Bernie Sanders hits a ceiling in first primary contests

Skeptics will note that Sanders was likely hurt by the large field of candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire that gave the vote more places to go.

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By Dante Chinni

WASHINGTON - If 2020 was supposed to be the year Sen. Bernie Sanders built on his momentum from the last presidential race and captured the Democratic nomination for president, the surge that would make that possible is not appearing in the party’s early contests.

The data out of Iowa and New Hampshire show a candidate that, so far anyway, seems to be hitting a ceiling, locked into a particular segment of the vote, and campaigning in an electorate that look like it’s not especially well-designed for him.

The results from the first two nominating votes show a flat vote for the Vermont senator.

Sanders captured 26.5 percent of the vote in Iowa, compared to second-place finisher Peter Buttigieg’s 25.1 percent of the vote. In New Hampshire, the numbers looked remarkably similar. Sanders won 25.8 percent of the vote to the 24.5 percent won by Buttigieg. And remember Sanders is from neighboring Vermont, so he probably should have enjoyed a home-town edge.

Skeptics will note that Sanders was likely hurt by the large field of candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire that gave the vote more places to go – and there’s undoubtedly some truth to that. But four years ago, President Donald Trump also faced a large field in the New Hampshire Republican Primary and he captured 35 percent of the vote on the way to a 10-point win. It was a sign he was gaining momentum.

One thing hurting Sanders, the early Democratic contests seem to be showing the more centrist part of the Democratic party holds the larger share of voters in 2020 than many expected. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, the three Democratic centrist candidates (Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Vice President Joe Biden) got a larger share of the vote than Sanders and his fellow progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

In Iowa, those three centrist candidates garnered 51 percent of the vote, while the progressives captured 47 percent. In New Hampshire, the centrists did even better, winning 53 percent of the vote, while the progressives won 34 percent.

And the turnout and exit polls in New Hampshire in some ways undermine the Sanders campaign’s theory of the 2020 election.

The Sanders team has argued that their candidate can win in November by energizing new voters and bringing them out to the polls to fundamentally change the composition of the 2020 electorate. But the vote out of New Hampshire did not seem to support that argument.

Tuesday’s New Hampshire Primary set a record for votes cast, some 298,000 compared to 254,000 four years ago. But the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic Primary electorate had smaller percentages of the groups that tend to support Sanders, younger voters and self-described liberal voters.

This year, 14 percent of the New Hampshire voters fell into the 18- to 29-years-old age bracket, compared to 19 percent in 2016. And in 2020, 21 percent of New Hampshire voters said they were “very liberal”, compared to 2016 when 25 percent of the primary voters gave themselves that label.

Those kinds of numbers do not favor the Sanders campaign.

It’s still very early. In fact, considering the tight, non-decisive results in Iowa and New Hampshire, one could argue the Democratic nominating race has yet to really begin. And the playing field will change in the coming weeks when the Democratic electorates grow much more racially and ethnically diverse in Nevada and South Carolina.

But the early results do not show a groundswell of support for Sanders. If anything, they suggest we may be at just the beginning of a long, contested fight for the Democratic nomination. And the centrist/moderate part of the party may be holding the biggest cache of voters and delegates.