For Bernie Sanders, not all victories are created equal.
In 2016, Sanders carried New Hampshire by 22 points, pummeling Hillary Clinton and setting the stage for a protracted fight over the Democratic presidential nomination. On Tuesday, he won the state’s primary by less than 2 points, raising questions about his ability to broaden his coalition beyond his most loyal supporters.
But the Vermont senator is benefiting from a crowded and fractured primary field, with several moderate candidates dividing up the rest of the vote. Taken together, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden drew support from more than 50 percent of New Hampshire voters — twice as much as Sanders.
"It’s clear that a majority of Democrats do not want Bernie Sanders to be the nominee," said Ben LaBolt, who advised President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. "But if the more pragmatic candidates do not consolidate in the weeks ahead — especially those hanging by a thread in the single digits — Sanders has a very real chance of winning the nomination."
Sanders has energized young voters and liberals with his calls for a Medicare for All health care system and free college tuition. Yet his pricey policy proposals and his standing as a self-described democratic socialist have some in the party on edge, fearful he would struggle to defeat President Donald Trump and damage Democrats' prospects of holding or picking up congressional seats in more moderate parts of the country.
Yet the top tier of the Democratic field shows no signs of shrinking as the primary shifts to more diverse states. And it will only get more crowded as Mike Bloomberg, who is blanketing the delegate-rich states that vote March 3 with hundreds of millions of dollars in advertisements, starts showing up on ballots.
If anything, questions about Sanders’ strength, and uncertainty about which moderate is best to take him on, seem to be giving candidates incentive to stay in as long as they have money to fund their campaigns. That fundraising challenge becomes more urgent for Biden, as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a progressive candidate who finished a disappointing fourth in New Hampshire.
Though the Democratic race is in its early stages — just two states have voted and the vast majority of delegates are still in play — the primary has echoes of the 2016 Republican primary. Trump consistently won contests with about one-third of the vote, while his competitors split up the rest of the electorate.
In the 2016 New Hampshire primary, for example, Trump carried 35% of the vote, while more centrist competitors John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie divided up more than 40% of the electorate.
Those moderate Republican moderates faced the same dilemma now in front of their Democratic counterparts: How long do they stay in the race and allow Sanders to eke out victories and potentially deepen his support?
In 2016, some of the moderate candidates hung on for weeks, laboring under the expectation that Trump’s controversial candidacy would crater and some of his support might swing their way. Instead, Trump only grew stronger.
"Winning begets momentum, which begets people wanting to be on your team," said Matt Gorman, who worked for Bush’s campaign. "The more Trump won, the more people went over to him."
Gorman’s advice to Sanders’ rivals? Move on quickly if you want to stop Sanders.
"For a coalescing to happen, it would need to happen immediately," he said.
There are structural differences between the way Republicans and Democrats pick their nominees that could make Sanders’ path to the nomination more difficult than Trump’s was in 2016, even if the field remains crowded.
Some GOP primaries are winner-take-all or winner-take-most delegate contests, which allowed Trump to quickly amass an insurmountable lead over his rivals. Democratic contests are proportional, meaning that even if Sanders keeps winning, other candidates can stay within range and push the primary contest deep into the spring or early summer in hopes of a comeback.
There are also indications in voter surveys that Democrats are looking for a moderate candidate to step in. According to AP VoteCast, a majority of voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire self-identified as moderate or conservative ideologically. Roughly 2 in 10 said they were "somewhat liberal" and about a quarter said they were "very liberal."
New Hampshire Primary
Sanders, a favorite of liberals, has struggled to meet expectations in the first two contests, even with his victory in New Hampshire and his effective tie with Buttigieg in Iowa. He is more rigid ideologically than some of his rivals and has not yet indicated he can draw new voters into his coalition.
His moderate rivals still see a path to blunt his momentum, though their realistic prospects vary.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who was virtually unknown nationally a year ago, is in the strongest position after the first two states. He’s proven to be a fundraising powerhouse and has energized voters with his calls for generational change.
Klobuchar surged to a surprise third-place finish in New Hampshire after a standout pre-primary debate. But she’s less well-known than some other candidates and has a scant operation in the states that come next on the primary calendar.
Biden is the moderate candidate who comes out of New Hampshire facing the most urgent questions about his future. After leading national polls for months, he finished a dismal fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, undermining his case that he’s the most electable candidate in November.
Biden’s advisers insist he can turn his campaign around in South Carolina, the first state with a large population of black voters. But Wednesday is likely to bring questions from his financial backers and pressure from some Democrats to end his third bid for the White House.
That puts moderate Democrats on uncertain footing.
"Ultimately we’re going to have to coalesce around somebody," said Matt Bennett of Third Way, a center-left think tank, one of the moderates warning against a Sanders nomination. "But we’re not quite ready to do that."