Last night narrowed the Democratic field and introduced a new contender for the nomination. Bernie Sanders narrowly topped Pete Buttigieg in an ending similar to Iowa last week, but reversed. The newcomer to the top tier was Amy Klobuchar. She came in third, not far behind Mayor Pete but way ahead of Warren and Biden who finished with less than 10% each. Senator Michael Bennet and Andrew Yang ended their campaigns.
Bernie is clearly holding onto his base but he’s not growing it. However, Donald Trump proved in 2016, a loyal following can beat a larger one. Most of the GOP didn’t want him to be the nominee but his staunch supporters consistently gave him a plurality in a large field. Sanders’ backers might be able to do the same for him.
Warren needed to come in at the top of the heap to keep her campaign viable. She’s struggled since the fall after a summer surge. Now, she came in a distant fourth in the state next door to Massachusetts, her home. That’s like a presidential candidate from North Carolina getting clobbered in the South Carolina primary. She’ll have difficulty recovering.
Biden is also in big trouble. He’s a victim of high expectations. He built a campaign based on his ability to beat Trump but he can’t even finish in the top three in the first two nominating contests. He’ll probably hold on until South Carolina but he’ll need a big victory there to head into Super Tuesday with any momentum.
Buttigieg clearly appeals to the segment of the Democrats who like to think of themselves as the party of smart people. More than Joe Biden, he’s tapping into the Obama nostalgia with his cerebral and intellectual approach to politics. For the people who want their president to be the smartest and least emotional person in the room, he’s their candidate. He’ll have to prove that he can win the working class part of the Democratic coalition to get the nomination. They’re mostly people of color now, and the polls say he’s struggling with them. We’ll see if that’s true in Nevada and South Carolina.
Klobuchar has been the little engine that could. She’s stayed steady throughout the campaign. She hasn’t gotten rattled easily and she’s turned in the most consistent debate performances of anybody standing. She brings a Midwestern sensibility and common sense that isn’t splashy and offers a strong contrast to Trump. She’s pushed the ball all the way into third place in New Hampshire, up from fifth in Iowa. She’s trending in the right direction but she’ll need to continue to outperform expectations to keep her momentum.
The candidate looming over the whole field now is Bloomberg. The rationale for his candidacy was to offer an alternative to Bernie if Biden, the presumed frontrunner, faltered. Now, it looks like the vice-president is stumbling but two centrists who might have broad appeal have eclipsed him. The key to beating Sanders is consolidating the moderate primary voters who substantially outnumber the left flank. Bloomberg’s candidacy could backfire, leaving the field more splintered and giving Sanders the ability to win pluralities in a large number of states.
The presidential primary is a long way from over. Expect more twists and turns as we head into spring. It could be a wild ride.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >