Wednesday, February 12, 2020

New Hampshire Primary Review: Bernie's Biggest Win Wasn't His First-Place Finish

Bernie Sanders's performance in Tuesday night's New Hampshire primary isn't likely to impress the news media much. Sanders won New Hampshire for the second straight election, but he received less than half of his 2016 vote share (26 percent, as of this writing, compared to 60 percent last time) and edged Pete Buttigieg by less than 2 percentage points, in contrast to his 22-point margin over Hillary Clinton four years ago. Both Sanders and Buttigieg will receive the same number of pledged delegates from the state. Unsurprisingly, a New York Times reporter proclaimed the 2nd- and 3rd-place finishes of Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to be the top two stories of the night, rather than Sanders's nominal victory.

But those two results are themselves very good news for Sanders's ultimate chances of winning the nomination. Had it been Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren who received 24 and 20 percent of the vote in New Hampshire to Sanders's 26 percent, Sanders would be facing two rejuvenated opponents who would have the name recognition and resources to compete with him once the race opens out into a quasi-national contest on Super Tuesday, and Biden in particular would be back in position to enter Super Tuesday with a campaign-stabilizing victory three days earlier in the South Carolina primary.

Instead, Biden and Warren have been seriously damaged by their descent into the high single digits in New Hampshire, and the media death watch over both campaigns that will probably ensue won't make it easy for them to rebound. Buttigieg and Klobuchar can expect a short-term publicity boost after their overperformances on Tuesday, but they will need to quickly build Super Tuesday-caliber campaign operations around themselves over the next three weeks in order to avoid being drowned out by Sanders's financial and organizational advantages in expensive, delegate-rich states like California and Texas. And the fact that each of them is competing against the other as well as against Sanders (Buttigieg, in particular, was a repeated target of critical remarks from Klobuchar in last Friday's debate) makes their tasks even more challenging.

Much has been made of Sanders's relative weakness among black voters, which was a pivotal impediment to his campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016. But while Joe Biden was previously considered a heavy favorite against Sanders in South Carolina and other Deep South states due to his supposedly strong personal support among this constituency, there's no reason to believe that Sanders couldn't attract a significant share of the black vote if Biden were seriously weakened or driven from the race and Sanders’s main opponents were instead Buttigieg and Klobuchar—neither of whom has yet invested much, or demonstrated much success, in courting black leaders or citizens.

A national Quinnipiac poll released on Monday showed Mike Bloomberg's level of black support approaching Biden's, 27 percent to 22 percent, suggesting that Biden's continuing decline might benefit Bloomberg most of all among black Democrats. (Bloomberg has recently spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign featuring video footage of Barack Obama praising him by name.) But in an utterly inexplicable strategy, Bloomberg has opted not to contest South Carolina, even though it votes only three days before Super Tuesday and will undoubtedly influence those results. While the current state of the race in South Carolina isn't clear, it's quite possible that Sanders could be very competitive there if Biden continues to fade, and a Sanders victory followed by a successful multi-state Super Tuesday performance would make it difficult for any other candidate to catch him in the pledged delegate count absent an extraordinary turn of events.

So it's probably wise to discount media talk that Sanders has had trouble growing his coalition. No other single candidate has done any better at winning votes so far, and there are good reasons to believe that his major advantages have not yet been activated. Of course, there's a long way to go in the delegate race, and strange things can and do happen in nomination politics. But the two candidates who once loomed as Sanders's strongest rivals are starting to look like they won't be the ones to stop him—if anyone does.