Another split decision: Sanders narrowly beats Buttigieg in New Hampshire

Amy Klobuchar captures headlines with strong third-place finish; Warren and Biden far back in fourth and fifth

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published February 11, 2020 11:20PM (EST)

Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)
Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

New Hampshire was supposed to provide stage-clearing results in the first Democratic primary after the stunning debacle of the Iowa caucuses last week. But not much was clarified on Tuesday night. Despite winning the popular vote for the second straight week, Sen. Bernie Sanders, in his second race for the White House, can't be called the prohibitive frontrunner. Instead, Sanders will likely split the delegate count in New Hampshire with former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for the second election in a row. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota will surely capture headlines after getting nearly 20 percent of the vote in a strong third-place finish, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Vice President Joe Biden, both formerly regarded as frontrunners, both failed to crack 10 percent and will receive no delegates.

A couple of fringe candidates, businessman Andrew Yang and Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, dropped out after their poor showings Tuesday. Another figure who made little impression in the race, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, seems ready to exit imminently. The top of the Democratic presidential field, however, has not winnowed in any significant way following the first two contests of 2020. Sanders, who won New Hampshire over Hillary Clinton by 22 points in 2016, now leads Buttigieg by less than 2 points. In 2020, Sanders has underperformed expectations in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Still, despite all the chatter on cable news, Sanders will eventually become the perceived frontrunner. Whether he battles Buttigieg, who has no clear path to victory after New Hampshire without significant support from voters of color, or Michael Bloomberg, whose billions won't come into play until Super Tuesday, Sanders will need help to solidify his lead. 

The race is next expected to dramatically narrow after South Carolina's primary on Feb. 29. With Sanders favored to win the Nevada caucus on Feb. 22, Warren can still play a big role in this campaign, even if her distant fourth-place finish in New Hampshire appears to leave her with no viable path to the Democratic nomination. 

The three major moderate candidates, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Biden, received nearly 20 percent more votes than the two more progressive candidates, Sanders and Warren. With Warren unlikely to be competitive in Nevada or South Carolina, throwing her support behind Sanders seems like the best bet to make her progressive agenda come to fruition. 

In New Hampshire, Sanders won voters who named income inequality and health care — the top-cited issue among four that were tested — as their top issue in preliminary exit polls. Meanwhile, former candidate John Delaney appeared on Fox News with Tucker Carlson to demonize Medicare for All. In fact, 58% of New Hampshire primary voters said they were fine with getting rid of private insurance, as did nearly 60% of caucus voters in Iowa last week. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll last month found that 65% of Democratic primary voters said they'd be more likely to support a candidate who supported Medicare for All, including 66% of black voters. 

If anything is standing in the way of Warren joining forces with Sanders after her disappointing results in both Iowa and New Hampshire, it may be the contentious nature of the primary. During her election night speech on Tuesday — in which she made clear she would continue her campaign, at least for now — Warren clearly alluded to the two top finishers, Sanders and Buttigieg: "I respect them both but the fight between factions in our party has taken a sharp turn in recent weeks."

Democratic candidates, she warned, cannot "burn down the rest of the party" in order to win. Democrats certainly want to defeat Donald Trump, but they still don't know who can get them there.


By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

MORE FROM Sophia Tesfaye