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 TrumpMichael Flynn transcripts reveal plenty except crime or collusion 50 people arrested in Minneapolis as hundreds more National Guard troops deployed Missouri state lawmaker sparks backlash by tweeting 'looters deserve to be shot' MORE.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe battle of two Cubas Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Ro Khanna Democrats gear up to hit GOP senators on DACA MORE (I-Vt) finished first, with former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBiden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Here's how Biden can win over the minority vote and the Rust Belt 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 BidenTrump campaign launches Asian Pacific Americans coalition Biden: 'More than one African American woman' being considered for VP Liberal group asks Klobuchar to remove herself from VP consideration because of prosecutorial record 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 WarrenThe Memo: Trump ratchets up Twitter turmoil Hillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump tweet for 'glorifying violence' | Cruz calls for criminal investigation into Twitter over alleged sanctions violations | Senators urge FTC to investigate TikTok child privacy issues Warren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in MORE (D-Mass.), who finished just ahead of Biden.

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Minnesota Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharLiberal group asks Klobuchar to remove herself from VP consideration because of prosecutorial record Klobuchar on defense as Floyd death puts spotlight on record Officer involved in George Floyd death charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter 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 BloombergIt's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Liberals embrace super PACs they once shunned .7 billion expected to be spent in 2020 campaign despite coronavirus: report MORE, who'll start competing March 3.

In Nevada, two powerful forces are former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidCortez Masto says she's not interested in being Biden VP Nevada congressman admits to affair after relationship divulged on podcast Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil 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 ObamaThe battle of two Cubas Obama on the death of George Floyd: 'This shouldn't be "normal" in 2020 America' Democrats gear up to hit GOP senators on DACA MORE over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump campaign launches Asian Pacific Americans coalition Van Jones: A 'white, liberal Hillary Clinton supporter' can pose a greater threat to black Americans than the KKK Taylor Swift slams Trump tweet: 'You have the nerve to feign moral superiority before threatening violence?' 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 SteyerBloomberg wages war on COVID-19, but will he abandon his war on coal? Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil Ocasio-Cortez, Schiff team up to boost youth voter turnout 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 GoreCNN coronavirus town hall to feature science author David Quammen, 'Empire' actress Taraji Henson Top Democratic pollster advised Biden campaign to pick Warren as VP Melania Trump to appear on CNN coronavirus town hall Thursday night MORE, John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe continuous whipsawing of climate change policy Budowsky: United Democrats and Biden's New Deal Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil 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 CarterThe Democrats' out-party advantage in 2020 Have the courage to recognize Taiwan Respect your Elders — a call to action MORE was so suspect that a “Stop Carter” movement sprang up in the spring or 1992 when Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTop Democratic pollster advised Biden campaign to pick Warren as VP How Obama just endorsed Trump Trump, Biden signal how ugly the campaign will be 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.