On Tuesday, New Hampshire finished what Iowa started and recast the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination contest as a rivalry between the left-wing insurgent Bernie Sanders, who won the state’s primary on Tuesday, and the progressive novice Pete Buttigieg, who placed second.
Sanders, the senator from Vermont, has proved to be the most durable contender in a race otherwise defined by single-digit candidacies and short-lived surges. Meanwhile, former South Bend mayor Buttigieg has proved to be the presidential primary’s most disruptive figure. He’s co-opted Joe Biden’s mild and friendly pragmatism as the former vice president has otherwise struggled to prove his political stamina. Buttigieg has outperformed Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in Iowa and New Hampshire, thus endangering her campaign. Primarily, though, Buttigieg hopes to consolidate his party’s moderate factions, thus undermining Biden, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, in time to overcome left-wing leader Sanders, too: that’s the plan, at least. Biden may well dominate South Carolina’s primary on February 29, and Bloomberg might complicate Buttigieg’s sway among moderate voters on Super Tuesday on March 3. For now, though, Buttigieg rivals Sanders with extreme clarity in contrast: the technocrat versus the revolutionary, the young and savvy former mayor versus the old, quixotic senator.
But even Buttigieg’s impressive showings in Iowa and New Hampshire can’t mask his struggles to assemble a winning coalition at the national level. Currently, Buttigieg leads a limited faction: white, college-educated moderates. He falters among other core Democratic constituencies, black voters most notoriously. He’s struggled to account for the racial strife surrounding the conduct of the South Bend Police Department during his mayoral term. His black outreach has, occasionally, embarrassed his campaign. Iowa and New Hampshire are among the whitest states, and Buttigieg’s strong showing there owes, in large part, to his appeal among white voters. These are some of the same white, college-educated moderates who have favored Democrats in recent presidential elections and the constituents that President Donald Trump and the GOP have alienated most decisively. So Buttigieg promises to improve Democratic conversion in the suburbs. He also promises to appease the mythical Obama-Trump voters from 2016. Buttigieg’s support in the rural counties in Iowa’s conservative, western half accounts for his advantage in the delegate count, despite Sanders winning the popular vote.
Buttigieg now heads into Nevada, South Carolina, and the Super Tuesday contests, which include primaries in Texas, California, North Carolina, and Virginia, all much more diverse states than Iowa and New Hampshire and where Buttigieg peaks at low double-digit support. There’s no diminishing his achievement in winning the Iowa caucuses as a novice who outhustled three senators and a former vice president. A year ago, Buttigieg was an obscure mayor from Indiana whose rumored presidential campaign suggested a novelty bid for greater name recognition and, ideally, an appointment to some higher office beyond his conservative state. Buttigieg’s counterpart, Beto O’Rourke, peaked too fast, spoke too nervously in the debates, and stumped too erratically to comfort voters desperate to defeat Trump. In contrast, Buttigieg emerged as the steady, meritorious figure—the Perfect Millennial in the eyes of so many boomers in a contest where the youth vote otherwise belongs, ironically, to the 78-year-old Sanders. As a youthful moderate, Buttigieg conjures the post-partisan magic that reinvigorated the Democratic Party after eight years under George W. Bush. Electorally, though, Buttigieg has yet to chart a definitive course to the nomination against the party’s prevailing left-wing sentiment. Buttigieg doesn’t seem to be “running for vice president” so much as he’s running against all odds.
The New Hampshire primary concludes the long, formative phase for these presidential campaigns, and Sanders and Buttigieg have emerged as front-runners. Each of them can claim some crucial distinction, in a rebellious decade, as insurgents: The socialist senator and the small-town mayor have thwarted the former vice president, and they’ve humiliated the party’s senior-most leaders and strategists in the process. Sanders always intended as much; Buttigieg never seemed so dangerous. Biden has never seemed so irrelevant. Finally, Iowa and New Hampshire have voted, and yet the longer contest has never seemed so uncertain.