On Tuesday morning, Roger Lau, the campaign manager for Elizabeth Warren’s Presidential bid, sent a lengthy memorandum to Warren’s campaign workers and the media. “The road to the Democratic nomination is not paved with statewide winner-take-all victories,” Lau wrote. It is “a district-by-district contest for pledged delegates awarded proportionally. It’s not a straightforward narrative captured by glancing at a map, and the process won’t be decided by the simple horse race numbers in clickbait headlines.”
Hours after this memo was sent, Warren suffered a crushing disappointment in the New Hampshire primary, recording just 9.5 per cent of the vote—a result that raised grave doubts about the onetime front-runner’s ability to endure the sort of lengthy nationwide battle for delegates that Lau described. Despite Warren’s eclipse, however, the points Lau made are crucial to keep in mind when assessing the state of the Democratic race after Iowa and New Hampshire.
After winning the popular vote in the first two contests, Bernie Sanders has seen off the challenge from Warren on the left and consolidated his position as a front-runner. As I mentioned last week, after the Iowa caucuses, many observers underestimated him. Still, in New Hampshire, as in Iowa, Sanders’s margin of victory over Pete Buttigieg was a narrow one: about four thousand votes, or 1.5 percentage points. And, thanks to the quirks of the Iowa caucuses, Buttigieg is still ahead in the delegate count. According to CNN, Buttigieg now has twenty-three delegates, Sanders has twenty-one, Warren has eight, and Amy Klobuchar, who came in a strong third place in New Hampshire, has seven.
With 1,990 pledged delegates required to clinch the Democratic nomination, the candidates have barely crossed the starting line. To win, Sanders, Buttigieg—or anyone else—will almost certainly have to grind it out until early June, when the final primaries will take place. But that doesn’t mean the remaining candidates have a lot of time to get organized on a national level. To the contrary, the timetable is about to speed up dramatically.
From New Hampshire, the race moves on to Nevada, which votes on February 22nd, and South Carolina, which votes a week later. Then it goes into Super Tuesday, March 3rd, when fourteen states—Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia—will vote. Seven days later, six more states will vote: Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, and Washington.
A month from now, almost half of the pledged delegates will have been chosen. This compressed timetable favors a candidate who has four things: a clear message, a lot of money (to pay for staffers and advertising), a national network of supporters, and a diverse set of voters. At this stage, it’s not clear if any of the leading candidates check all of these boxes.
Sanders comes the closest. As he pointed out in his victory speech on Tuesday night, he is the one Democrat with a nationwide grassroots movement. He raised $34.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2019. His message is crystal clear. As he said in his speech, he wants to create “an economy and a government that works for all of us, not wealthy campaign contributors.” The question for Sanders is how far he can enlarge his support beyond his base of young voters and left-leaning progressives.
In the New Hampshire primary four years ago, the senator from neighboring Vermont got about sixty per cent of the vote; this year, he got about twenty-six per cent. Buttigieg and Klobuchar, between them, got far more votes than Sanders did. Now he moves on to compete in places that are far more diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire. This time around, his campaign has made a big effort to reach out to African-Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups. After Iowa, his supporters pointed to the gains he had made in that state’s Hispanic community and among other immigrants. In the next couple of weeks, we will learn how successful the Sanders outreach efforts have been elsewhere. But the challenges Sanders faces are minor compared to those facing the candidates he bested in New Hampshire.
Buttigieg certainly has money and a message, which is that he’s young, uncorrupted by Washington, and palatable to many different types of voters. In New Hampshire, he attracted support from voters in a number of different demographics. Citing a network exit poll, NBC News reported that “his 23 percent support among college graduates put him right behind Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders, and he placed second behind Sanders among those without a college degree. Buttigieg also placed a close second behind Klobuchar among voters age 45 and over. And Buttigieg beat out the field among women voters by a narrow margin and placed second behind Sanders among men.”
Coming out of Iowa, it looked as though Buttigieg was consolidating the support of center-left and moderate primary participants. In New Hampshire, he again demonstrated an ability to pick up votes across various demographics. Klobuchar’s surge muddied the picture a bit. Coming off a strong performance in Friday’s debate, she seems to have attracted a lot of ex-Biden supporters. Among voters who made their decision in the last few days, Klobuchar got thirty per cent of the vote, according to the exit poll. After struggling for months to break through, she will now get a good deal more media attention.
But, as the race goes coast to coast, neither Buttigieg nor Klobuchar has much in the way of a national network, and thus far they have both struggled to attract support from Latinos, African-Americans, and other minority groups, who will play crucial roles in Nevada, South Carolina, and the states beyond. (It is surely the candidates’ weakness in this regard that persuaded Joe Biden, who got just 8.4 per cent of the vote in New Hampshire, to stay in the race—at least for now.) Also looming over the Not Bernie contenders is Michael Bloomberg, with his staggering advertising budget—according to some accounts, he’s already spent about three hundred million dollars, more than the rest of the field combined. After sitting out the first four contests, Bloomberg is set to properly join the race on Super Tuesday.
Right now, Bloomberg must be smiling to himself in his East Seventy-ninth Street townhouse. With Biden’s support collapsing, Sanders emerging as the front-runner, and Buttigieg and Klobuchar dividing the moderate vote, the former three-term mayor of New York could hardly have drawn up a scenario more amenable to him. But Bloomberg, too, will face tests ahead. After he gets into the race for real, his opponents and the media will scrutinize his record, which is far from unblemished. There are questions about how effective he will be as a candidate in the flesh, as opposed to one who appears in paid ads. He turns seventy-eight this weekend, and hasn’t competed in an election for eleven years.
The online prediction markets, for what they are worth, are indicating that Sanders now has about a fifty-per-cent chance of getting the nomination. But FiveThirtyEight’s forecasting model is suggesting that there is a one-in-three chance that no candidate will obtain a majority of delegates, an outcome that could lead to a brokered convention. In short, there is still a great deal of uncertainty, and a lot more sorting to be done. The Nevada caucuses are in ten days.