In 2016, Bernie Sanders won roughly 50% of the Iowa vote (if not more; no popular vote was recorded). This year? His final vote was 26.5%, essentially halved.
In 2016, Sanders received 152,193 votes in New Hampshire in a 60-38 blowout of Hillary Clinton. This year, he barely eked out a one-point victory over small liberal college-town Mayor Pete Buttigieg, receiving only 75,690 votes, or 25.7% of the vote. Again, he lost half of his 2016 support.
It gets worse for a campaign whose entire theory of the case is that they can reshape the electorate by bringing out more young voters and economically disenfranchised: He’s not only regressing from his 2016 numbers, but his numbers fell in college areas in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Buttigieg won Hanover, home of Dartmouth College, with Sanders getting 1,078 votes. He got 2,286 votes there in 2016. In Durham, home of the University of New Hampshire, Bernie got 1,660 votes last night, compared to 2,871 four years ago. Bernie Sanders is a weak candidate, having lost ground after four years of nonstop campaigning. But he’s the front-runner, because everyone else is weaker.
Buttigieg has run neck and neck with Sanders in both Iowa and New Hampshire. It is incredibly ironic that in an election in which the primary electorate is obsessed with “electability,” trying to suss out the candidate with the best chance of taking on impeached president Donald Trump, so many think an untested small-town mayor is the right answer. Heck, he’s not even untested. He was tested by a racist police force, and he failed that test. This is a candidate that earned only 10,991 votes in his first victorious mayoral bid—it’s a small town!—and then saw that number drop to 8,515 his second term. And he’s the person people think is our best bet to take on Trump?
Meanwhile, anecdotally, it seems as if Elizabeth Warren lost a great deal of New Hampshire support to Amy Klobuchar, who suddenly was deemed “more electable.” Based on what? Who knows? Nothing. She has never had to face a truly competitive campaign, and she certainly hasn’t faced any scrutiny this cycle. Maybe she holds up! But it’s strange to bet on an untested candidate. Also, there’s a reason she’s still in this race—her fundraising has been so poor that she never got the chance to build the kind of expensive national campaign that Warren and Kamala Harris built. It worked out okay—she’s doing better than most of the field! But has there been any indication that her fundraising has picked up? Without that, she can’t compete long-term, aside from any other liabilities.
Given the volatility of this race, and the lack of any standout Obama-esque candidates, I should be wary of counting any candidates out, but Joe Biden sure looks to be on his last legs. He was already having trouble raising money, and bailing on New Hampshire before the vote was even finished being cast was a classless move. Not to mention that he didn’t go to Nevada, next on the list. He went to South Carolina, his original and only remaining firewall. His collapse in the public national polling is breathtaking. It’s as if the nation’s Democrats collectively realized what so many of us had been saying all along: He’s a terrible candidate! There was a reason he failed at this twice before!
However, the damage he caused this field is incalculable. He single-handedly knocked out Kamala Harris and Cory Booker from the race, two candidates who might be having moments right now if they had been able to raise the money to stay in. He damaged the electability arguments of Elizabeth Warren, underscoring the bullshit idea that our best bet in November is a white male.
No white male has ever gotten 63 million votes in a presidential election. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both hit 65 million. When our nominees look like our base, we perform better. But this latent fear of the white Republican voter, stoked by Biden, did a real disservice to the women in the race. So he stomps into the race, when no one was asking for him, damages serious, credible candidates by dint of his name recognition, and then runs the most godawful campaign of the cycle, leaving nothing but a damaged legacy in its wake. Unbelievable.
Elizabeth Warren argues that she’s built a campaign for the long haul, and I want to believe it. It’s no secret she’s my candidate, as I see her as the only candidate left that can bridge the party’s left-center divide, not to mention the smartest of the lot (and yeah, I get that that’s debatable). Assuming she still has money in the bank, she’s going to have to show some strength in the coming contests to get back into contention. Impossible? In 1992, Bill Clinton got 3% in Iowa and lost New Hampshire to Paul Tsongas before going on to win the nomination. Then again, his second-place finish in New Hampshire allowed him to declare himself the “comeback kid,” something Warren’s fourth-place finish didn’t allow.
Warren may not be out of it, but she’s definitely dropped to the second tier. And there’s certainly urgency to place well sooner rather than later. Even a second-place finish in Nevada would be a welcome boost.
That leaves the last candidate still really in the race—Michael Bloomberg. His spending is rapidly approaching the half-billion mark in his decidedly nongrassroots, media-heavy “campaign.” And hey, it has amazingly gotten him to over 10% in national polling. He’s not on the ballot in any February states, but his play has suddenly become clear, and it’s actually quite brilliant: There are supposed “lanes” in the primary. Warren and Bernie occupy the left lane; Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg occupy the center lane. It’s obviously not that easy, as exit polls in New Hampshire showed that voters were more interested in electability than in voting for a candidate with whom they most agreed. Still, it’s an easy and lazy way to categorize the field.
Now, we’ve long talked about the left splitting the vote, giving someone like Biden the chance to win over a fragmented opposition. But what we’ve just seen is the fragmenting of the center lane! Biden is on the ropes, and Buttigieg and Klobuchar are untested. So in comes Bloomberg, spending tens of millions weekly, and muscles them out of the way with that same bullshit electability argument that has been so effectively used against Warren. And if you're going to vote on electability, well then, Bloomberg wasn’t just mayor of a city that is larger than 38 states (not kidding!), but he also has an unlimited number of “electability units”—aka dollars. It’s apparently a key reason why so many black politicians are jumping on the Bloomberg bandwagon in spite of his horrid record on race. He spent another 3.5 million electability units on advertising in black newspapers. He’s a gazillionaire. Money is how he solves everything.
It doesn’t help that he’s giving Trump fits, and it’s enjoyable to see him give Trump fits! But nominating Bloomberg would be a betrayal of everything Democrats stand for, just as nominating Trump was a betrayal of the “family values” and “strong national defense” mantra Republicans supposedly supported. If we truly do nominate a former Republican white male billionaire autocrat who is buying an election, then shit, we never stood for diversity, income equality, and taking money out of politics. It’s fucking depressing.
So, finally, back to Sanders, the undisputed front-runner. He has the money, the most engaged and loyal grassroots army, and a tireless desire to fight for what he believes in. But he’s never compromised on anything in his life, as his bereft legislative record demonstrates. As a result, he is sticking steadfastly to his message, one that has gotten him to just 20-25% in the polling. He has little interest in broadening his message to build a larger coalition, and his supporters—both online and off—are certainly not the kind to build bridges. Calling Warren a “snake” isn’t particularly the smartest way to scoop up her supporters if she continues to fade. Remember, ideology matters far less than people think. How his partisans treat the opposition matters, now, in the short term, and later, if he were to win the nomination.
Criticizing based on policy is one thing. This is a contested primary. That’s all fair game. But hurling Trump-style personal insults? It’s not how you build a broader movement. And as is, Sanders’ movement isn’t all that broad, not when he is barely beating a small liberal college-town mayor that few knew existed until last year.
This is all a long way of saying, Holy crap, this is a weak field, and who the hell knows what’s going to happen? But after the first two lily-white states (may they never lead again), no one should be happy moving to the next phase of the campaign.
It still looks like no one can win. But someone has to, eventually, right?