The 2020 Democratic presidential contest is about to turn into a math race

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Pete Buttigieg's shadow is cast on an American flag at a campaign event in Plymouth, N.H., on Feb. 10, 2020.
Pete Buttigieg's shadow is cast on an American flag at a campaign event in Plymouth, N.H., on Feb. 10, 2020.Matt Rourke / AP

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Ben Kamisar

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Andrew Yang has suspended his campaign, but his slogan lives on – and it could very well be the most important story in the race for the Democratic nomination over the next five months.

Math.

After Bernie Sanders’ narrow victory last night in New Hampshire, Pete Buttigieg’s close second, Amy Klobuchar’s surprising third, Elizabeth Warren’s disappointing fourth and Joe Biden disastrous finish in fifth, we now have a delegate race on our hands.

Two contests down, and here’s the pledged delegate scoreboard: Buttigieg 23, Sanders 21, Warren 8, Klobuchar 7, and Biden 6. No other candidate has received a single delegate.

Remember, Democratic delegates are awarded proportionately, so to rack up big delegate hauls over the competition, you have to win big. (It’s why Sanders’ 1.5-point victory over Buttigieg netted the two men the same number of delegates from New Hampshire – 9. And it’s why Super Tuesday looms big.)

Also remember, you need to hit at least 15 percent – either statewide or in congressional districts – to qualify for delegates. (Which is why both Warren and Biden came out of New Hampshire with zilch.)

Oh, and don’t forget the magic numbers.

The first is 1,991. That’s the majority of total pledged delegates it will take to win the Democratic nomination on the first ballot at the Milwaukee convention.

The second (for now) is 2,376. That’s when the party’s 771 superdelegates get added to the mix for the second ballot and beyond, and that becomes your majority for all total delegates.

So get out your calculators and spreadsheets. And welcome to yet another Democratic delegate math race.

One final thing here: We don’t quite understand the rush to declare someone as the overall front-runner for the Dem nomination.

Two contests down, there is no front-runner. Bernie Sanders certainly seems like he has the best chance to secure a quarter or a third of the pledged delegates.

But he doesn’t have a path yet to secure a majority of the delegates. (See below for more on this.)

And if you can’t crack 30 percent in New Hampshire, are you really the frontrunner?

Yes, Bernie Sanders won New Hampshire, but it’s still Barack Obama’s party

That’s our takeaway from last night’s result in the Granite State, as well as our deep dive into the exit poll.

Sanders’ winning percentage of 25.9 percent was well below his 61.0 percent from 2016. Granted, four years ago was a two-person race, and this is a multi-candidate field. But when you add Pete Buttigieg’s 24.4 percent with Amy Klobuchar’s 19.8 percent, you see that the Democrats’ middle/pragmatic/moderate lane was bigger in New Hampshire.

What’s more, like in Iowa, Sanders’ coalition was mostly young voters (he won 42 percent among those under 45) and very liberal Democrats (taking 48 percent among those calling themselves “very liberal”), as well as getting a plurality of the state’s sliver of non-white voters.

But he had very little crossover appeal beyond those demographic groups. He way underperformed among Dems older than 45 (getting 17 percent), moderates (16 percent), and Dems with family incomes above $100,000 (17 percent).

And again, this is in the mostly white state of New Hampshire that borders Vermont – which he easily won in 2016.

There’s no doubt that Sanders’ path to winning the Democratic nomination in 2020 is the same as Donald Trump’s GOP victory in 2016 — capturing pluralities and hoping that the winning percentage increases as the field gets smaller and smaller.

But it’s noteworthy that Sanders’ 26 percent last night was lower than the 36 percent Trump won in the Granite State in 2016 in an equally large field.

And Trump had broad crossover appeal among young, old, conservative and moderate Republicans.

Sanders didn’t accomplish that last night.

Data Download: The number of the day is … 41 percent

That’s the share of the New Hampshire Democratic primary voters who want the next president to return to President Barack Obama’s policies, according to the exit poll.

It’s also the exact portion of that electorate who want the next president to move toward more liberal policies.

And an additional 11 percent of Dem primary voters want to see more conservative policies from the next president.

For those who want a return to the Obama-era policies, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar reigned supreme, with Joe Biden in a distant third place (Klobuchar also won a plurality of those who want to see more conservative policies).

And Bernie Sanders was the top choice for those who want the country to move in a more liberal direction.

It’s that dynamic that tells the story of the race so far — among those who want to push the envelope further to the left, Sanders is the clear choice. But while there appears to be similar interest in the party for a candidate who returns the party to the era of Obama, those voters are still having trouble finding their flag-bearer.

Tweet of the day

2020 Vision: What happened to “Middle Class” Joe?

Before his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire last night, Joe Biden left the state to appear in South Carolina, where he seems to be making a final stand.

"You can't be the Democratic nominee and you can't win a general election as a Democrat unless you have overwhelming support from black and brown voters,” he said from the Palmetto State last night.

That’s most likely true, but here’s our question: What happened to “Middle Class” Joe – the guy who not only could do well with African-American Democrats, but also win back cities and communities like Scranton, Pa.

And guess what city looks a whole lot like Scranton — Manchester, N.H.

On the campaign trail today

There’s not a lot of activity the day after New Hampshire: Amy Klobuchar raises money in New York City… Michael Bloomberg stumps in Tennessee… And Deval Patrick makes an announcement at 10:00 a.m. ET from New Hampshire.

Dispatches from NBC’s campaign embeds

Bernie Sanders last night switched up his normal stump speech, which usually includes calls for radical change and a step away from the establishment, to include a message of unity as he came away with a win in N.H., NBC's Gary Grumbach reports: "Sanders spoke for about nine minutes, thanking his supporters and expressing his 'appreciation and respect' for his fellow Democratic competitors. “Tonight I want to take the opportunity to express my appreciation and respect for all of the Democratic candidates we ran against -- Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden,' Sanders said. 'And what I can tell you, with absolute certainty, and I know I speak for every one of the Democratic candidates, is that no matter who wins -- and we certainly hope it's going to be us -- we're going to unite together.'"

Pete Buttigieg, who also congratulated Sanders in his election night speech, decided to also take the mantle as an alternative to Sanders, NBC's Priscilla Thompson reports: "Buttigieg took direct aim at Sen. Bernie Sanders, though not by name, suggesting that his style of politics is the 'road to reelecting Donald Trump,' and continuing to push messaging that it leaves far too many people out. 'Vulnerable Americans do not have the luxury of pursuing ideological purity over an inclusive victory,' Buttigieg said."

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

All four of the Justice Department’s prosecutors in the Roger Stone case resigned on Tuesday after the Justice Department said it would reduce its sentence recommendation shortly after President Trump condemned that recommendation.

President Trump told reporters that the military should “handle” Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key impeachment witness, “any way they want.”

Michael Bloomberg is battling criticism from President Trump as well as Democrats after old comments surfaced of him defending the controversial “stop and frisk” policing policy.

Trump Agenda: Bill, Barr the door

The news in the Roger Stone case comes as NBC reports that Attorney General Bill Barr is taking a larger role in legal matters in which President Trump is interested.

The New York Times reports that the president has “conditionally approved” a deal with the Taliban that could set the stage for American withdrawal if the Taliban reduces violence in the country.

Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service is warning that Russia will interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

2020: Goodbye to Andrew Yang and Michael Bennet

Andrew Yang and Michael Bennet have dropped out of the Democratic presidential race.

Joe Biden is looking to South Carolina to reset his campaign.

More details are coming out about the Nevada Democrats’ plans for their caucus after the debacle in Iowa.

And the top union in Nevada, the Culinary Union, is warning members that Bernie Sanders would end their coveted union health care plan if elected.