Analysis: Democratic nomination contest doesn't look like any from the past

Halfway through the early state primaries and caucuses, Democrats are no closer to clarifying their nominating contest than they were at the turn of the New Year. In the coming two contests - Nevada's caucuses next Saturday and South Carolina's primary on Feb. 29 - the "winners" from Iowa and New Hampshire have almost as much at stake as the losers. 

Iowa and New Hampshire saw two candidates perform consistently. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg emerged ahead of all the other Democrats. Neither, however, came through as a dominant front-runner.

Former vice president Joe Biden, who claimed front-runner status until he couldn't, ran a weak fourth in Iowa and a weaker fifth in New Hampshire. He didn't even break into double digits last Tuesday. By all rights, after that kind of start, he would be considered out of the race. But this is not a normal year.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar did something totally unexpected. She took a fifth-place finish in Iowa, the neighboring state to her home state of Minnesota, and then - on the strength of a good debate performance in New Hampshire, indecision on the part of many voters ahead of the primary there and the lack of any real scrutiny - turned in a third-place result in New Hampshire.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts ran a disappointing third in Iowa and then in the state next to the one where she now lives, managed to go lower. She scraped by with just 9 percent of the vote in a state where she once was favored to finish second, or even first.

Tom Steyer, the billionaire and political activist, got three-tenths of a percent of the state delegate equivalents in and not quite 2 percent of the popular vote in Iowa. In New Hampshire, he got 4 percent of the vote. And yet, after pouring millions of dollars into advertising in Nevada and South Carolina, he could be a factor, or spoiler, in both states, especially the Palmetto State.

Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, who is ignoring the first four states, waits in the wings for Super Tuesday and the rest of the primaries and caucuses. He has risen on the strength of hundreds of millions of dollars in TV ads and other investments, on the doubts raised about other candidates. He has largely escaped scrutiny, which will not be the case for long.

Ever since Nevada was given its status as one of four states allowed by the Democratic National Committee to hold an early contest, the results of the caucuses there have played mostly a limited role in shaping the race. Iowa and New Hampshire always have done much more to set the table while South Carolina has been contest to measure for strength among African American voters and as a gateway to Super Tuesday.

This year Nevada could be more significant. It's the first state where Latinos play a big role and as such it will reveal more about the range of appeal among the candidates than could either of the first two states.

The Sanders campaign's strategy all along has been to win the first three states, finish well enough in South Carolina and be positioned to reap the biggest haul of pledged delegates on Super Tuesday. The senator has come close on the first two, a virtual tie in Iowa and a narrow victory in New Hampshire.

But his support was dramatically lower than it was in those states four years ago. In Iowa he went from winning half the vote in 2016 to 26 percent. He won 60 percent in New Hampshire four years ago, but only 26 percent last Tuesday. Does that suggest he has a ceiling this time around? Perhaps, but the same was often said about Donald Trump four years ago, and people who said it turned out to be wrong.

Still, Sanders hasn't shown he can deliver on what he says is the most important reason he can lead the Democrats to victory against President Trump: He says he can mobilize a vast army of people who don't normally vote. Neither Iowa nor New Hampshire provided evidence to back up that claim. Sanders might be better positioned than others to accumulate the most delegates, but so far he's not a commanding figure.

But Sanders has something that only Bloomberg among the other candidates can claim: the resources to run a long national campaign. He has a base of support, the experience of having done this before and the ability to keep refilling his campaign treasury.

Buttigieg did extraordinarily well in the first two states. He has demonstrated strength with a slice of the Democratic electorate: well-educated white voters. In Nevada and South Carolina, he will be asked to show strength in communities where the polls have shown him lagging. The results in Iowa and New Hampshire won't mean much if he falters on the coming two Saturdays.

Klobuchar and Warren face similar challenges. Neither can point to substantial support among voters of color. Warren has targeted minority communities in many of the ambitious plans she has issued, but she limps into the coming contests. Klobuchar, whose home state is more than 80 percent white, will arrive in Nevada and South Carolina and states beyond as a virtual unknown to the voters who hold the most power.

If Buttigieg or Klobuchar manages to sustain their momentum through Nevada and South Carolina, the question then arises as to whether they will have the resources for a contest that quickly goes national.

Biden has more at stake in the next two states than any other candidate. Throughout 2019, his advisers claimed he was the strongest candidate in the field because of the breadth of support he had across all demographic groups in the Democratic Party.

Now, after failing to draw significant white support in Iowa or New Hampshire, he is trying to make black voters the sum and substance of his campaign, looking to those voters to salvage his candidacy.

Biden advisers look at what happened with Klobuchar, who turned a moment into a surge, and believe the same kind of thing could change the conversation about their candidate and make him, once again, a force and a credible competitor for the nomination. That puts extraordinary pressure on him to use Wednesday's debate in Las Vegas, or some unexpected opportunity, to reboot his candidacy and discounts the fact that he is far more a known figure than Klobuchar.

In Nevada, he will be in competition with Sanders for Latino votes. The decision by the heavily Hispanic culinary workers union not to endorse a candidate was helpful to Sanders, whose advocacy of Medicare-for-all has put him at odds with a union that has negotiated strong health-care packages for its members. But the union's public neutrality hurts Biden and anyone else who would like the muscle the organization could bring to bear in the caucuses.

After Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden is running on fumes, if history is any guide. Given the fragility of most of the other candidates, however, a Biden victory in South Carolina could change perceptions of his candidacy.

For now, throw out what you think you know based on the past. In a campaign where no candidate has captured imaginations or more than a quarter of the Democratic electorate, many things can yet happen.

Nevada and South Carolina will bring victories and disappointments. Whether the disappointed candidates will be the same ones who fell short in Iowa and New Hampshire or those who emerged with some momentum is what makes the coming two weeks so eventful.

 

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