After an embarrassing Iowa caucus, the smoother New Hampshire primary did more to determine who will not become the nominee than who will take on President Donald Trump in November.
Vermont Senator and self-described socialist Bernie Sanders came in first, though more narrowly than expected, giving him an important boost. He has taken over the lead nationally and is well-positioned to win the Nevada caucus next week and the South Carolina primary the week after.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg finished a close second, a testament to the bump he received from his first place finish in Iowa. His chief challenge will be capitalizing on his dramatic success. His needs to raise the money and create the organization necessary to win a race that rapidly accelerates in March. Buttigieg remains at only about ten per cent nationally.
Forcing her way into the conversation is Amy Klobuchar, a moderate Minnesota senator, with her strong third place showing. After coming in fifth in Iowa, where she won no delegates, New Hampshire will make her a destination for moderate voters fleeing former vice president Joe Biden’s sinking campaign.
The former front runner, coming in fifth, was the biggest loser in New Hampshire. After his lacklustre campaign and dismal fourth place finish in Iowa, he saw his national poll lead vanish, his margin in South Carolina’s February 29 contest shrink dramatically, and his stranglehold over African-American voters dissipate. He now trails Sanders in polls and fund-raising and faces multiple competitors for moderate support. If he does not win in Nevada or South Carolina, his candidacy is unlikely to survive through March.
The other big loser in New Hampshire is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Coming in fourth, she finished well behind Sanders in a state which borders both of theirs. In Iowa, she came in a distant third, with fewer than half Sanders’ votes. Left-wing activists already have begun to press her to abandon a hopeless effort and consolidate progressives behind Sanders.
While also-rans Michael Bennett and Andrew Yang dropped out after the polls closed, two billionaires remain poised to upset predictions. Tom Steyer, a non-factor in Iowa and New Hampshire, has spent his own money freely in South Carolina, where he is fighting Sanders for second place, behind a declining Biden. Steyer is largely unknown elsewhere, however.
Michael Bloomberg also ignored Iowa and New Hampshire. He is running third in national polls, but the 77-year-old white billionaire, elected as Republican mayor of New York City and possessing a cold persona, is an unlikely Democratic contender. He also is seeking support from moderate voters leaving Biden. But hostility from progressives will be great.
Overall, the Democratic party race is heading toward a contest between leftists and centrists. The latter should have the advantage since they collectively enjoy greater public support. However, speedy consolidation is the best path to victory. That is more likely to happen on the Left, as Sanders dramatically outpolls Warren. With two losses already and disappointing poll ratings both nationally and in upcoming contests, she has no obvious path to victory. If she stays in much longer without better results, she risks being a spoiler.
In contrast, more moderate voters are splintering. Biden hoped to become the consensus choice. His failure combined with the improved fortunes of Buttigieg and Klobuchar and financial fortunes of Steyer and Bloomberg make an extended fight in the centre more likely. Such a situation might leave Sanders with a series of plurality victories, leaving him short of a delegate majority.
Then a brokered convention, where no one wins on the first ballot, would become a serious possibility. Sanders would be at a significant disadvantage since the Democratic establishment would do whatever it could to block Sanders. That, in turn, would fuel the antagonism of Sanders supporters, some of whom might stay home or even vote for Trump, as happened in 2016.
The Democratic nomination fight has just started. Whoever wins will face a tough challenge. Despite his manifold weaknesses, Donald Trump will be a tough adversary. No Democrat yet looks ready to defeat him.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and currently Scholar-in-Residence at the Centre for Independent Studies. He worked in the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign and then served as a Special Assistant to President Reagan.
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