Democrats May Face a Long, Bitter Battle

Now that three tiny states have voted, the talking and tweeting heads have jumped to the conclusion that Bernie Sanders is on the way to the Democratic nomination.

Hold your tongues and thumbs. Democrats instead may be in for a bitter, divisive battle that lasts months.

The media and political commentariat wants to keep winnowing the field. But it’s still a fluid race, and there’s every reason for every candidate to stay in and see what happens.

We’ve heard only from Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, which combined have just over 2 percent of the population – 7.5 million people out of 327 million. Only Sanders’ neighboring New Hampshire had an election; the other two had caucuses.

Sanders did well. But in Iowa and New Hampshire, the moderates (Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden) won more votes combined than the liberals (Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).

Let’s call them Mods and Libs. In Iowa, Mods got 54 percent and Libs, 34. In New Hampshire, Mods got 53 and Libs, 34. In the Nevada caucuses, the Libs got 56 and the Mods, 43.

But there’s no guarantee that Warren voters would go to Sanders. There’s some bitterness there, remember.

The battlefield changes now. This Saturday, South Carolina votes. Next Tuesday, North Carolina and 13 other states get their say. Two additional, big-spending moderate candidates, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, will be on the ballots.

Centrist Democrats worry that the moderate vote will split and Sanders, like Trump in 2016, will win the nomination thanks to a passionate minority of supporters. But Sanders isn’t as strong now as Trump was. In mid-February 2016, Trump had the support of 39 percent of Republicans. The latest New York Times polling average has Sanders at 28 percent of Democrats nationally.

This could come down to a contest between Bernie and ABB (Anybody But Bernie).

Sanders has said it would be “very divisive” if a candidate gets a clear plurality but not a majority of delegates and then doesn’t get the nomination. Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman, a North Carolina native, replied, “(It’s) even more divisive if a candidate wins the nomination with a majority opposing the nomination.”

The race has turned nasty. Bloomberg got bludgeoned in his debate debut. Sanders, as the front-runner, may be the next firing-squad target. Bloomberg might put his billions of dollars to work bludgeoning Sanders.

Those scars could last a long time.

This isn’t just an ideological fight. It’s strategic: Which is the best path against President Trump?

Sanders’ path is turnout-based. He argues he’ll beat Trump by bringing out a flood of new and young voters.

But turnout in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada wasn’t significantly higher than in past elections, especially as a percentage of eligible voters. If new voters don’t come out now, will they in November? And other Democrats worry that Sanders will scare off more voters than he brings in.

The moderates’ path is persuasion-based, appealing to swing voters ready to move on from Trump. If a Democrat wins all the states Hillary Clinton won plus Pennsylvania, which she narrowly lost, that’s 247 of the 270 electoral votes needed. Then the Democrats could go after, say, Florida (29 electoral votes), Michigan (16), North Carolina (15), Arizona (11) and Wisconsin (10).

But that’s no sure path against a revved-up incumbent who just beat impeachment, has his party in lockstep behind him and is sitting on a big pile of campaign cash.

By the time they pick a path – and a candidate – Democrats may be bitter, bloodied and deeply divided.

Correction: Last week’s blog, “David Zucchino Exposes Wilmington’s Lie,” said incorrectly that Zucchino won a Pulitzer while at The Los Angeles Times. He was at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Thanks to Bruce Siceloff for catching the error; Bruce wrote the N&O story when Zucchino was awarded the Pulitzer.

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