Most of the media focus after a presidential primary naturally falls on who won, who did better than expected, who quit and whose candle is dangerously close to flickering out. But the most significant takeaway from Tuesday’s Democratic primary in New Hampshire is just how much disarray the Democratic Party finds itself in.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ win is most notable for how little of the vote he actually received — only one in four primary voters backed him in a crowded field. Looking broadly at the results, more voters backed moderate candidates than they did progressives, so while the leader of the left wing of the party persevered by a hair, the voters overall aligned with the moderate bloc.
If you lump together the vote totals for Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — whose dismal performance seems ominous — and billionaire progressive activist Tm Steyer, they won 38.6 percent of the vote. But the moderates did even better. Combined, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Vice President Joe Biden, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (yes, she’s still running) and businessman Andrew Yang (who is no longer running) drew a combined 58.7 percent of the vote.
So if Sanders is emerging as the front-runner for his party’s nomination, he is doing so without the support of most of the party voters. That spells trouble. And it’s notable that while Sanders has won more votes than any other contender, Buttigieg leads in the delegate count by one.
Yes, it’s early. More clarity may come after the next few weeks of primaries and caucuses, especially the 16 held on March 3 — the so-called Super Tuesday, which will account for one-third of total delegates — and after billionaire Mike Bloomberg starts appearing in debates and showing up on ballots.
The question then is whether Bloomberg’s outrageous levels of spending on advertising will buy the hearts of the moderates at the expense of Buttigieg and Klobuchar. And maybe even peel off reluctant Sanders supporters who are most concerned about beating President Donald Trump in the fall and worry that Sanders is too radical to win a national general election.
As it is, there are significant questions about whether Buttigieg and Klobuchar have the resources and campaign infrastructure to compete simultaneously March 3 in California, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and Massachusetts (where Warren is heavily favored), which together account for 953 delegates. So even without Bloomberg’s arrival, they face strong headwinds.
But with five candidates — Sanders, Biden, Bloomberg, Warren and Buttigieg, in order — all still polling in double digits nationally, there’s a strong chance that the race for delegates could run its course without a conclusion — with none of the candidates amassing the 1,991 delegates necessary to win the nomination on the first ballot of the Democratic National Convention. So there’s little incentive for anyone who’s still raising money and collecting delegates to drop out any time soon.
Under current party rules, the estimated 771 so-called superdelegates — mostly national and state-level party leaders whose votes are not tied to their state primary results — don’t have a vote in the first round of balloting, a change made after Sanders’ supporters claimed that superdelegates lined up early behind Hillary Clinton in 2016 and tipped the nomination in her favor.
But the superdelegates do get to vote in the second ballot, and if it’s true that the party leadership consists mostly of moderates, then that doesn’t bode well for Sanders (or Warren, if her campaign recovers) if they fail to win a majority of the regular delegates. It’s likely that the superdelegates would align behind the top surviving moderate — maybe Bloomberg at that point? — which could lead to an internal bloodbath between the progressives and moderates, which would be a significant drag on the Democratic Party going into the general election. Also, many states allow their delegates to change candidates after the first ballot. So we might actually have a national convention this time around that is more than a coronation of a predetermined nominee.
Meanwhile, Trump rolls along trolling the Democrats, holding rallies and raising money, seemingly impervious politically to fallout from his various scandals.
Scott Martelle is an opinion writer for the Los Angeles Times. He is a native of Maine.