The Democratic race was messy going into New Hampshire. It’s even messier as it moves on.
Yes, Bernie Sanders won the state’s primary on Tuesday night. And that victory, coming on the heels of his functional tie with Pete Buttigieg in the dysfunctional Iowa caucuses last week, makes him the indisputable front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
But look at how closely behind him Buttigieg finished, despite furious attacks from Sanders and other rivals over recent days. Look at the sudden surge of Amy Klobuchar, whose strong third-place finish demonstrates not only how unsettled the contest is but also how many Democrats crave a moderate — or female — alternative to Sanders.
Note that while Sanders is hugely well known in New Hampshire and beat Hillary Clinton by 22 points in its Democratic primary in 2016, he squeaked by Buttigieg this time around, as many people who voted for him four years ago obviously didn’t do so on Tuesday night.
Finally, brace for the days ahead, during which Sanders’ strength will be seriously tested as he comes under brutal assault from Democrats who believe that his nomination would be suicidal for the party and guarantee President Donald Trump’s reelection. Sanders, a cranky 78-year-old who includes “socialist” in his description of his politics, is hardly in the clear.
You expected resolution from New Hampshire? What an optimist you are! And how impatient. Resolution was never likely to happen, not this year, not with Democratic voters’ near-crippling anxiety about the surest path to the far side of Trump, not with this many viable but flawed candidates, not when there’s so much noise in Washington and so much frustration in the air, not when so many voters have stopped taking cues from the institutions and traditions they frequently turned to in the past.
Elizabeth Warren was endorsed by respected media organizations. No matter. She finished fourth in New Hampshire, with less than 10% of the vote, though she had lavished hope, energy and resources on the state, next door to Massachusetts, which she represents in the Senate.
Joe Biden has high-profile surrogates galore, is as conventionally prepared for the presidency as a human being could be, and basks in the vestigial good will that many Democratic voters feel toward President Barack Obama’s administration. None of that did him any good. He finished fifth, with less than 9%, and the dearth of confidence in him following his fourth-place showing in Iowa deepened, perhaps irreparably.
But add Biden’s, Buttigieg’s and Klobuchar’s votes in New Hampshire and they far exceed those for the two prominent progressives, Sanders and Warren. Democrats’ appetite for a nominee less liberal than Sanders is real.
But is there a moderate around whom voters can coalesce?
Buttigieg’s enormously impressive performance in the first two states would make him the natural choice, except that he’s 38, he still lags far behind Biden and Sanders in national polls, his highest office to date is mayor of a city of 100,000 people and he now moves on to two states, Nevada and then South Carolina, where his utter lack of traction with voters of color could undo his candidacy.
Klobuchar’s sudden surge may well be too little too late, even at this early stage of the contest. Besides, there’s little evidence that she will do significantly better with African-American and Latino voters than Buttigieg.
This uncertainty about the Sanders alternative is why you’ll be hearing even more about Mike Bloomberg over the next week than you did over the past one, when you heard plenty. This and the fact that he’ll continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to implant his name in your brain.
The premium on becoming the moderate answer to Sanders was obvious in the speeches by Klobuchar, Buttigieg and even Warren to their supporters on Tuesday night.
“Donald Trump’s worst nightmare is that the people in the middle — the people who have had enough of the name calling and the mud slinging — have someone to vote for in November,” Klobuchar said. She was presenting herself as that someone.
Buttigieg, aware that Klobuchar probably siphoned votes from him in New Hampshire and could do so again down the road, urged Democrats to support a newcomer like him over a longtime senator and Washington insider like her. “Election after election has shown us that putting forward a new perspective is how Democrats win the White House,” he said, returning again and again to the idea that his was a uniquely inclusive campaign with a singularly far-reaching appeal.
And Warren, who months ago competed with Sanders for progressive votes, continued her assiduous repositioning as a candidate able to bridge progressives and moderates. “We will need a nominee that the broadest coalition of our party feels like they can get behind,” she said, bemoaning “the fight between factions of our party.”
Now what? I keep hearing Democratic friends grouse that the party’s members need to get on the same page, as if they can be magically muscled there. I keep seeing references in the media to the Democratic establishment and to party leaders, as if those are meaningful forces with indisputable impact.
Maybe they once were, but Trump’s political ascent — which happened, remember, in defiance of the supposed Republican establishment and Republican leaders — demonstrated that the era of an external, elite authority being able to impose its will was over.
That era preceded the explosion of social media. That era was less pessimistic about the country’s trajectory, less cynical about politics and politicians, more faithful on various fronts. That era was less suited to a disruptive iconoclast like Trump — and to a disruptive iconoclast like Sanders.
Sanders will be a major force in the Democratic race until the end. He’s perhaps the only candidate about whom that can definitively be said. He seemed jubilant as he declared victory on Tuesday night, telling his supporters: “We have an unprecedented grass roots movement from coast to coast of millions of people. The reason that we are going to win is that we are putting together an unprecedented multigenerational, multiracial political movement.”
Not so fast. Younger voters are much more taken with him than older ones. His dominance in the primary at present hinges on the scattered affections of less progressive Democrats.
And this movement isn’t driving voters to the polls in the manner that he and his allies have vowed that it would. Democratic turnout in New Hampshire on Tuesday, like turnout in Iowa last week, wasn’t spectacularly robust.
That means that Sanders, so strong, has weaknesses, just as Buttigieg, so weak in a few ways, keeps flexing unexpected strengths. Mixed signals, a muddle of moderates and Biden on political life support: That’s the Democratic primary, which refuses to conform to predictions or follow any tidy script. Get comfortable with your discomfort. I suspect you’ll be feeling it for a while.
Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.