Moderate Democrats alarmed by Bernie Sanders but can't agree on alternative

Democratic US presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders is accompanied by his wife Jane O’Meara Sanders and other relatives as he speaks at his New Hampshire primary night rally, on Feb 11, 2020.
Democratic US presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders is accompanied by his wife Jane O’Meara Sanders and other relatives as he speaks at his New Hampshire primary night rally, on Feb 11, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE (NYTIMES) - The United States Democratic presidential primary is entering an intensely tumultuous phase.

Two early contests have left former vice-president Joe Biden reeling and elevated Senator Bernie Sanders but failed to make any candidate a dominant force in the battle for the party's nomination.

Within the Democratic establishment, the results have deepened a mood of anxiety and frustration: The collapse of Mr Biden's support in the first two states, and the fragmentation of moderate voters among several other candidates, allowed Mr Sanders, a Vermont progressive, to claim a thin victory in New Hampshire and an apparent split decision in Iowa with former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.

In both states, a majority of voters supported candidates closer to the political centre and named defeating US President Donald Trump as their top priority, but there was no overwhelming favourite among those voters as to which moderate was the best alternative to Mr Sanders.

Unless such a favourite soon emerges, party leaders may increasingly look to Mr Michael Bloomberg as a potential saviour.

In an unmistakable sign of Mr Bloomberg's growing strength and Mr Biden's decline, three black members of Congress endorsed the former mayor of New York City on Wednesday (Feb 12), including Representative Lucy McBath of Georgia, a high-profile lawmaker and gun-control champion in her first term.

A senior adviser to Mr Bloomberg also told campaign staff that internal polling showed the former mayor now tied with Mr Biden among African Americans in March primary states.

The turmoil in the party has the potential to extend the primary season, exacerbating internal divisions and putting off the headache of uniting for the general election for months.

The Democrats' proportional system of allocating delegates and the nature of the calendar this year could make it all but impossible to avert such an outcome.

With no winner-take-all contests, and no indication yet that Mr Sanders can broaden his appeal or that a moderate can coalesce support, the candidates are poised to keep splitting delegates three or four ways, as they did in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"We are obviously going to have a longer battle here," said Mr Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who directed an anti-Sanders ad campaign in Iowa.

The leading candidates are plainly worried about the party's divisions, and signalled as much in their speeches in New Hampshire on primary night: Mr Sanders, blamed by much of the party for his slashing approach to the 2016 primaries, stressed in his victory speech that the most important task was defeating Mr Trump, while Mr Buttigieg urged his supporters to "vote blue, no matter who" in November.

In a particularly urgent plea, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who slumped to a fourth-place finish Tuesday, warned that no candidate should be "willing to burn down the rest of the party in order to be the last man standing".

 
 
 

At the moment, no one is close to being the last candidate standing. But unless another Democrat rapidly consolidates support, Mr Sanders could continue to win primaries and caucuses without broadening his political appeal, purely on the strength of his rock-solid base on the left - a prospect that alarms Democratic Party leaders who view him and his slogan of democratic socialism as wildly risky bets in a general election.

There is no sign that any of the half-dozen major candidates left in the race are headed for the exits: Mr Buttigieg and Mr Biden will have to contend in the Nevada caucuses against Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who finished a strong third in New Hampshire, while on the left Mr Sanders still faces a dogged competitor in Ms Warren.

Unless one candidate comes out of Nevada and South Carolina with a powerful upper hand, it is quite likely that the same atomised delegate count could continue into Super Tuesday, when 15 states and territories, accounting for nearly 40 per cent of all delegates in the Democratic race, cast ballots on March 3.

Indeed, with early voting already taking place in California and other Super Tuesday states, and no dominant front runner, the fragmentation may already be well under way.

In Arkansas, a Super Tuesday state where early voting starts next week, a poll taken after Iowa illustrated the Democrats' dilemma: Mr Bloomberg, Mr Biden, Mr Sanders and Mr Buttigieg were each winning 16 per cent to 20 per cent of the vote.

All of those candidates are increasingly confronting Mr Bloomberg's presence as a rival in the March primaries. Mr Bloomberg skipped all four February contests but has climbed into double digits in national polls on the strength of an enormous and sustained advertising campaign, funded from his personal fortune.

On a conference call with campaign staff members on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Howard Wolfson, Mr Bloomberg's senior adviser, said that internal tracking data showed that the former mayor had pulled "very narrowly" into first place across the March primary states, inching ahead of Mr Sanders overall and tying Mr Biden among African American voters.

Though Mr Wolfson did not provide specific numbers, he said Mr Biden had "rather precipitously fallen" in the larger array of states voting next month, according to Mr Bloomberg polling.

But Mr Bloomberg is facing new tests as a candidate: For the first time, he may qualify for a televised debate, next week in Las Vegas, and he has come under newly direct criticism from other Democrats for his record on policing and much else.

Mr Biden and other candidates have indicated that they intend to challenge Mr Bloomberg on race in the coming days, and his resiliency, or lack thereof, on the subject could shape the primary campaign.

 
 

Yet even supporters of Mr Biden acknowledge that if one of the moderates does not take a clear lead with that faction of the party after Nevada, the eyes of many establishment-aligned Democrats will turn to Manhattan.

"The longer the waters are muddy, the better off Bloomberg is," said former governor Jim Hodges of South Carolina, who recently backed Mr Biden.

The campaign in Nevada is as disordered as anything else in the Democratic race, according to people closely watching the contest there.

But as in New Hampshire, Mr Biden long held a considerable advantage as the candidate perceived as the safe and electable choice, while Mr Sanders entered the race with a strong bloc carried over from his last run for the presidency. It remains to be seen whether Mr Biden will bleed support there as rapidly as he did in New Hampshire, or whether any other candidate will be able to take advantage of his fall.

In South Carolina, even moderate Democrats who are sympathetic to Mr Biden believe he is in grave danger of losing the state.

"He's wounded," Mr Tyler Jones, a Charleston-based Democratic strategist, said of the former vice-president. Like other political professionals in the state, Mr Jones is increasingly less concerned about Mr Biden's weakness than about billionaire Tom Steyer's strength - and what it means for the nominating process.

Mr Steyer has been pouring money into South Carolina, cutting into Mr Biden's lead with black voters and raising the spectre of Mr Sanders' winning another state with a plurality thanks to a divided electorate.

"A vote for Steyer is a vote for Bernie, which is a vote for Trump," said Mr Jones, who believes Mr Sanders cannot win the general election and wants to stop his campaign "dead in its tracks". But he acknowledged that urging voters to act strategically and reject Mr Steyer was easier in theory than in execution.