Muddled results in the first two contests of the 2020 primary race have quashed hopes for a quick consolidation around a challenger to take on President Donald Trump — and Democrats are now strapping in for a drawn-out delegate hunt that could end in the first contested convention in decades.
Instead of clarifying the race, Iowa and New Hampshire left an unprecedented seven candidates with a credible reason to stay in and succeeded in winnowing only minor players such as former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
The field is now fractured among several medium-strength candidates, each strong enough to keep going for at least a while, but none likely able enough to dominate.
"I think the first opening drive of this game is over," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who supports Joe Biden, told reporters on a call organized by the former vice president's campaign. "There's a lot of game left."
All of the candidates have pledged to continue through at least Super Tuesday, when almost 40 percent of delegates are up for grabs. That puts the oversize field on a collision course with a front-loaded calendar that could make it difficult for any one candidate to secure the majority of delegates needed to win the nomination before the Democratic National Convention in July.
"What it really comes down to is the number of candidates splintering the vote," said Addisu Demissie, who managed the presidential campaign of Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. "If this number of candidates sticks around and through Super Tuesday and March 10, it just becomes almost a mathematical certainty that no one can claim a majority of delegates by July. It's just math."
Mark Longabaugh, a longtime Democratic strategist who helped run the 2016 campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg's team could not have asked for a better result from Iowa and New Hampshire than a messy field with Sanders as a weak front-runner.
"This played out in exactly the way in which Bloomberg would have wanted it," Longabaugh said. "In a realistic way, this may already have become a Bernie-Bloomberg race."
Guy Cecil, who runs the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, said: "We have expected and been planning for a long, contentious primary since last year. The Democratic Party's system of awarding delegates in a big competitive primary only increases those chances."
March actually features three big Tuesdays in a row, so that by the end of St. Patrick’s Day, nearly two-thirds of all delegates will have already been awarded.
"This thing is about to pile on us so quickly. So the field just has to narrow or the math is against any candidate to win on the first ballot," Demissie said. "The most likely scenario is you have a bunch of people dropping out on March 4, but that may already be too late."
As Democrats survey their field, they see seven candidates, each with an Achilles' heel that makes it difficult to see who could consolidate support anytime soon.
Sanders is the front-runner now, according to national polls, but his vote share in New Hampshire was the lowest of any winning candidate in history, and he has so far shown little progress in expanding support beyond his core base.
"He's not going to win over many more voters by convincing them he's the most progressive candidate," said David Segal, a progressive activist and a former Rhode Island state legislator. "He has to appeal to their other considerations, like who's electable, whom they trust."
A swath of the party is still dead-set against Sanders, with Rep. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, who won a much-lauded victory in the 2018 midterm elections, torching Sanders ahead of his state's primary by telling The Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston: "South Carolinians don't want socialism."
Pete Buttigieg has a narrow delegate lead now, but the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor has yet to show he can win people of color. Some Democrats say privately that they are increasingly worried about whether they're really going to hand the party to the 38-year-old whose only real experience is running a city smaller than Peoria, Illinois.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota came from seemingly nowhere to finish third in New Hampshire, but she has faced little scrutiny so far, and no one in the party's history has won the nomination after finishing fifth in Iowa and third in New Hampshire, leading some rival campaigns to dismiss her strength as a fluke.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Biden have both been front-runners in the past who have faded quickly, but they are sticking around because they feel anything can happen, as Klobuchar's finish showed.
Billionaire Tom Steyer, who has shown surprising strength in Nevada and South Carolina polls, can stay in as long as he wants to keep spending his money.
Then there's Bloomberg, who could become the moderates' choice as he prepares to demonstrate the firepower of his fully armed and operational battle station on Super Tuesday — but he won't be tested before actual voters until then.
But by skipping the early states, Bloomberg won't have a chance to seize the kind of momentum winning provides until after Super Tuesday at the earliest, when many delegates are off the table.
It's been decades since either party went into its nominating convention without a clear winner from the primaries and caucuses.
But after gaming out new changes to party rules, 2020 campaigns have been preparing for the scenario for months by courting so-called super delegates, who will get to weigh in only if no candidate earns a majority of delegates from voters.
And Sanders fired a warning shot Wednesday at anyone who thinks the party should do anything but hand the nomination to whoever wins the most delegates from primaries and caucuses, even if they don't hit an outright majority.
"The convention would have to explain to the American people, 'Hey, candidate X got the most votes and won the most delegates at the primary process, but we're not going to give him or her the nomination,'" Sanders told MSNBC's Chris Hayes. "I think that would be a divisive moment for the Democratic Party."
While anxiety has grown among many Democratic leaders in the wake of Iowa and New Hampshire, a long primary is not necessarily bad news for Democrats' hopes of beating Trump.
Republicans had one of the nastiest primaries in history in 2016, and Trump still went on to win the White House, and Democrats had one of the longest in 2008, but Barack Obama still won.
"I'm not one that throws a pity party in the middle of February," said Donna Brazile, the longtime Democratic strategist and a former interim party chair. "We may not have all of the answers by the end of March, but we'll at least know what direction we're going in."