Littwin: Two states down in Dem race, and the road to Milwaukee looks as foggy as ever

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 07: U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), shown here leaving a briefing on U.S. airstrikes against Syria, is weighing a 2020 White House bid. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“Whether you knew it or not, we were having a great time together” — Michael Bennet speaking to way-too-few New Hampshire voters Tuesday night while announcing he was dropping out of the race.

The critical takeaway from the New Hampshire primary is that the real loser — an even bigger loser than Joe Biden — was any kind of hoped-for clarity in the Democratic race. If the primary has been making you nervous — I mean, four more years of Bill Barr? — this night won’t be of any help. Democrats are desperate for a leader to fall behind. If only they could actually pick one.

Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, once-upon-a-time-co-front-runners-along-with-Bernie, collapsed to fourth and fifth place respectively, with neither breaking double figures. Bernie Sanders won, but only by two points over Pete Buttigieg on a night that, according to the notoriously unreliable early exit polls, the youth vote did not show up in force. On the basis of one very good debate, Amy Klobuchar surged past Warren, once considered the debate champion.

What happened? It wasn’t the polls. It wasn’t the pundits. I’ll blame Donald Trump, but only because, you know, he’s Donald Trump.

We know the race moves next to Nevada and then onto South Carolina, two markedly more diverse states than nearly-all-white Iowa and even whiter New Hampshire. What we don’t know is how that will shake out in a party with no minority candidates left in the field (Deval Patrick is expected to drop out of the race almost no one knew he was in). We don’t know — but should — that minority voters have a much better record of voting for white candidates than the other way around. 

We know Sanders won the night and that a win is a win — and that he now looks like the frontrunner. What we don’t know is whether a two-point victory in a neighboring state — one that Sanders won by more than 20 points four years ago in a two-candidate race — is really much of a win or whether the fact that Buttigieg and Klobuchar together outpolled Sanders 44-26 matters. Sanders does have a lot going for him. He has the Bernie base, has the money to compete everywhere, has just crushed his most serious progressive competitor in Warren, and is running against a fractured field of moderates. He’s hoping the field stays cluttered, and that the pundits who think he has a low ceiling are wrong. But, as you may have noticed, Mike Bloomberg, who is unaccountably not entering the race until Super Tuesday, is betting as much as a billion dollars that Sanders is beatable.

We know Buttigieg finished a very close second in New Hampshire after forcing Sanders into a virtual tie in Iowa. What we don’t know is whether he can overcome his poor — no, disastrous is a better description — polling in the African-American community. In the latest Quinnipiac national polling, Buttigieg is stuck at four percent among black voters. In the same poll, Biden was at 27, Mike “Stop-and-Frisk” Bloomberg 22, Sanders 17, Elizabeth Warren 8, Amy Klobuchar 0. But I don’t think it’s at all clear that Buttigieg can’t change those numbers after two strong showings, despite some bad reviews from black activists in South Bend. Nearly as worrying for Buttigieg is whether attacks by Klobuchar and Biden, who have both hit him hard for his lack of experience, will begin to show.

We know Klobucharge is the biggest story out of New Hampshire because no one, as recently as four days ago, thought Klobuchar had even a puncher’s chance to finish in the top 3, and especially with 20 percent of the vote. We don’t know — have no idea, really — what that means going forward. She lost badly in Iowa — the state the senator from Minnesota should have been able to compete in — and then flowered in the New Hampshire snow. Go figure. Maybe now Klobuchar can raise much-needed money, but she still has little campaign infrastructure in Nevada or South Carolina and little time to put one in place. And for her, Super Tuesday states might as well be somewhere in an undiscovered land. If you don’t want to believe, it’s easy to see how she could be a one-hit wonder. But some moderate will eventually emerge from the crowd and you’d have to say that she’s now a real possibility.

We know Warren — finishing under 10 percent, as a senator from a neighboring state, who led New Hampshire polling for a time over the summer — couldn’t break double figures after slipping in the polls and having a so-so New Hampshire debate. What we don’t know — and what I doubt Warren knows — is why. Warren got herself trapped trying to explain how she’d pay for Medicare for All and, in the end, moved from I’m-with-Bernie to we’ll-get-there-as-quickly-as-we-can. That may have cost her votes on the progressive front. And when she needed a strong debate, she decided to stay away from the on-stage in-fighting and make a play to be the unity candidate, which doesn’t seem to have worked. Does she have a Plan C? She made her campaign based on plans, so maybe. I’ve long thought that she would emerge as the most viable Democrat, which tells you I’m as confused as anyone.

We know Joe Biden. What we don’t know — but suspect — is whether knowing him too well is Biden’s problem. We know — if we’re political junkies — that no one has ever finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire and come close to winning the Democratic nomination. But playing by the normal rules of politics is so pre-2016. Biden has been shaky everywhere and especially on the debate stage. And his campaign has been hiding him from the press, fearing yet another Biden gaffe. That probably isn’t how you can convince people you’re the electability candidate who can win back working-class whites and thereby become the world’s first 77-year-old Comeback Kid. But Biden has been counting on South Carolina to be his firewall and he arrived in Columbia, S.C. before the votes were even counted in New Hampshire.

We know Michael Bennet stuck around in the race too long and ended up — with 95% of the vote counted — with only 954 votes or 0.3 percent of the primary total, according to The New York Times. What we don’t know for sure — but some have suggested — is that Bennet’s embarrassingly low number may be a record low for a sitting senator running in New Hampshire. 

Bennet, who told New Hampshire voters he’d be back someday, might have had a better case if he had been satisfied with the good national notices he had received during the campaign and dropped out before the bad-dream numbers rolled in. What we don’t yet know is how badly Morning Joe will take the news.

We know that Tom Steyer, otherwise known as the other billionaire, had nothing going in New Hampshire, but he has lots of chips in South Carolina, which could mean even more bad news for Biden. We may not have known, but a story in The Washington Post clued us in, that Steyer has spent more than $14 million on TV and radio in South Carolina while Biden had just gone up on the air — and that Steyer has 93 aides in the state while Sanders has 72 and Biden just 43.

And yes, finally, we know that Andrew Yang and the Yang Gang have called it quits, and while that doesn’t make the state of the race any more or less unclear, it does make it a lot less fun. And it should be clear to everyone by now that fun is the very last thing Democratic voters are having so far.

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  1. I’d like to think I have something intelligent to add to this. but I really don’t. I’ve said many times before and last year even, don’t bet on the front runner esp in a >2 horse race ( that’s pretty much any D nomination race except Mondale in 84 and Clinton in 16). Joe, the old nag, is pretty much at chalk.. The only halfway decent observation I have is that just maybe Bloomberg is onto something. (though you have to have mega bucks to pull this off). Mike being a biz and numbers guy said why should I waste my money on states with so few delegates why not concentrate my firepower on the states with the most delegate haul. In the past nobody dared try this because momentum was always the key driver.. You lose early, the money dries up and you go home. Assuming most of the Super Tuesday states are not winner take all, the central tendency candidates can still stay in the race till their money dries up, while they let Bernie get his 30%. The biggest risk is the the pols will believe the pundits and see a Bernie bandwagon, climb on board and put up the probably least likely nominee to challenge Trump. But I have faith in the residue of the smoke filled room. some “moderate” will come forth (are there any middle aged straight white males left in the race?) and the party regs will breathe a sigh of relief. None of this would have happened if the D’s would just use approval voting in their primaries.
    And that is all the “mush from this wimp” for one day (cf. NY Post headline viz, Jimmy Carter’s MEOW speech)

  2. So I was a Warren and/or Buttigieg supporter until now. Here is what I recently posted on social media: “She is not another wealthy and/or old rich white man? check. She is not (unfairly or inaccurately) labeled a “socialist? check. She is moderate enough to perhaps garner some votes from “Romney” Republicans who dislike Trump? check. She has experience navigating Washington political games? check. She’s young enough, savvy enough, and feisty enough to weather debates with Trump? check. I can picture her as our first (overdue!) woman President? check. Seriously considering her on my 3/3 primary ballot? check, check, check.” Yes, I now believe that Amy Klobuchar is the one who can beat Trump and bring our nation together. A tall order, but she is up to it. As for the money, the ground game, the staff, etc. This is 2020. All she needs is to get the buzz to go viral, and she has the time to do just that.

  3. My spouse and I got ballots in the mail today, and agreed we had no certainty about who to vote FOR.

    As of today, I have several people who almost certainly won’t get my primary vote — beginning with everyone age 70 and up. Every Democratic winner in my life has been under 60 at inauguration … 43, 55, 52, 46, and 47. It won’t be someone who has not been elected to anything before. It won’t be for someone who only was “Present” for the impeachment votes in the House.

    I’ll hold my ballot until March 2 or 3, trying to determine if anyone suddenly breaks out an convinces me. Or if I’m convinced of some strategic value in my vote. If neither happens, I’ll vote my vague preference, then trust in the wisdom of the crowds of voters here in Colorado and across the nation to find someone who can represent the Never Trump position on the ballot.

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