vision 2020

The Democratic Race Isn’t Ending Any Time Soon

We're in for a long primary.
We’re in for a long primary. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Somewhere between the Iowa caucus autopsies and the acknowledgement all across New Hampshire that Bernie Sanders could run away with Tuesday’s primary, between the weekend town halls flooded by Dunkin’ coffee-toting Massachusetts voters and the MAGA hats buzzing through downtown Manchester on Monday to see Donald Trump, between Pete Buttigieg’s post-Iowa sprint through the Granite State and his subsequent, painful incoming fire from Joe Biden in ads, Amy Klobuchar at the debate, and Sanders’ fans at Saturday night’s state party fundraising dinner, somewhere between Klobuchar’s $3 million post-debate windfall and her attendant rise in the polls, and between Biden’s fade from the top tier here and his own uncomfortable prediction of a poor showing in New Hampshire, a consensus has settled over New Hampshire in the final hours before it votes: It sure looks like Democrats’ nominating contest could last a while.

That’s the fear that’s recently moved from the back of the minds of Democratic political pros across the party to the forefront of their worries: A long, drawn out primary that grows increasingly divisive for months, maybe even leading to a contentious convention in Milwaukee this summer.

The nervous chatter has become inescapable in the lobby of the DoubleTree hotel in downtown Manchester — the campaign industrial complex’s unofficial temporary headquarters — in the closing days as Sanders appears to have seized the pole position and centrists vow not to let him skate to the nomination even if he remains strong into Super Tuesday. The field of serious contenders seems neither primed to shrink nor produce a clear, single challenger to Sanders. After all, Elizabeth Warren insists she’s in the race for the long haul, the party’s moderate wing remains jammed with at least three candidates near double digits — two of which, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, have shown little ability to win nonwhite voters, and a third, Biden, who is hobbling post-Iowa — and Michael Bloomberg and his bottomless wallet loom. And the party’s proportional delegate-allocation rules mean it’s unlikely any one candidate can build up much of a clear lead at all if so many of them remain in contention.

The candidates themselves long ago transitioned into the closing-argument phase of their stump speeches in New Hampshire, many still hoping to make a surprise jump to second or third place behind Sanders, or maybe even win, in the final hours. For some, that means pivoting to the road leading out of the Granite State to convince voters they have what it takes to stick out this long brawl. Like Biden, Warren often reminds crowds and reporters that she intends to fight on past New Hampshire. Left unsaid is the long-standing expectation, now up in the air, that they would both would compete to win here, not just fight for third. Still, their campaigns may benefit from the fact that early voting is ongoing in some big, delegate-packed states, including California. Sanders, meanwhile, has been dropping mentions of South Carolina into his speeches after months of focusing more on Nevada and California, revealing new confidence about his ability to compete there in recent days.

But the most credible signals that these campaigns are digging in for the long haul have been sent by their actions, not their speeches. Sanders, for one, recently began spending heavily on ads in March-voting states like California and Texas, which he hopes can build his expected delegate lead. Warren’s team announced on Monday she’d be heading to Virginia later this week, and Sanders’s said he’d be off to North Carolina. Both are Super Tuesday states.

Bloomberg doubled his own historic ad spending after Iowa, seeing an even clearer opportunity to play for delegates in March, especially on Super Tuesday. Biden aides have begun insisting they’ve always seen a long primary fight ahead of them, but they’ve also been putting even more emphasis on South Carolina, and far less on New Hampshire: On Monday the campaign announced Louisiana Representative Cedric Richmond, a campaign chairman, would be appearing for Biden in South Carolina on Tuesday, just after polls close in New Hampshire. And for many campaign insiders, no move was a clearer signal than Biden’s late January hire of Dave Huynh (a.k.a. “Delegate Dave”), one of the party’s top delegate counting experts, who’d previously been working for Kamala Harris.

Does it all mean there won’t be any clarity in the race until the late spring or summer? “We’re really going to know the answer to this question right after Super Tuesday. If we come out of Super Tuesday and nobody has established a significant enough lead, then we’re definitely going to be waiting a very long time,” predicted Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager. “If someone establishes a lead coming out of Super Tuesday, as every nominee has for the past few decades, then it becomes a political question: if others will concede and get out.”

A few minutes after we spoke, Mook tried offering a corrective to his party’s bubbling freakout on Twitter, pointing out that just because a candidate doesn’t reach the technical nomination threshold, that doesn’t mean the convention will be “contested” or “brokered.” “Reminder: Obama ’08 and Clinton ’16 technically didn’t have enough pledged delegates to win the nomination outright going into their conventions. Both won the nomination by a vote of [acclamation], i.e. the entire convention had an up/down voice vote,” he wrote. “Given the new DNC rules, there will have to be a first vote whereby pledged delegates must support their pledged candidates, but the delegates could vote to change the rules to have a vote of [acclamation] this time, too, which is the best scenario if we know who the nominee is. So, going into the convention without a winning number of delegates doesn’t necessarily mean it’s 1952 all over again,” he continued, referring to the convention that nominated Adlai Stevenson, and presaged a landslide defeat to Dwight Eisenhower. “It just means whoever has the plurality of delegates has a lot of political work to do, as Obama and Clinton did.”

Still, the lingering concern is that there will simply be less time and space to do that work, and that said task will prove more of a political lift now, simply because there will be more candidates in the race, for longer than any time in recent memory. As long as multiple contenders see a path to victory — and continue hitting the delegate threshold in the earliest states to vote, therefore energizing their supporters to keep funding them — they are unlikely to step aside.

“Usually what forces people out of a race is not a lack of delegates, it’s a lack of dollars,” explained Lily Adams, a senior aide to Harris in the 2020 election cycle and Clinton in 2016. “And we may be in a situation where there may be five campaigns that actually don’t lack either. So until there is a clear front-runner who will create a clear forcing mechanism or pressure to drop out, or until the low-dollar supporters that have continued to fuel five campaigns or so up to this point [stop], there’s no pressure to winnow the field — especially when the first two contests have been kind of a muddled mess. Because what we all expect to come out of New Hampshire is a pretty healthy split of delegates.” Multiple candidates are almost sure to win delegates on Tuesday, after all, even if Sanders wins the vote by a wide margin.

As some polls show Biden’s wide lead in South Carolina narrowing, and with no one candidate establishing an obviously dominant position in any of the large Super Tuesday states, it’s not hard to see how the delegate picture could remain murky into the spring. “Because delegates are awarded proportionally, it could mean that on Super Tuesday everybody gets a little bit of something, and again is able to claim that because there’s no one or two front-runners, they have a reason to go forward, so they can see what happens,” Adams added.

For months, party leaders have urged the campaigns to try planning for contingencies beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, predicting a long road ahead. But for months those warnings were mostly unheeded, pushed aside by short-term necessity.

Some candidates, like Biden, Warren, and Sanders, did build up infrastructures in March-voting states and beyond, but few long-term strategies accounted for such a shapeless scrap for delegates, with so many candidates potentially still in the race. And that’s forced some of the campaigns to try thinking about how to survive without much money, and with a much wider map ahead of them.

“The question has always been: Is Ohio’s primary going to matter? And I always thought it would. After Iowa, it’s now clear it will,” said Buckeye state Democratic Party chairman David Pepper, echoing a thought shared by his counterparts in the other states whose primaries come after Super Tuesday. Ohio’s is in mid-March.

“There was always a chance at the beginning that someone would run away with it,” he said. “I guess that’s still possible. But it’s harder to imagine.”

The Democratic Race Isn’t Ending Any Time Soon