Worries grow as moderates split Democratic vote
Moderate presidential contenders are fighting it out in a crowded lane, raising the prospect they will continue to splinter the vote while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) shores up the progressive support.
The outcome of the first two contests in the primary calendar have resulted in a splintered moderate field and Sanders emerging as the favorite candidate for the party’s progressive camp.
Sanders and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg battled to a virtual draw in Iowa while Sanders edged out Buttigieg in New Hampshire.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) strong performance in the Granite State has given her campaign new momentum, while former Vice President Joe Biden is banking on a comeback in Nevada and South Carolina.
Meanwhile, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is set to compete in the Super Tuesday states on March 3, with polls showing him on the rise despite skipping out on the first four contests.
Bloomberg’s presence in the race has raised concerns that a four-way fight for the moderate vote will mean no centrist alternative emerges to Sanders, leading to a long slog to the nomination that leaves Democrats with little time to unify before taking on President Trump in November.
“At the moment, they’re cannibalizing each other,” Democratic strategist Jon Reinish said. “You have no one who can really emerge while they’re all taking votes from each other.”
The splintering of the moderate vote is diluting the impact of centrist Democrats.
Klobuchar and Buttigieg together carried 44.2 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, far outpacing Sanders’s 25.7 percent share of the vote. Even with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) 9.2 percent of the vote, progressives got less votes than their moderate rivals in the Granite State.
Both candidates are now moving full steam ahead to Nevada, which holds its caucuses on Feb. 22. Buttigieg’s campaign announced this week it was expanding its staff on the ground to 100, while Klobuchar’s campaign has deployed 50 staffers to the state. Both campaigns have also unleashed ad buys in Nevada.
The two, along with Biden, have also sniped at each other in recent weeks. Klobuchar hit Buttigieg on the debate stage in New Hampshire last week, saying that while she and other 2020 senators were taking part in the impeachment trial, Buttigieg “wanted to turn the channel and watch cartoons.”
Meanwhile, Biden hit Buttigieg in an ad last week, suggesting that the former mayor does not have enough experience to be commander-in-chief.
Democratic moderates will also have to contend with as ascendant Bloomberg, who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an advertising blitz.
“Given this sort of three-way cannibalization that’s going on at the moment, that’s making a lot of people very nervous and increasingly folks are looking around the room, and eyes are lighting on Mike Bloomberg,” Reinish said.
The splintered moderate votes could lead to Sanders reaping the benefits, after poor showings by Warren in Iowa and New Hampshire have made him the progressive candidate standard bearer.
“I think there’s definitely enough room to go around,” South Carolina Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright told The Hill, referring to the moderate lane. “But it also leaves a wide lane for the other wing of the party to zap up energy and support as this race comes on.”
Sanders has long raised concerns among segments of the Democratic party, who worry the self-described Democratic socialist is too liberal to beat Trump in November.
Vulnerable Democrats in the House, including Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) who in 2018 became the first Democrat to be elected to represent his district in nearly four decades, have publicly voiced concern of the impact Sanders would have in their toss-up districts and states.
“We are running the risk of the possibility of a standard bearer who doesn’t represent where voters are and who is ill-equipped to take on Donald Trump, and who is ill-equipped to lead Democrats to down-ballot success,” Reinish said.
Other Democrats worry that a crowded field where no single candidate emerges as the front-runner could lead to a brokered contest at the Democratic National Convention in July.
“There’s no doubt about it that we are headed possibly to a brokered convention,” Moe Vella, a former Biden adviser who sits on the board of Transparent Business, told The Hill. “A brokered convention could be damaging to the moderate, centrist, pragmatic left.”
The possibility of a brokered convention has led to concerns about whether Democrats can unite four years after the contentious primary between Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Campaigns, however, have played down divisions between centrist and progressive camps, saying voters are showing cross-over interest in their preferences.
“There are Warren-Klobuchar voters. There are Biden-Bernie voters. There are Bernie-Pete voters, and there are obviously Biden-Pete voters, and Biden-Klobuchar voters,” a campaign aide to one of the moderate candidates told The Hill. “You just need to look at this more or so as who is presenting the best vision, and what type of non-ideological are people making.”
However, strategists argue the fear of a divided party is a reality and say an ideal candidate would seek to unite the progressive and centrist camps within the party even as voters struggle to pick who among the current field fits that description.
“They’re looking at who can bring not only the country together, but the party back together,” Seawright said. “The candidate who occupies that centrist lane, but knows how to drive their car over when needed to the progressive lane, has a better chance of controlling the entire highway when this process is over.”
“No matter how it plays out, we’re going to have to pull the voters on both sides of the highway back together,” he added.
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