Bernie and Pete: Front Runners?

Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders during a September 2019 debate in Houston.
Reuters/ Mike Blake

In the two Democratic contests played out to date, the most striking result is that in both the two leaders were a democratic socialist and an out gay man, with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg grabbing roughly a quarter of the vote each in Iowa and New Hampshire. What was different about New Hampshire from Iowa was that Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar came from a fifth place finish in a neighboring state to a strong third in faraway New England, where she won nearly a fifth of the total votes.

The big losers in New Hampshire were Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who won only nine percent of the vote, and former Vice President Joe Biden, whose just over eight percent finish means he needs to prove himself in Nevada and, especially, South Carolina, or his electability argument, the centerpiece of his campaign, will collapse completely.

For now, Warren is effectively being outflanked on the progressive side by Sanders and is making up no ground in the more moderate lane, with the strength of Buttigieg and now Klobuchar — this despite the Massachusetts senator’s shift late last year to a more qualified endorsement of her earlier support for Medicare for All, a bedrock plank in Sanders’ platform.

Amy Klobuchar speaks at a February 11 campaign rally in New Hampshire, where she surged from a weak performance last week in Iowa.Twitter/ @AmyKlobuchar

An article of faith among Biden supporters is that South Carolina’s large African-American community — who make up an estimated 60 percent of Democratic primary voters — represent a firewall for him, but the New Hampshire results raise questions about that. According to CNN exit polling data, Blacks made up five percent of the vote in New Hampshire, Latinx voters, two percent, and Asian Americans, one percent. Sanders captured 32 percent of non-white voters (the data was not broken down in any greater detail), while Biden scored 16 percent, just one point better than Buttigieg and five better than Klobuchar. In fact, FiveThirtyEight.com’s tally of polling in South Carolina shows that Biden has dropped from a high of just under 50 percent to 32.7 percent as of last week. Sanders has grown to about 17 percent, with Buttigieg, Warren, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg all polling in the high single digits.

Sanders got a rap in 2016 for not attracting African-American voters — though that pattern was not uniform across all primaries. If he can show, in Nevada and South Carolina, that he can take the fight to Biden in Black communities, he will have gone a long way toward his claim in his New Hampshire victory speech that he is running a “multi-racial campaign.” The other part of that claim was that his push is “multi-generational.” His success there is more limited. In New Hampshire, he captured 18 to 29-year-olds resoundingly and also had a plurality of those 30 to 44, but he significantly trailed Buttigieg and Klobuchar among those 45 and older.

The flip side of this is that Buttigieg underperforms among young people — his own age cohort. And his bigger challenge — more telling than in the case of Sanders — is whether he can attract significant numbers of Black voters. His stumbling response in last week’s debate on the question of African-American marijuana arrests in South Bend certainly did nothing to help that cause — and enthusiastic turnout by Black voters will be crucial in swing state big cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Miami, and Atlanta come November.

The wild card in all of this is Bloomberg, who is reported to have already spent more than $350 million in his nationwide media blitz. He will finally be in the mix come Super Tuesday on March 3. Already, without contesting a single vote, he has shot to 14 percent nationwide in the Real Clear Politics average of polls — ahead of Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar who have all been at it a year or more. Only an improving Sanders and a fading Biden outpace him. So are the frontrunners Bernie and Pete? Is Amy in that mix? And what about Big Bucks Mike?

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