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Here are 6 lessons from the New Hampshire primary

Here are 6 lessons from the New Hampshire primary
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Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, U.S. February 10, 2020.

Brian Snyder | REUTERS

1. Bernie is a weak front-runner

New Hampshire confirmed that Sen. Bernie Sanders isn’t the candidate he was in 2016. With 301 of 301 precincts reporting, Sanders received 76,324 votes. In 2016, running against Hillary Clinton, his total vote count was 152,193.

Throw Elizabeth Warren voters (all 27,387 of them) into his column and his total would still be roughly 50,000 votes shy of his 2016 performance. Another way to look at the results: Three-quarters of the New Hampshire primary electorate voted for someone other than Bernie Sanders.

Travel back in time and this is what you find: Sanders won in 2016 with 60% of the vote. Hillary Clinton won in 2008 with 39% of the vote. John Kerry won in 2004 with 38% of the vote. Al Gore won in 2000 with 50% of the vote (Bill Bradley lost with 46%!).

Winning with 26% of the vote is unimpressive. Especially when you take into account that Sanders is a U.S. senator from a neighboring state. New Hampshire Democrats know him. They’ve known him for a long time. This time around, they gave him the most tepid endorsement possible, short of defeat.

2. Bloomberg may need Klobuchar and … Obama

Mike Bloomberg was hoping that Sanders would do very well in New Hampshire. Ten percent clear of his closest competitor would have been ideal for Bloomberg. But of course Sanders “underperformed,” as the TV chatterboxes say. Sanders barely beat former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s late surge was on prominent display in the day-after press coverage.

I’ve written at some length about Bloomberg’s campaign strategy (here and here). The short version is this: Bernie wins early, becomes a bonafide front-runner, Democratic primary voters freak out, thinking Sanders can’t beat Trump and move, decisively, to Bloomberg. An important piece of the strategy is that Bloomberg’s fellow “moderates” (Joe Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar) lose decisively in the early going and immediately run out of money. That clears the field for a Bernie-Bloomberg cage match, which, in the opinion of the Bloomberg brain trust, Bloomberg would almost certainly win. That was the thinking anyway.

That said, I don’t think the Bloomberg campaign is all that distressed by the rise of Amy Klobuchar. She won’t be able to compete on Super Tuesday, March 3, in the wildly expensive media markets of Texas and California, or in Florida on March 17. And if she performs well in some of the smaller Super Tuesday states, that’s fine. If a possible Democratic Party ticket is Bloomberg-Klobuchar, which (assuming Bloomberg wins the nomination) it could well be, Klobuchar delegates and Bloomberg delegates are teammates.

From the Bloomberg campaign’s point of view of the Bloomberg campaign, Klobuchar’s “job” on Super Tuesday is to damage (if not defeat) Sanders in smaller states, to prevent him from running up the score. If she does damage Sanders in a few smaller Super Tuesday states, that would amplify a media narrative that Sanders is not the candidate he was in 2016.

And make no mistake about it, the “mainstream media” do not want Sanders to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Like the majority of Democratic primary voters, they want someone who can beat Trump. The MSM are certain Sanders is incapable of doing that.

The problem with Tuesday night for the Bloomberg campaign was Buttigieg almost beating Sanders and withstanding the Klobuchar surge. That meant he would not be going broke any time soon. Which meant he would still be competing in later states, thus depleting the pool of “Just-Beat-Trump” voters, thus making it more difficult for Bloomberg to defeat Sanders in the Big Three (Florida, Texas and California).

Bloomberg has to win one of the Big Three. If he wins two, he’s fully competitive with Sanders going forward and perhaps the favorite to win the nomination. If he wins all three, he’s the nominee.

Three-for-three would earn him the (more-or-less) immediate endorsement of former President Barack Obama, which would be the end of the other “moderate” candidates and would put enormous pressure on Sanders to get on board the Just-Beat-Trump Express. (Sanders won’t ever really get on board, of course, but bit by bit some of his supporters would).

The former president’s disdain for President Trump is intergalactic. He believes that the country’s future rides on Trump’s defeat. He has zero interest in ideological litmus tests or pie-in-sky policy proposals. He just wants to win.

And like a number of other people, he almost certainly thinks Bloomberg is the one to get the job done. Bloomberg has the right political profile. The things that would normally make him uninspiring seem reassuring in the Age of Tweeted Anxiety. And best of all, just because it’s so delicious, Bloomberg would bury Trump under an avalanche of money.

The Obama endorsement – proffered or not – will be a major post-Super Tuesday story. The Bloomberg campaign is counting on it (assuming they can win some primaries in important states). It essentially makes their candidate a “real” Democrat.

3. Biden needs big wins in Nevada, South Carolina

Imagine that you are a bundler for Biden. A bundler is someone who is rich, who has a lot of friends, associates, colleagues, clients and relatives who are also rich. The bundler’s job is to hoover up their money, put it into a big envelope and Fedex it to the candidate’s bank account; $250,000 is okay. $500,000 is good. $1,000,000 and you might be the U.S. ambassador to … Portugal, maybe.)

Anyway, imagine that you are a bundler for Joe Biden and you woke up yesterday morning and scanned your phone and saw that the former vice president had finished fifth in New Hampshire, with 8.4% of the vote. You then checked your messages and found an “urgent” text from Biden HQ saying that the “fund-raising team” would be holding a conference call at 10am (or whatever).

So you’re standing in your bathrobe in front of the coffee machine, trying to imagine how to approach your second circle of potential donors. “I know he finished fifth, okay, but blacks love him in South Carolina … that’ll right the ship, trust me” isn’t a bundler’s dream script.

And that’s the Biden problem in a nutshell. He’s performed so poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire that there is little reason to think he’ll run the table in Nevada and South Carolina, which means he will lose, in state after state after state, on Super Tuesday. No one, no matter how fond they are of the candidate, wants to contribute to something that is so obviously a lost cause.

Biden’s only chance of reviving his campaign is convincing wins in Nevada and South Carolina. Not wins. Convincing wins. Otherwise he’s out of money and therefore out of the race. He may already be out of money.

4. Warren is as good as done

Warren had the classic newcomer’s strategy: do well in Iowa, win New Hampshire, go national, fueled by front-runner money. In her case, beating Sanders early would also enable her to inherit a large piece of his “army,” thus making her an even more formidable contender. That was the general idea.

Alas, it didn’t work out. There are a lot of reason why it did not. I wrote about two of them here. We could talk about other reasons why she fared so poorly, but why bother. Her campaign is over. All that’s left for her to do is endorse Amy Klobuchar (which would be the smart move, and Warren is smart).

5. New Hampshire turnout is a good sign for Dems

The turnout (296,622 total votes) was higher than it was in 2008 (287,527 total votes). And 2008 was, until the day before yesterday, the record high turnout for a New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary.

Democrats have to be pleased with that, since one of their persistent claims these past few years has been that the Democratic base is fired up as never before.

The Iowa caucuses, annoyingly, produced an average turnout, which led some people (like me) to suggest that maybe the whole turnout-frenzy thing wasn’t true. The New Hampshire turnout allowed Democrats to retort: turnout-frenzy is back!

6. Trump seems overconfident

What about Trump? The White House is exhibiting all the classic signs of overconfidence. The Trump campaign is, if anything, even more grandiose about its prospects and capabilities. Excessive self-regard is often fatal.

The Trump campaign would be well-advised to believe that every word in this press release is exactly right. Not because it is exactly right, necessarily, but because it’s best to start with the assumption that if you don’t execute well and hit your marks when you need to, you’ll lose.

The Trump campaign is more than capable of losing the 2020 election.

John Ellis is the Editor of News Items and a former columnist for The Boston Globe. You can reach him at jellis41@protonmail.com. You can sign up for the News Items newsletter here.

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