by the day. In 2016, people who did not vote nearly outnumbered Clinton and Trump voters combined. Those are some of the voters Sanders can expect to bring in, especially the younger voters who found the choices in 2016 too unpalatable to participate. If the same people who voted Democratic in 2016 turn out again this November (or, put another way, if “Vote Blue No Matter Who” means Bernie, too) their support in combination with voters who stayed home last time — plus new voters, including young people voting for the first time — would likely prove to be a winning coalition.
The elephant in the room (pun intended) is billionaire Mike Bloomberg, whose ersatz conversion to the Democratic Party after his 2004 endorsement of George W. Bush matters less to establishment Democrats than his potential ability to thwart a Sanders nomination in Wisconsin.
The increasingly desperate-sounding network pundits claim Biden-skeptical Black voters in South Carolina are giving Bloomberg a hard look. Even if this were true, one wonders how long it might last now that the dam has burst on Bloomberg’s wildly racist stop-and-frisk policy in New York City, which predominantly affected communities of color and which Bloomberg bragged about in 2015. The cameras in the back work, Mike. Make a note of it.
Sanders has the Democratic Party scared witless, in no small part because too many party officials still think it’s 1992. If (when) Biden collapses, and if Buttigieg and Klobuchar lack the horses to match Sanders down the stretch, the Democratic establishment may try to hand the nomination to a racist gadfly billionaire because they’re afraid Donald Trump will call Sanders a “socialist.”
This campaign has shown in Technicolor that Sanders is not just some passing trend; he is a canny, deeply vetted, battle-tested politician who beats Trump like a tin drum in the polls that match the two in a general election. This was true in 2016, too, but I digress.
My guess? Trump is going to have insults for whomever emerges as the nominee, and “socialist” is not the bugaboo word it used to be.
Tuesday’s primary was historic for a number of reasons, the foremost being that it may be the last time we see Iowa and New Hampshire lead the way during presidential elections.
The argument for having them go first has merit: They are two sparsely populated, mostly rural states that serve as an early organizational test for campaigns. If you can’t organize well enough to handle Des Moines and Manchester, Los Angeles will eat you alive, and you have no business being in the race.
True as that may be, the still-ongoing debacle in Iowa combined with the overwhelming whiteness of both states is a bad look for a party that would cease to exist without the support of voters of color. I expect there will be conversations about this at DNC headquarters long after November, but in the end, all signs point to a seismic shift in the way Democrats begin the process of picking their nominee.
As it stands, the race is wide open. Buttigieg holds a slim one-delegate lead over Sanders, Nevada and South Carolina will round out the month, and Super Tuesday’s 29 contests loom on March 3. This thing has only just begun.
UPDATE (1:00pm): Deval Patrick has ended his 2020 presidential campaign.