CONCORD, N.H. – Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., claimed unchallenged control of the Democratic Party’s left wing with a victory in the New Hampshire presidential primary Tuesday as two moderates, Pete Buttigieg and a newly surging Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., vied for the opposition mantle in a campaign that has been remade over the past eight days.
Sanders and Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, marked their second straight strong showings – they essentially tied in last week’s Iowa caucuses, with Sanders carrying the popular vote and Buttigieg winning a slight edge in delegates.
“Let me say tonight that this victory here is the beginning of the end for Donald Trump,” Sanders told his supporters. He praised his opponents, including Buttigieg, but soon alluded to criticisms of the former mayor and his wealthy donors. “At this point in the campaign, we are taking on billionaires, and we are taking on candidates funded by billionaires,” he said.
Buttigieg praised Sanders but also referred to his polarizing movement, suggesting that it spurned anyone who didn’t agree “100 percent of the time.”
To cheers of “President Pete! President Pete!” he praised his own effort.
“A campaign that some said shouldn’t be here at all has shown that we are here to stay,” Buttigieg told supporters.
Klobuchar’s third-place finish was powered by a strong debate performance that persuaded late-deciding voters to look her way. It represented a remarkable turnabout for a candidate who placed fifth in the caucuses in the state next door to her own. In joyous remarks before a crowd in Concord, she made clear that without Tuesday’s results, she would have found it difficult to continue to the next contests, on Feb. 22 in Nevada and one week later in South Carolina.
“Because of you we are taking this campaign to Nevada, We are going to South Carolina. And we are taking this message of unity to the country,” she said. “. . . Donald Trump’s worst nightmare is that the people in the middle, the people who have had enough of the name-calling and the mudslinging, have someone to vote for in November.”
The night brought devastating returns for former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., both of whom appeared to have lost support to Klobuchar and Buttigieg and were not on course to earn any delegates.
Warren, Sanders’ main competitor on the party’s left, finished in a crushing fourth place in a state that neighbors her home in Massachusetts. Biden trailed badly in fifth, with early inklings so dire that he left the state before polls closed in an attempt to rally support in South Carolina.
“It ain’t over, man,” Biden told a crowd in Columbia, South Carolina. “We’re just getting started.”
Biden’s collapse over the past few weeks has created a vacuum for candidates fighting to become the chief moderate in the race and counter the fervent populism of Sanders.
Buttigieg has now had two strong outings in that space, and the sudden emergence of Klobuchar adds to the cluster of moderates going forward. Also in that mix is Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, who is not contesting the first four states but has already dropped hundreds of millions of dollars to make a splash in later states.
Tuesday’s results also saw two immediate casualties: Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who had staked much of his candidacy on doing well in New Hampshire, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, a political novice who ran a lively but ultimately limited campaign, dropped out shortly after the polls closed.
An extraordinary share of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters said they made a last-minute decision about which candidate to support. Nearly half said they decided in the past few days, according to preliminary exit polling, a time frame that included a Friday night debate that was the most contentious so far among those seeking the Democratic nomination. That proportion was higher than the 36 percent of Iowa Democrats who made their decisions in the last few days before those caucuses.
After a dysfunctional start to the nominating contest – the New Hampshire primary results were poised to be finalized before those from the Iowa caucuses eight days earlier – the outcome offered a bit of clarity in what has been an uncertain and often disheveled primary race.
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who has refused to register as a Democrat, has emerged alone among the most liberal candidates. His continued strength is likely to trigger an increasingly vocal backlash from the Democratic establishment, which views his efforts as a hostile takeover of the party and fears that as the nominee he would ruin Democratic chances down the ballot.
But he has proved to be one of the party’s most energetic forces and the sole candidate capable of garnering the kind of crowds that President Trump routinely draws, with a unique hold on the youngest Democratic voters. Increasingly he has also attracted nonwhite voters, whose allegiance will come into play as the campaign calendar expands across the nation.
For Sanders, Tuesday’s result was a confirmation that his 2016 standing was not merely as a vessel for those objecting to the front-runner, Hillary Clinton. He defeated her in New Hampshire by 22 points but faced lingering skepticism that he could capture the nomination this time.
While he has emerged as one of the candidates everyone else is chasing – an unfamiliar spot for a politician much more accustomed to running as an insurgent underdog – his narrow winning percentage was on course to be historically low, below Jimmy Carter’s 28.6 percent in 1976.
“The people of the United States, finally, want a government that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent,” Sanders told a crush of reporters outside the McDonough School in Manchester on Tuesday. “That is our message.”
Klobuchar gained strength throughout the weekend, buoyed by her strong debate performance Friday night. She also appeared to inherit many of the undecided voters who were seeking a moderate candidate but were uncertain about Buttigieg’s limited experience and Biden’s longevity.
Klobuchar has been increasingly critical of Buttigieg’s record, lancing him during the debate for criticizing senators like her who took part in the impeachment trial, and lamenting that it was far easier to besmirch Washington veterans than to engage in their struggles. That front, and Buttigieg’s defense of his Midwestern municipal point of view, could preview the next chapter of the nomination fight. Klobuchar has seen a flood of donations over the past few days, is launching a seven-figure ad buy in Nevada and now has a New York fundraiser scheduled for Wednesday.
An ebullient Klobuchar used the moment to introduce herself to a national audience, starting out by saying: “Hello America. I’m Amy Klobuchar, and I will beat Donald Trump!”
“I came back and we delivered,” said told supporters. They showered her in chants of “Vote Amy! Beat Trump!” She aimed to draw a contrast with rivals she cast as polarizing figures.
But Klobuchar now faces a major test in whether she can quickly build out what has been a thrifty campaign focused on two states into one with national heft. A candidate largely ignored by her rivals will now face their scrutiny, and she has the same challenges as Buttigieg in struggling to prove that she can win nonwhite voters. No state in the next several weeks presents an obvious path to victory for her until her home state votes on March 3.
The strong finish by Buttigieg, eight days after his breakout performance in Iowa, gives his campaign a much-needed boost heading into the next two states, Nevada and South Carolina. Their diverse electorates are expected to pose major challenges for the former mayor, who has struggled badly with African-Americans and Latinos over the past year.
While he had focused most of his attention in the final days on Sanders, in the later hours Tuesday his allies began wondering whether Klobuchar could threaten his standing as the moderate alternative to the senator from Vermont.
“I admired Senator Sanders when I was a high school student, and I want to congratulate him,” Buttigieg said when he took the stage, drawing subtle attention to the youngest and oldest candidates in the race. “I respect him greatly to this day, and I congratulate him on his strong showing tonight.”
It was the first contest after Buttigieg became a chief target of his rivals, indicating that he can withstand some of the scrutiny. Klobuchar attacked his inexperience during the debate, Sanders railed against his corporate donors on the campaign trail, and Biden released a digital ad that belittled his mayoral tenure.
With Biden’s campaign now sapped by two dismal performances, he seeks to regain some traction in states where he hopes diverse electorates could play to his benefit.
Underscoring the long odds he faced here, Biden left New Hampshire before the votes were counted, a visible concession that he expected a deep setback in a state that just three months ago he loudly proclaimed he could win.
“We’re still mildly hopeful here in New Hampshire,” Biden told reporters as he stopped at a Dunkin’ earlier in the day. “We’ll see what happens.”
Hours later, Biden flew on a private jet to South Carolina, attempting to rally a state that has long been his firewall – but where there were early signs of fresh trouble. He reiterated his argument that candidates should be judged after the first four states, not the first two.
“This is just the beginning,” Biden said. “We have an entire nation to vote yet.”
But he has just days to settle his campaign and overcome results that were dismal.
Among those who said they want the next president to return to the policies of Barack Obama, exit polls showed his former vice president – Biden – in third place, trailing Klobuchar and Buttigieg. Even among self-described moderates, Sanders got more support than Biden, who also lost among older voters.
Biden also faces stiff financial difficulties. He started January with only $9 million on hand, among the smallest figures of the top candidates.
Biden’s campaign spent only $306,000 on television ads in New Hampshire, according to data from Advertising Analytics. While he was propped up by Unite the Country, a super PAC supporting him that added $722,000, he was still outspent by the $5.3 million from Sanders, $3.7 million from Buttigeig – with an additional $1.5 million from a super PAC backing him – and roughly $1.5 million each from Warren and Klobuchar.
Warren lost badly in a state that neighbors her home in Massachusetts, and failed to place in the top three even in the population-rich areas along the border. There were signs of more trouble ahead as an aide said her campaign was pulling back the rest of its reserved television ads in South Carolina. Those funds, along with other money, will be redirected to radio and print advertisements in the state, as well as television commercials in Nevada and Maine, the aide said.
In an urgent gambit to find her footing in the race, Warren sought to portray herself as a unifying force capable of bridging the widening divisions between Sanders and Buttigieg. And she tried to conjure memories of bitter campaigns in the past, urging voters not to walk down the same path.
“Senator Sanders and Mayor Buttigieg are both great people, and either one of them would be a far better president than Donald Trump,” said Warren. “I respect them both. But the fight between factions in our party has taken a sharp turn in recent weeks, with ads mocking other candidates, with supporters of some candidates shouting curses at other Democratic candidates.”
(c) 2020, The Washington Post · Matt Viser, Sean Sullivan