Sanders' Narrow Victory Over Buttigieg in N.H. Bolsters His Frontrunner Status

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As he did four years ago, Bernie Sanders won New Hampshire’s presidential primary Tuesday, once again leaving the Democratic Party establishment with a bracing choice: accept a dynamic populist with a passionate following or rally behind a more moderate candidate who would presumably fare better in a general election. 

Four years ago, Hillary Clinton felt the “Bern,” losing by more than 20 points in what was essentially a two-person race. In a much larger 2020 field, young upstart Pete Buttigieg came in a close second, with fast-closing Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar finishing third.  

“This victory here is the beginning of the end for Donald Trump,” Sen. Sanders told a Manchester crowd that erupted into chants of “Bernie Beats Trump! Bernie Beats Trump!”  

“Tonight New Hampshire sent a message that working people are ready for a political revolution in this country. This is what it will take to defeat Donald Trump,” he continued, pressing the electability point. “This victory isn’t about me; it’s about us.” 

Each of the top three finishers could take heart from the results, which dealt a bruising blow to both Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden. At one time, the two were co-favorites for the nomination and were running one-two in New Hampshire. Last night, however, they didn’t win a single delegate, attracting fewer votes between them than third-place Klobuchar. 

Warren, hailing from neighboring Massachusetts, outspent Klobuchar and boasted a much more extensive political organization. But New Hampshire voters found her neither as inclusive nor as electable as her Senate colleague from Minnesota.  

When she spoke last night, Warren didn’t address her own failure to launch. Instead, she praised Klobuchar and took aim at the hapless Biden, who finished behind her in fifth place, despite his last-minute decision to run negative ads against the mayor from South Bend, Indiana. 

Warren complimented Klobuchar, telling her supporters how the moderate senator had proved “how wrong the pundits can be when they count a woman out.”  Even as she was eclipsed, Warren insisted that there was a long road ahead “with 55 states and territories still to go.” But that race will only lead to self-immolation, she warned in a not-so-veiled reference to the Biden attacks on Buttigieg, if  other  Democrats “are willing to burn down the rest of the party in order to be the last man standing.”   

Third place was a triumph for Klobuchar, who started her campaign on a snowy Minnesota morning over a year ago and who found her moment in a wintry New Hampshire environment also to her liking. “I announced my candidacy in a blizzard,” she told supporters in Concord, “and there were a lot of people that predicted I would not even get through that speech.” She insisted that she had defied those expectations and “beaten the odds every step of the way.”  

Klobuchar’s success heralded Biden’s failure. Searching for more hospitable terrain, the man who still leads the field in the national surveys fled the state while the New Hampshire polls were still open, a strategic retreat that reminded some political observers more of Waterloo than Dunkirk. Biden and his camp preferred a different historic analogy: They pointed out that in 1992, Bill Clinton won exactly one of the first 11 primaries and caucuses.  

Biden is not yet a second iteration of the “comeback kid.” He finished fourth in Iowa and now fifth in New Hampshire. His campaign knew for days that they were in trouble. Falling back on a World Series analogy, Kate Bedingfield, Biden's deputy campaign manager, told reporters Monday, “This is game two and we’re going all the way to game seven.”  

The former vice president used yet another sports analogy -- prize fighting – in likening the challenge ahead to “the opening bell, not the closing bell.” The match is far from over, Biden told supporters in Charleston, because “we haven’t heard from the most committed constituency of the Democratic Party, the African-American community, and the fastest growing segment of society, the Latino community.” 
For Andrew Yang, the race is over. He made “MATH” his tagline, but after disappointing back-to-back losses, the tech entrepreneur decided that two games was decisive enough. Yang is a proponent of a universal basic income, a concept he branded as his “freedom dividend.” It gained a cult following but not electoral support. He dropped out less than an hour after polls closed. He wasn’t alone.  

When the Senate impeachment trial ended last Wednesday and his colleagues headed for Iowa, Michael Bennet went north. The Colorado senator staked his campaign on New Hampshire. He came up short, dropping out before results were even official. Other also-rans included Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, California billionaire Tom Steyer, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick –- who, together, only totaled 7% of the total vote.  

Although the field winnowed Tuesday night, it will gain a potentially big hitter before “Super Tuesday” arrives on March 3: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Sanders has found a ready foil in Bloomberg, a multibillionaire who skipped the retail politicking of Iowa and New Hampshire for a self-funded and unprecedented national advertising blitz. Asked by "NBC Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt whether he resents Bloomberg’s approach, Sanders was blunt. 

“I don’t begrudge his wealth, but I do begrudge a billionaire thinking he can buy the election,” Sanders said. “He has every right in the world to run for office … but he doesn’t have the right to buy an election. This is exactly the problem with American politics.” 

Whatever happens to his candidacy going forward, Sanders has already remade much of the Democratic Party in his own image. Exit polls from New Hampshire showed that about two-thirds of the voters in the Democratic primary support his call for free tuition at state colleges and universities. In addition, nearly 60% of voters told exit pollsters that they support replacing private health insurance with a single-payer system -- another signature policy Sanders championed when he took Hillary Clinton to the wire in 2016.

Buttigieg’s second strong showing in a row -- he finished narrowly behind Sanders in the confusing and trouble-plagued Iowa caucuses -- along with Klobuchar’s stretch-running third-place finish also served as a reminder that the Twitter-verse is not America. It’s not even the Democratic Party base. 

The energy needed to win lies outside of the D.C. Beltway, an exultant Buttigieg declared. “To win and to govern, we need to bring new voices to our capital,” he told supporters. “We need to get Washington to work more like our best-run cities and towns rather than the other way around.”  

The former midwestern mayor again dismissed the need for national governing experience in favor of “a fresh outlook that makes new beginnings possible. It is how we build a new majority.”  

For many Americans, Klobuchar’s first showcase in the national spotlight came during the Brett Kavanaugh Senate confirmation hearings. She kept her cool even when challenged by Kavanaugh on personal drinking habits, a painful subject for Klobuchar, whose father was an alcoholic. By contrast, the candidacies of Cory Booker and Kamala Harris -- Senate Judiciary Committee members who were much less temperate in those hearings -- ran aground before the first votes in the 2020 primary season were ever counted. 

The vote-counting snafu in Iowa left the Democrats’ crusade to unseat President Trump in limbo. Even as the pack jetted off to the next contest, the first true primary on the calendar, the Associated Press was unable to certify the results of the first-in-the-nation caucuses. Sanders insisted he won, as did Buttigieg. Both requested a recanvass by the Iowa Democratic Party to account for lingering irregularities in the results, a process that continues to drag on and essentially left the score, ahead of Tuesday night, an unsatisfying 0-0.  

New Hampshire offered the first concrete results. Instead of standing around in gymnasiums or legion halls for a caucus, voters walked into voting booths in the Granite State and then they left. Votes were tabulated without incident and drama, even if it took more than three hours. The politics, however, were fraught. In the final days before the primary, moderates turned knives on one another as Sanders was left largely unmolested. After watching Buttigieg surge past him in Iowa, Biden began bristling.  

“Joe Biden helped save the auto industry, which revitalized the economy,” an unseen narrator said in a digital ad released by the former vice president’s campaign just three days before the primary. “Pete Buttigieg revitalized the sidewalks of downtown South Bend by laying out decorative brick.”  

The argument was clear, even if its reception was mixed: Biden has the real experience that Buttigieg does not. But reporters wondered if he was missing something. Didn’t his old boss become president with limited experience? “Come on, man," Biden snapped back. “This guy’s not a Barack Obama.” 

Buttigieg and Biden had never tangled before setting foot in New Hampshire, and Buttigieg responded to Biden by saying that the elder statesman didn’t really get “the point” of his campaign. It wasn’t about a lack of experience, he told voters. It was his experience away from the Beltway that really mattered.  

“Right now, there are so many communities, so many Americans, small and medium-sized cities like mine, and neighborhoods in some of the biggest cities in the country,” Buttigieg added, “that feel like Washington can’t even hear us.” 

The electorate sided with Buttigieg over Biden, and the onetime mayor easily beat the onetime vice president in New Hampshire. Klobuchar didn’t take kindly to Buttigieg either, particularly his dismissal of Washington experience. When he said at the Friday debate that it was time “to turn the page,” she reminded him that he told voters in Iowa that the impeachment proceedings were “exhausting.” Then she accused him of wanting to “watch cartoons.”  

“It is easy to go after Washington because that’s a popular thing to do,” Klobuchar added. “It is popular to say and makes you look like a cool newcomer. I just, I don’t think that’s what people want right now. We have a newcomer in the White House -- and look where it got us.”  

The implicit comparison of Buttigieg to Trump was evidence of a senator no longer “chained” to her desk in Washington for an impeachment trial. “We’re surging,” she told voters on Sunday. “We have legitimate enthusiasm. No one can refute it.” 

Absent impeachment responsibilities, Klobuchar was surging. While the RealClearPolitics average showed Sanders leading and Buttigieg in second, before polls opened Klobuchar was in a statistical tie for third place with Warren and Biden. She beat them both by double.  

Unlike Klobuchar, Biden never had to leave the campaign trail to be at the Senate impeachment trial, but the dynamic was different. His family name was in the news constantly during the debates in both the House and Senate, and not in a flattering way: It was in a Hunter-took-a-huge-payday-for-a-Ukraine-job-for-which-he-was-not-qualified kind of way.  

And so Biden left New Hampshire early, abruptly telling reporters that he would not watch results roll in with supporters. He had promised to win in the Granite State no fewer than five different times. When he saw it wasn’t going to happen, he hopped a flight headed south.  

Sanders is now the apparent frontrunner with two victories under his belt. Buttigieg and Klobuchar are surging and heading for more conflict. South Carolina may be Biden’s Alamo, while Warren tries to regroup in Nevada and Bloomberg waits in the wings on Super Tuesday. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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