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 TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE (I-Vt) finished first, with former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate 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 BidenWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate 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 Ann WarrenWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE (D-Mass.), who finished just ahead of Biden.

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Minnesota Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far 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.

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.

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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 Rubens BloombergWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE, who'll start competing March 3.

In Nevada, two powerful forces are former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race Harry Reid calls for end to all caucuses Reid pushes back on Sanders suggestion that a Democrat with plurality of delegates should be the nominee 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 ObamaDemocrats duke it out in most negative debate so far Biden, Sanders battle over Cuba, Obama Biden attacks Sanders at debate over Obama primary MORE over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 The Hill's Campaign Report: High stakes at last Democratic debate before Super Tuesday 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 Fahr SteyerWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate 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 Gore'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate The Hill's Morning Report - In Nevada, bets on Sanders, eyes on Bloomberg Mellman: Primary elections aren't general elections MORE, John KerryJohn Forbes KerryDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents John Kerry: Democratic debate 'was something of a food fight' 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 Hill's Morning Report - Democrats duke it out during Nevada debate New Hampshire only exacerbates Democratic Party agita Doctors group breaks from health care industry with support for 'Medicare for All' MORE was so suspect that a “Stop Carter” movement sprang up in the spring or 1992 when Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonRahm Emanuel: 'Panic would be the adjective to describe the mood' over Sanders Do Trump and Sanders hate America? Ex-CIA chief calls Trump intel shakeup a 'virtual decapitation' of the intelligence community 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.