The 2020 battle for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is off to a fast though uncertain start, with strong showings in the first two contests by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Buttigieg narrowly won the most delegates in the Iowa caucus voting while Sanders prevailed in a close race with Buttigieg in the New Hampshire primary.
Sanders, a progressive candidate, is getting a strong challenge from several moderate contenders in what experts believe could be a long race before a nominee is decided.
The race now heads to Nevada for caucuses on February 22 and to South Carolina for a primary on February 29. Both states feature more diverse voters than Iowa and New Hampshire. Latino voters will assert themselves in strong numbers in Nevada while one of the Democratic Party’s most reliable constituencies, African Americans, will finally get a chance to weigh in on the race in a big way in South Carolina.
'Bernie's in my heart'
For the moment though, there is no denying Sanders’ success, due in part to committed supporters like New Hampshire voter Pat Delzell: “Bernie Sanders is in my heart and in my soul. He speaks to me like no other candidate does."
Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar followed Sanders in the New Hampshire results, appealing to moderate voters like Seth Window.
“I am really just looking for someone to have the momentum or the energy to go up against [President Donald] Trump, and I feel like Amy Klobuchar captured that in the debate,” Window told the Associated Press.
Analysts say that split between progressives and moderates will continue to play out in the Democratic contests to come. “Klobuchar and Buttigieg are both moderates, and it suggests that there is a large percentage of the electorate, at least in New Hampshire, who is interested in a candidate that is more moderate,” said the AP’s Washington bureau chief, Julie Pace.
Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, a former New York City mayor, has been climbing in the polls in recent weeks and is set to be a contender in primaries next month, especially the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3 when 14 states hold contests.
“I am the one who can beat Donald Trump and I think the most important thing for this country is to change the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue [the White House],” Bloomberg told reporters during a swing through Nashville, Tennessee.
Bloomberg is skipping the first four Democratic nominating contests to focus on Super Tuesday and has been blanketing the airwaves with more than $300 million in TV ads that have raised his profile and poll ratings.
The latest RealClearPolitics average of national polls in the Democratic race has Sanders in first place with 23 percent, followed by former Vice President Joe Biden at 19 percent and Bloomberg in third place with 14 percent. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg and Klobuchar trail them.
Biden is pinning his hopes of a comeback on the South Carolina primary, betting his appeal to black voters will put him back in the race.
A number of rivals are waiting in the wings if Biden continues to stumble, said George Washington University expert Matt Dallek.
"And if Biden becomes less viable as the primary goes on over the next couple of weeks, Bloomberg stands with an insane amount of money and stands ready to potentially capitalize on that,” he said.
Sanders and Klobuchar are already pushing back hard on Bloomberg and his wealth.
“At this point in the campaign, we are taking on billionaires and we are taking on candidates funded by billionaires,” Sanders told supporters during his New Hampshire victory speech.
Klobuchar is also trying to rally supporters by casting herself as a financial underdog in the Democratic field.
“We know in our hearts that in a democracy, it is not about the loudest voice or the biggest bank account. It is about the best idea and about the person who can turn those ideas into action,” Klobuchar told supporters after her third-place finish in New Hampshire.
Sanders and Buttigieg have done well in the early contests, but the overall picture for Democrats remains uncertain, according to Jim Kessler with the center-left Democratic-leaning group Third Way.
“Muddled for sure," he said. "I think this is a race that is going to stay open for a number of weeks, at least through Super Tuesday.”
About 60 percent of Democratic voters in New Hampshire told pollsters their priority was finding the strongest candidate to take on Trump in November.
That concern has shown up in Democrat surveys for months, according to University of Delaware expert David Redlawsk.
“One question we were asking in surveys was, 'How nervous are you that the Democrats will fail to nominate the strongest candidate?' And somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 percent of our respondents said they were at least somewhat nervous about this,” he said.
While Super Tuesday looms as a national test for the Democratic field, some analysts now believe it is possible that Democrats might not be able to settle on a nominee before the party convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in July.
“It is possible we could see a long contest that is splintered, with various candidates winning various primaries and nobody coming into the convention with a commanding lead,” American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman told VOA. “Then we may see something we have not seen in over half a century — a brokered convention, where the delegates actually pick the candidate, and then anything can happen.”
For now, though, the Democratic field is focused on the contests later this month in Nevada and South Carolina, and a huge slate of states that will send voters to the polls on March 3.