New Hampshire only exacerbates Democratic Party agita

New Hampshire only exacerbates Democratic Party agita
© Greg Nash

The New Hampshire primary did little to quell the discomfort of more than a few Democrats that they may be blowing an opportunity to unseat a vulnerable President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Sanders tells Maher 'there will be a number of plans' to remove Trump if he loses Sirota reacts to report of harassment, doxing by Harris supporters MORE (I-Vt) finished first, with former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBillionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November Buttigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice MORE a close second — a reversal of their 1-2 finish in the Iowa caucuses a week earlier. The oldest and youngest candidates in the field are in it for the long run.

The results were devastating for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Joe Biden should enact critical government reforms if he wins MORE, who finished fifth — the second straight week that he was a distant also-ran. His campaign is on the ropes. Not much better is Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds On The Money: Half of states deplete funds for Trump's 0 unemployment expansion | EU appealing ruling in Apple tax case | House Democrats include more aid for airlines in coronavirus package Warren, Khanna request IG investigation into Pentagon's use of coronavirus funds MORE (D-Mass.), who finished just ahead of Biden.

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Minnesota Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Klobuchar3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE easily beat them both to finish third and keep her slim nomination hopes alive.

No one — including Sanders and Buttigieg — comes out of these first two tests looking formidable against the incumbent president in the fall.

It's not that Trump is surging in polls or benefiting from a failed impeachment. That false narrative is based largely on a Gallup survey showing him with a 49 percent approval. That's an outlier as a number of subsequent polls show he remains mired in the lower 40s, usually bad news for an incumbent president.

In several recent surveys, the major Democratic aspirants ran ahead of Trump — and the party enjoys a solid advantage in the congressional generic match-ups. On impeachment the FiveThirtyEight compendium of polls shows almost no change over the last several months, a small plurality remaining anti-Trump.

But Democrats are increasingly worried about nominating someone who can beat Trump with minimum divisiveness. The next two tests may not alleviate that anxiety. Sanders starts as a favorite now in the Feb. 22 Nevada caucuses, while influential political and union forces with a large Latino membership weigh alternatives.

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The following week is South Carolina, with a heavy African-American vote. The only natural candidate there was Biden, whose dismal showings in the first two contests undercut his hopes that the Palmetto state provides a political firewall.

Sanders is the clear front-runner overall, but the 78-year-old Socialist, who had a heart attack last fall, is a ripe target for what would be slashing Republican attacks in the general election.

But if Sanders is denied the nomination, there's fear that some of his angry supporters would either sit out the general election or even turn to a third party.

Biden, who for the last year has led in national polls, is surrounded by the smell of defeat. At a rally Sunday in Hudson, New Hampshire, a couple of supporters asked, "Are we going to a funeral?" As a former Vice President and well-known party leader, Biden’s candidacy blocked the emergence of several potentially strong mainstream progressives.

Buttigieg, after Iowa and New Hampshire, is a top tier contender. He has run a terrific campaign with enthusiastic supporters. Still, the notion of a 38-year-old gay former mayor of South Bend catapulting to the White House seems a reach to many leading Democrats.

Warren had been seen as someone who might bridge the left wing and mainstream factions, a point she's stressing anew these days. It may be too late, however, as last year she chose to challenge Sanders in the left lane, embracing initiatives like a government-run, single heath care plan.

Klobuchar came on strong in New Hampshire, after a fifth place finish in her neighboring state of Iowa. She gets lots of media hype, but other than her home state of Minnesota in three weeks, it's hard to see where else she beats the front-runners — including former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergBloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida Democratic groups using Bloomberg money to launch M in Spanish language ads in Florida Bloomberg pays fines for 32,000 felons in Florida so they can vote MORE, who'll start competing March 3.

In Nevada, two powerful forces are former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidSupreme Court fight pushes Senate toward brink The Supreme Court vacancy — yet another congressional food fight Trump seeks to turn around campaign with Supreme Court fight MORE, still hugely influential despite battling cancer, and the Culinary Workers, representing about 60,000 workers in the casinos. They oppose the Sanders and Warren single-payer health care plan and were tilting to Biden before the last week.

But the union sat out the 2016 caucus battle after supporting Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Senate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election In a season of bad ideas, one stands out MORE over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Trump furor stokes fears of unrest Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida Hillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close MORE in 2008 generating bitter internal divisions. They want to go with a winner. If they decide to join any “Stop Bernie” movement, the most viable alternative might be Buttigieg, who is well organized in Nevada, but that's a real longshot.

In South Carolina, Biden has been ahead in all the polls before he cratered in Iowa and New Hampshire; billionaire Tom SteyerTom SteyerTV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month Inslee calls Biden climate plan 'perfect for the moment' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration finalizes plan to open up Alaska wildlife refuge to drilling | California finalizes fuel efficiency deal with five automakers, undercutting Trump | Democrats use vulnerable GOP senators to get rare win on environment MORE, who barley registered in the first two tests, is second in polls there only because he's vastly outspending everyone. The no nonsense Sanders isn't a natural fit for black voters, and both Buttigieg and Klobuchar have drawn flak from African-Americans in their hometowns.

Three days after South Carolina is Super Tuesday with 14 states — including California and Texas, where one third of the delegates are selected for the Democrats' Milwaukee convention in July. Enter billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who already is spending at a record pace from his massive personal fortune. (Given today's uncertainty, Bloomberg may have made a mistake staying out of South Carolina.)

The Democrat-turned-Republican-turned Democrat has climbed in the polls, but his talents as a campaigner —which matter even in a big general election — don't match his business and political achievements.

By early March, the Democrats' last four nominees — Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreGallup: 61 percent support abolishing the Electoral College Business groups start gaming out a Biden administration Cruz says Senate Republicans likely have votes to confirm Trump Supreme Court nominee MORE, John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Memo: Warning signs flash for Trump on debates Divided country, divided church TV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month MORE, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — were clear front-runners and considered good candidates for the fall. That won't be the case this time.

The hope might be to think back to 1976 when Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterTexas Democrats roll out first wave of planned digital ads as Election Day nears Chris Matthews ripped for complimenting Trump's 'true presidential behavior' on Ginsburg Warning signs flash for Lindsey Graham in South Carolina MORE was so suspect that a “Stop Carter” movement sprang up in the spring or 1992 when Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHarris: Ginsburg 'absolutely' cleared the path for me Anxious Democrats amp up pressure for vote on COVID-19 aid Barr's Russia investigator has put some focus on Clinton Foundation: report MORE was running third in a spring survey behind President George H.W. Bush and independent Ross Perot.

Both went on to win.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.