After New Hampshire, minority voters could reshape Democratic race

Why We Wrote This

After Iowa and New Hampshire, candidates are still battling to break out. That may not be easy, as they head to states where they have to appeal to a more racially diverse group of voters.

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Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden listen to him speak in Columbia, South Carolina, on Feb. 11, 2020, the night of the New Hampshire primary. The former Vice President has polled strongly with black voters, who will represent a higher share of the electorate as the Democratic campaign moves on from Iowa and New Hampshire.

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It may have gone more smoothly than Iowa. But Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary did little to resolve the Democratic presidential nomination contest. 

As expected, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont won New Hampshire, but many voters view him as too far left to win a general election. In fact, the combined vote tallies of Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota would have beaten Senator Sanders by double digits in New Hampshire.  

As the struggling campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden is urgently emphasizing, 99.9% of African American Democratic primary voters and 99.8% of Latino Democratic primary voters have not yet weighed in. As the contest moves to Nevada and South Carolina, the very different electorates there could change the shape of the race. And former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is also polling well with African Americans, will be a player in primary contests starting in early March. 

“I don’t think African American voters in South Carolina or Super Tuesday [states] give two flying kites what the early contests’ outcomes are,” says Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. 

It may have gone more smoothly than Iowa. But Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary did little to resolve the Democratic presidential nomination contest – and indeed, may have increased the likelihood of a long, protracted battle that could go all the way to the convention.

Winner Bernie Sanders and runner-up Pete Buttigieg – who narrowly leads the overall delegate count coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire – can both plausibly claim some form of “front-runner” status, though neither looks particularly formidable. Amy Klobuchar, who until recently was languishing in the single digits, is hoping to capitalize on an unexpectedly strong third-place finish. With Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden placing a distant fourth and fifth, and amassing no delegates in New Hampshire, a feeling of doom surrounds their campaigns. 

But as the Biden campaign is urgently emphasizing, 99.9% of African American Democratic primary voters and 99.8% of Latino Democratic primary voters have not yet weighed in. As the contest moves to Nevada and South Carolina, the very different electorates there could change the shape of the race substantially yet again – potentially giving new life to candidates like former Vice President Biden and Senator Warren, who have built diverse coalitions of support.

“I don’t think African American voters in South Carolina or Super Tuesday [states] give two flying kites what the early contests’ outcomes are,” says Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. “Candidates that are coming into South Carolina and Super Tuesday who do not have relationships or have not gained the trust of the political concrete of this party – black voters – they’re going to be drinking hot soda out of a cup. It’s not going to taste good.”

Indeed, Nevada and South Carolina could muddle the Democratic field even further, at a time when party elites are increasingly worried about the prospects of beating President Donald Trump in November. Some see a strong possibility of a contested Democratic convention in July, which could force the party to choose between a fired-up progressive wing and a larger pragmatic wing that retains deep-seated skepticism about the prospect of a ticket headed by Senator Sanders, a democratic socialist.

“If Sanders goes to the convention with a plurality of delegates but not a majority, would they deny him the nomination?” asks Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. “It would be a high-risk maneuver that would take some steel on the spines of party elites and superdelegates – we’ll see if they’re so super.”

The beneficiary of all this may well be former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire whose unorthodox strategy of skipping the early states appears increasingly viable, and who is polling well among black voters nationally.

Sanders wins the primary, but ...

In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a cold misty rain was falling as voters headed to the polls on Tuesday. Outside the New Franklin School in Ward 1, a young volunteer holding a big “Pete” sign and an older woman displaying “Amy Klobuchar for All of America” stood on opposite sides of the sidewalk, joking with each other and engaging in small talk. As a woman emerged from the polling site, she looked at both of them and pushed her hands together – as if to mime, “You should be on the same ticket.”

Doug Strickland/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, left, stands with Chattanooga NAACP Chapter president Elenora Woods during a campaign event at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Feb. 12, 2020. One recent poll shows Mr. Bloomberg drawing 22% support among African American voters nationally.

Indeed, the combined vote tallies of Mr. Buttigieg, the wünderkind former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Senator Klobuchar of Minnesota, ranked the most effective Democratic senator in Congress, would have beaten Senator Sanders by double digits in New Hampshire. Yet the first two primary states haven’t revealed much about what the Democratic electorate wants, says Theodore R. Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, and an expert on the role of race in electoral politics.

“We’ve only learned about what more progressive white primary voters in two states want,” he says. Still, a YouGov poll from late January found that black voters were nearly twice as likely as white voters to base their vote on candidates’ performance in the Iowa caucuses.

“If you’re a pragmatic voter, which I argue is the dominant tendency among black voters, then you are looking to see who wins primaries because they bring with them the air of electability,” says Dr. Johnson, who adds that black voters are getting “a little skittish” in their support for Mr. Biden.

But Mr. Seawright, who says that African American voters understand their political net worth and have always been independent-minded, says that South Carolina is still Mr. Biden’s to lose. He adds, “the second- and third-place contestants will have an opportunity to drive a specific narrative that could help them gain momentum as they prepare to face Michael Bloomberg and his resources on Super Tuesday.”

Mr. Buttigieg – a prolific fundraiser who has taken flak from other candidates for embracing wealthy donors – has gained momentum from his strong performances in the first two states.

But the true reach of his candidacy will be much clearer after Nevada and South Carolina. According to a Quinnipiac poll taken after the Iowa caucus, Mr. Buttigieg is polling at 4% with African Americans nationally. Senator Klobuchar is at 0%. Mr. Biden, by comparison, retained 27% support despite a disappointing showing in Iowa. Mr. Bloomberg registered at 22% and Sanders at 19% among black Americans. 

And Tom Steyer, though not registering with black voters nationally, has gained double-digit support among African Americans in South Carolina, where he has been investing heavily.

In Nevada, which holds its caucuses a week from Saturday and where about 20% of eligible voters are Latino, FiveThirtyEight’s average of the most highly rated polls had Senator Sanders leading at 24.2%, followed by Mr. Biden in second with almost 19%, then Senator Warren and Mr. Buttigieg with 12% and 9% respectively. But just as South Carolina polls shifted after Iowa, the first two contests are likely to affect the polling in Nevada, as well. 

To succeed in Nevada, the Buttigieg campaign says they are working to persuade the state’s Latino voters by translating campaign material into Spanish, opening a field office in the heavily Latino neighborhood of East Las Vegas, and launching radio ads with Mr. Buttigieg himself speaking in Spanish. 

All of the presidential candidates are now white, after Andrew Yang and Deval Patrick dropped out of the race last night, despite an initial field that was far more racially diverse.

Possibility of a contested convention

Boosting black turnout, which dipped in 2016, is seen as crucial to a Democratic victory in November. The Center for American Progress found that a return to 2012 levels, in addition to natural demographic trends, would enable the party to win the three states vital to Mr. Trump’s victory: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

But of course, race is only one factor in Democrats’ decision about which candidate will garner strong support. Ideally, they also want someone popular among progressives, urbanites, and working-class voters, as well as black Democrats – groups that sometimes overlap, and sometimes don’t. Finding one individual who can speak to those sometimes disparate interests may prove more difficult than Barack Obama made it appear.

The growing concern, therefore, is that by the time delegates descend on Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for the Democratic National Convention in July, no one candidate will have gained majority support. That could open the way for a brokered convention. 

If no candidate got a majority of votes on the first round, a second round of voting with input from superdelegates could well produce a different candidate – angering many, says Don Fowler, a former DNC chair from South Carolina who has been involved in Democratic politics for more than 50 years.

“And that,” he says, “would create a great, great crisis to the party.”

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