Sanders drags Democrats to the left; will it be 1972 all over again?
Democratic voters enter the core primary season unsettled and uncertain, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) narrowly won the New Hampshire primary — his second very strong performance — a move that could pull the Democratic Party to the far left and prompt a repeat of its 1972 electoral disaster.
But the contest between the left and moderate wings of the Democratic Party is far from over.
Sanders is an avowed democratic socialist whose “free college” mantra has captured the party’s youth vote, despite his having turned 78 years old. For decades he has lectured against the problems of big banks, an economy that works for the few, and the need for revolutionary change. It is odd — in a time of such great prosperity, low unemployment and rising wages — that his message would resonate.
The short answer is that his “socialist” message rings true to about 20 percent to 25 percent of the electorate — they just all happen to be concentrated among Democratic primary voters. The exit polls, for example, put the voters in the New Hampshire primary at 60 percent liberal while the electorate as a whole is no more than about 25 percent liberal. In a nutshell, this is the problem with today’s parties and the primary system: It is too easy for candidates who are out of step with America to gain traction in the Democratic Party, and this distorts all of Democratic politics among those who want to be president and thus pander to those voters.
Almost half of New Hampshire’s voters decided who to support in the last two days of the election. This indicates that their choices were reluctant, and it underscores the underlying uncertainty of most voters in the rest of the country with the primary field. Huge swaths of the electorate can change literally overnight in reaction to the next debate or the next searing revelation about a candidate’s background.
Former mayor Pete Buttigieg, despite his relative lack of experience, is building a base of support that is in the mold of former Presidents Clinton and Obama. Like them, he is smart and knowledgeable — but his résumé is thin. This proved no roadblock for either Obama or Clinton, as they parlayed a brief time in the Senate or a governorship of Arkansas into presidential material. South Bend, Ind., could, however, prove more challenging.
It’s obvious that former Vice President Joe Biden has been the big loser in the early primaries, and his next opportunity for a comeback is Feb. 29 in South Carolina. He has had a steady base of older and African American voters in national poll after national poll. But people like to vote for a winner, and his campaign has failed to deliver a strong message, while sharp encounters with questioners and stories of his son Hunter Biden have dominated the news. At the same time, the rise of three potentially more moderate candidates has raised questions about whether his base will deteriorate going into Super Tuesday. It will take a dramatic comeback and some turns of events for him to get back into the ring as he is facing more, not less, competition from other moderates. I would not count him out yet — but he will need to rethink his campaign because whatever he has been doing has not been working.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) brilliant victory speech in Iowa, when she came in fifth, helped put a national spotlight on her long overlooked candidacy. Klobuchar has a lot of advantages — she is from the Midwest, is a mainstream Democrat, has broad electoral experience. The only negative that has surfaced so far is that she was difficult with her staff — hardly devastating. As voters jumped the Biden ship, they climbed aboard Klobuchar’s effort virtually overnight.
Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg had a good night without even being on the ballot, as Sanders won by enough to frighten Democrats that he could be the nominee yet not by enough to be a runaway. Bloomberg is the Goldilocks candidate, as he has more direct leadership experience and accomplishment than Buttigieg but — in contrast to Biden — is seen as ready and capable to take on President Trump. Bloomberg needs a breakthrough on Super Tuesday, and the rise of Klobuchar complicates his strategy of picking up the falling Biden vote.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), like Biden, underperformed in New Hampshire but she promised to soldier on, undeterred by falling poll numbers and deteriorating results. This presents Sanders with a big problem: On his own, he has about 25 percent to 30 percent of the electorate; with Warren’s votes, he could sweep the Super Tuesday states and go on to the nomination. Yet, while she remains in the race, Sanders is constrained and could be defeated by the party’s moderate vote coalescing instead around one or two of their four possible candidates now.
Usually the first two states clarify the primary contests, and some candidates did indeed drop out. But perhaps the one thing that is certain after these contests is that we face even greater uncertainty in how this race is going to come out. In fact, only one thing is certain — this race likely is going to go on for months, with no winner is in sight. Even if Warren and Biden do drop out after Super Tuesday, the Bloomberg, Klobuchar, Sanders and Buttigieg race could go all the way to the convention, and each candidate could show up with delegates for the biggest political battle of this new century. The left has the edge, but they have not sealed the deal.
Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He also is CEO of MDC Partners, an advertising and marketing firm. He served as pollster and adviser to former President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.
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