The race is Bernie versus the field, and the field is still divided.
Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary, and there are some good reasons to believe that the primary race is — slowly — going his way. He beat seven candidates to win the state. It’s the second contest that he won the most votes in. That matters.
Of course, if you were in the Sanders camp, you’d want to crack a higher score by now, with something over 30 percent of the vote. Sanders trounced Clinton in this state four years ago, and New Hampshire knows him. If you’re in the Sanders camp, you also worry that Pete Buttigieg has been on your heels the whole time, and you’ve achieved no significant lead in delegates.
The mood isn’t quite right for Sanders right now. His early performance doesn’t feel triumphant. Certainly if you had predicted six months ago that he would win the most votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, that would have been considered a happy start. Many Sanders supporters are going to resent that, in the second contest in a row, he won the most votes yet his performance was seemingly discounted. Some other person (first Buttigieg, now Amy Klobuchar) will be declared “the winner of the night” — really, the winner of the media’s novel interest. It is as if, instead of looking to the winner of the election, the media are more interested to discover “the candidate consolidating the anti-Sanders vote.”
During the Iowa debacle, Buttigieg was proclaimed “smart” rather than presumptuous for declaring victory early and falsely. Amy Klobuchar in New Hampshire is being named “the story of the night” by influential reporters. But she’s barely ahead of where Jon Huntsman finished in the GOP primary in 2012. He ended his campaign days later. Shouldn’t wins drive the media coverage?
In fact, the emergence of Amy Klobuchar may be a godsend to Bernie’s campaign. Klobuchar directly targeted Buttigieg in the last debate, and she prospered. She will command serious media attention and may very well prevent donors and leading Democratic officeholders from endorsing Buttigieg to stop Sanders.
Right now Bernie Sanders has the highest approval rating among Democrats of all the remaining candidates. He is the second choice of most Biden and Warren supporters. Andrew Yang’s supporters are disproportionately anti-establishment, so Yang’s withdrawal can help Sanders. Tulsi Gabbard endorsed Bernie Sanders four years ago. When her campaign ends, she is very likely to endorse Sanders again.
And if you peer out into the middle distance, it looks like a highway pileup among putatively anti-Sanders candidates. Roughly 10 percent of the Democratic primary has been committed to small, single-issue candidacies that are failing. Roughly two in five Democrats are willing to support a non-Sanders candidate such as Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar, but crucially, they are not consolidating and granting either of them a full 40 percent in any one state. Which of these candidates can and will consistently beat Sanders? And when?
Perhaps no one and nowhere. As we approach Super Tuesday in the first week of March, Mike Bloomberg’s $200 million of ads is waiting. Will he get to 35 or 40 percent of the vote in those states? That is hard to imagine, but it is easy to see that if Buttigieg or Klobuchar is flagging, Bloomberg simply will pick up their votes, allowing Sanders to conquer a still-divided field yet again.
Buttigieg is still in the strongest position to challenge Sanders. But Klobuchar’s attacks on him showed that he isn’t the phenom that Barack Obama or Bill Clinton was. His victory speeches have a cut-and-paste feel. Attack ads may also remind voters that he is the man from nowhere. Nevada, South Carolina, and the Super Tuesday states will present a field with proportionally fewer of the degree-holding Democratic voters who are voting in such strong numbers for Pete Buttigieg.
Every four years, the media tend to treat the results of the first few primary states as entirely provisional. And every four years they reveal the dynamics of a race in a rather decisive way. The race is Bernie Sanders against the field, and I would bet on Bernie.