Michael Bloomberg with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Michael Bloomberg with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

WASHINGTON — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders narrowly won the New Hampshire primary in an election that underscores how totally confusing and contradictory the presidential nominating process has become. After the first primary, Democrats appear headed toward a choice between two candidates who aren’t really Democrats.

The win marks the second straight contest in which Sanders has won the popular vote though he trails runner-up candidate former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the delegate count.  Sanders and Buttigieg won an equal number of delegates in New Hampshire. Buttigieg won the delegate race in Iowa while losing to Sanders by 6,000 votes.

Sanders has consolidated support among progressive voters, but with just 26% of the vote, he won less than half of his total four years ago when he defeated eventual nominee Hillary Clinton. Total votes for the top two moderate candidates exceeded those cast for the top two progressives. Yet Sanders is now the Democratic front-runner. He has a committed base, an effective organization, and an ability to raise tens of millions of dollars from his followers.

Buttigieg ran strong again with over 24% of the vote but was likely denied a victory over Sanders as some moderate voters became excited about a different candidate. Amy Klobuchar jumped from single digits to almost 20% of the vote in a matter of three days, keeping her campaign alive but also preventing Buttigieg from moving past Sanders. Klobuchar’s surprising success also strengthens the hand of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who looms large in the background. Bloomberg’s ability to take control of the race is contingent upon the Democrats’ inability to settle on a moderate candidate. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign is in free fall as the once front-runner fell to fifth place in New Hampshire. Biden’s campaign was badly hurt by the unsuccessful effort of House Democrats to remove President Trump from office through impeachment.  The Trump strategy to use the impeachment trial to destroy Biden seems to have worked though Biden clearly contributed to his own apparent demise with a listless, inept campaign. 

Meanwhile, another former front-runner, Elizabeth Warren, ran a disappointing fourth having relinquished much of her progressive support to Bernie Sanders after he suffered a heart attack. Warren’s mishandling of her position on health care drove away moderate left-of-center voters while giving Sanders the opportunity to win back progressives who had moved to her over the summer.  Ironically, her missteps occurred when she was defending Sanders’ Medicare for All plan although Sanders has avoided the attacks on his plan that Warren sustained — or at least the intensity of those attacks. 

The contest now turns to the Feb. 22 Nevada Caucus where polls show Sanders again leads. Buttigieg needed to win in New Hampshire to give him maximum momentum as the race turns to terrain that is less hospitable for him. Nevada and South Carolina are diverse states unlike Iowa and New Hampshire that are both more than 90% white. Buttigieg’s apparent problems with African American voters means he is not likely to do as well there and then heads into Super Tuesday where he is also currently weak.  

It is not clear that Klobuchar can take advantage of her New Hampshire showing either. Klobuchar’s fundraising has been anemic for most of the campaign as her poll numbers languished in single digits. As a result she has done little to prepare to compete in Nevada, South Carolina, Super Tuesday and beyond. Unlike Warren who has pledged to soldier on, Klobuchar can actually win somewhere — her home state of Minnesota that votes on Super Tuesday. 

But a third-place showing, even a surprise one, may not provide sufficient momentum to carry her that far unless she manages to also surprise in Nevada and South Carolina. That said, if Klobuchar does leapfrog Buttigieg in Nevada or South Carolina, she has a better chance than the former South Bend mayor to emerge as a viable moderate alternative to Bloomberg because she has a better shot at attracting minority voters and especially women. The race that seemed about to relegate the women candidates to the second tier has one to get behind after all, at least for now. 

Many moderate Democrats are in a panic over Sanders’ possible nomination. Desperate to beat Trump, they are flocking to Bloomberg, who was first elected mayor of New York as a Republican. Bloomberg, who has already spent over $200 million in post-South Carolina states, is moving up in the polls as a result of his spending spree. Moderate Democrats like him because he projects strength and they believe he is the only Democrat tough enough to stand up to Trump. Elites like him because they feel they can trust him not to bring too much real change.

But Bloomberg has thus far been campaigning in an environment he himself controls and most Democrats gravitating to him know little about him beyond what they see in his TV ads. However, success brings scrutiny as tapes of some of Bloomberg’s more controversial statements have surfaced. In one Bloomberg justifies his “stop and frisk” program that was subsequently ruled unconstitutional in coarse language some are characterizing as racist. Bloomberg is working overtime in an attempt to “earn” the support of black elected officials and convince Democrats he can get out the vote. Nonetheless, his record remains a potential liability.

All of this adds up to a confused and divided Democratic nomination contest that could go to the convention. Democrats are still trying to figure out their best choice to defeat Trump.  Unity and enthusiasm for the ultimate nominee are the keys to Democrats defeating Trump. But many long time Democrats will be dissatisfied if the nomination comes down to a choice between Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, and Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire and former Republican mayor.

Republicans are no doubt feeling smug about the Democrats’ dilemma. Yet their nomination process produced Donald Trump, who as president is on his way to destroying the GOP and American democracy as we have known them. 

Sautter is a Democratic media consultant based in Washington.