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How Strong a Front-runner Is Bernie Sanders?

The odds-on favorite. Photo: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The results in New Hampshire Tuesday night created some clarity in the Democratic race, but also plenty of uncertainty, as the contest moves to Nevada and South Carolina with a sizable group of contenders still in the running. I put some questions to national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about what promises to be a long Democratic fight ahead.

As pretty much everyone expected, Bernie Sanders won New Hampshire, which undoubtedly crowns him the Democratic front-runner. But with a sliver of votes yet to be reported, it looks like his margin of victory over Pete Buttigieg will be less than two points. What does that say, if anything, about his ability to command a majority of delegates when all is said and done? 
Very few people watching this race closely think anyone is going to get a majority of delegates anytime soon — it’s a plurality game for now. I’d hesitate to extrapolate too much from just New Hampshire and Iowa about long-term delegate math, but it’s obviously true that while Sanders is likely in the best position, there’s still a huge portion of votes — and delegates — going to moderate candidates. If those consolidate behind one candidate at some point in the next month or so, that could make life very difficult for Sanders. Then again, there’s no obvious prospect of that happening. Nevada and South Carolina, then, are pretty big proof points for him: He hasn’t yet shown that he can expand his electorate coalition from 2016, but in these states, he could. And if he can, there’s your sign that he could build a bit of a lead out of Super Tuesday.

Elizabeth Warren had a dismal showing in her neighboring state, garnering less than 10 percent of the vote and zero delegates. She vowed to fight on as a Democratic unity candidate, but it’s pretty hard to imagine a path to victory at this point. Rhetoric aside, will she really keep going to Super Tuesday and beyond? 
Almost certainly, because she has one of the biggest operations in these states, and as her team outlined in an extraordinary (because it was out of character for them) memo yesterday, they still think she’s better positioned to gain delegates over the next two months than almost anyone else — certainly than Buttigieg or Klobuchar, who haven’t yet shown any ability to win over diverse electorates. That said, it takes a lot of money to run such a big campaign, and Warren likely needs a fundraising boost soon. If she doesn’t do well in Nevada, where she’s been fairly strong, it’s hard to see when that happens.

It turns out #klomentum was real, at least to an extent — Amy Klobuchar came in a strong third place last night. But she has a shoestring national operation, not that much money, and seemingly no support from black voters, at least not yet. In this wacky primary, is it possible she could put all of that together quickly enough to seriously contend? (Do you concur with this Matthew Yglesias point that organization might be overrated anyway?) 
I mean, she’s finished fifth and third so far, so let’s not get carried away. Matt’s clearly right that she’s gained a lot, but Bernie and Pete both had pretty big and impressive organizations in the first two states, and beat her. Klobuchar has already gone up with ads in Nevada in the last day, aiming to translate this moment to the next state, but it’s very hard to introduce oneself to voters and win them over in such a short period of time. She’d barely spent much time at all in Nevada and South Carolina, compared to the first two, and their electorates are demographically unlike anything she’s seen before. So it’s possible, of course, but it’ll be very hard.

Do you agree with our esteemed colleagues Ed Kilgore and Eric Levitz that last night’s results, with the moderates splitting so many votes, were a boon to Michael Bloomberg’s candidacy, and that they might hasten a Bernie versus Bloomberg final showdown?  
In the sense that there’s going to be an increased yearning among Establishment and moderate Democrats for a consensus candidate who hasn’t been bloodied by the early primaries, yes, clearly. But how many delegates did Bloomberg win last night? Zero, obviously, because he hasn’t been competing in these early states. One of the reasons the idea of Bloomberg’s candidacy remains so interesting is that we just have no idea what will happen with it: It might fall flat or soar when tested — he hasn’t even been on a debate stage. Still, sure, a Bernie versus Bloomberg final showdown does seem increasingly possible, if only because Sanders appears strong and Bloomberg appears to have no intention of letting him win without a fight. (We think.) And he’s not running out of campaign cash anytime soon.

Joe Biden left New Hampshire before the votes even came in, previewing a bad finish that turned out to be even worse than most expected. There are signs that his support among black voters, long the bedrock of his candidacy, is slipping. Do you see any viable path forward here?
Of course. It’s to do well in Nevada — where he’s led lots of polls — and South Carolina — where he’s led all of them. The hard part isn’t just that his numbers with black voters are slipping, though; it’s that he might not even have enough money to carry on effectively in those states unless he gets some sort of boost soon. And there’s a lot of time before those votes — a lot of time for voters to think of him as yesterday’s news. He has a big operation that’s reliant on big donors, and big donors usually have no interest in funding candidates who’ve started losing by surprising margins. I wouldn’t declare Biden’s candidacy dead yet, but it’s clearly in pretty dire condition.

The next state to vote is Nevada, which is notoriously hard to poll. Adding to the sense of uncertainty there, the hugely influential Culinary Workers Union made it clear Tuesday night that it was no fan of Bernie Sanders. Who do you think has the advantage going in, and who might surge there after New Hampshire?  
This might be the hardest question of all. For months, Biden looked well-positioned in Nevada, and especially in recent weeks, Sanders appeared to have a great shot at it, too, given his strength among Latino voters. Warren has also had a strong operation in the state and is well-liked by some of its power brokers. But absent any reliable polls there in a while, it’s a complete black hole. And that means everyone sees a chance — or an imperative — to compete there. Look at Buttigieg and Klobuchar increasing their presences and spending there: They’re doing that either because they see a chance to prove they can compete among nonwhite voters, because they see a surprise path to victory, or because they’re concerned a big loss there would confirm the fears about their long-term viability with the diverse electorate.

Without the last-minute Klobuchar surge, Pete Buttigieg probably would have prevailed over Sanders. How much would that have really changed the race versus his close second-place finish?
In that scenario Buttigieg would certainly be considered the front-runner, but he’d still be running up against fairly stiff headwinds in the next two states, and the delegate picture would still likely be pretty murky. But if Klobuchar hadn’t had her moment, Warren likely would have done much better, too, which would change this dynamic as well, maybe keeping her in the national conversation a bit more.

How Strong a Front-runner Is Bernie Sanders?