MANCHESTER, N.H. – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders edged former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday, a closer-than-expected finish that leaves the race for the Democratic presidential nomination still muddled.
Sanders topped Buttigieg by about a point when the Associated Press declared him the winner just before midnight. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar came in a surprising third, a finish that built on her well-received performance at Friday’s debate in New Hampshire.
That could keep the race for the Democratic nominee more unsettled than it often is after the first two contests.Five candidates have at least six national delegates, lead by Buttigieg and Sanders.
Sanders’ victory was not by the 22-point margin that jolted the race against eventual nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, when he played the role of upstart challenger.
But he didn’t stumble either, winning a neighboring state over a large field after leading in almost every poll over the past two months as his rival for the progressive wing of the party – Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren – slowly faded.
“At this point of the campaign, we are taking on billionaires and we are taking on candidates who are funded by billionaires, but we are going to win because we have the agenda that speaks to the working people of this country,” Sanders said to the crowd at his election night party shortly after 11 p.m.
Warren and former vice president Joe Biden ended up fourth and fifth, respectively, disappointing finishes for one-time leading candidates.
Inside Sanders’ election night party
Sanders, who won by assembling a coalition on the left anchored by young voters, appeared to win big in New Hampshire’s Connecticut River Valley that borders his home Vermont as well as the state’s largest cities including Manchester.
He arrived on stage at his election party, held in a basketball gym on the campus of Southern New Hampshire University, to chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie” from supporters with John Lennon’s “Power to the People” blasting.
“It’s on to Nevada. It’s on to South Carolina,” Sanders said, concluding his brief remarks. “It’s on to win the Democratic nomination, and together, I have no doubt that we will defeat Donald Trump.”
A few hours before, loud cheers erupted from Sanders supporters when CNN showed him in first place before final results were in early Tuesday night.
The crowd, many waving “Bernie” signs, counted down, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1!” as polls closed. They burst into cheers throughout the night as votes trickled in and Sanders’ lead maintained.
“I believe in the movement, I believe in the cause and I believe it’s time to take America back by the people and for the people,” said Scott Dakota, a 55-year-old musician and composer from Keene, New Hampshire, positioned directly in front of the stage where Sanders would be speaking.
“No recent Democrat nor Republican recent candidate has made sense to me until Bernie Sanders came along,” said Dakota, a campaign volunteer who opened his house as a canvassing station. “Bernie Sanders brought me back into politics.”
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John Thyng, 47, of Deering, N.H., wearing a purple SEIU Local 1984 sweatshirt, said he’s hopeful Sanders’ performance in New Hampshire will “set the stage for the rest of the country.”
“He’s great for workers, working people, and we need to make a change,” Thyng said. “We need a revolution and he’s the person who’s going to help us do it.”
Standing next to Thyng, Ruth Simcox, 69, a volunteer from Bloomington, Indiana, said she’s been volunteering in New Hampshire since last Thursday, mostly helping with canvassing. She said she talked to many Sanders supporters who “after Iowa, they’re planning on this being a big night for us.”
“I think Bernie Sanders is one of the truest, honest candidates we’ve had in a long time,” Simcox said. “He’s for the people, not for the money.”
Buttigieg, Klobuchar came close
Buttigieg was seen as needing more decisive victories in Iowa and New Hampshire to consolidate behind him the center-left Democrats who fear nominating a democratic socialist like Sanders will handicap the party in November. He did not get that Tuesday, but his continued success is stunning, considering he was a virtual unknown a year ago.
As networks called a narrow victory for Sanders, Buttigieg thanked New Hampshire for validating his campaign.
“Thanks to you,” he said, “a campaign that some say shouldn’t be here at all has shown that we are here to stay.”
Klobuchar likely took some New Hampshire momentum from Buttigieg.
“Tonight is about grit,” Klobuchar told her cheering supporters as she stood in front of a large, green “Amy” sign. “And my story, like so many of yours, is one of reliance.”
About half of those surveyed in a CNN Exit Poll said the most recent debate – in which Buttigieg took much of the incoming fire – was an important factor in Tuesday’s vote.
Leaving the polls, Marilyn Muir, 88, told USA Today the debate sealed her support for Klobuchar.
“She was so determined and so honest,” said Muir, who is retired. “That’s what I felt. Up to then, I hadn’t determined who I would vote for. It was between her and Biden, but I went for her.”
What’s next on the campaign trail
Sanders, 78, now heads to Nevada for that state’s Feb. 22 caucuses where he has shown strength with Latino voters. But he faces pushback from the powerful Culinary Union in Nevada, which fears Sanders’ push for Medicare for All would worsen their members’ health insurance.
A week later, on Feb. 29, is South Carolina’s turn, where Sanders could benefit if Biden is unable to marshal support among the African American voters he’s been counting on to buoy his campaign.
Biden has already pivoted to South Carolina, leaving New Hampshire Tuesday before polls closed. Instead of addressing supporters at a post-results event in Nashua, as had been previously planned, Biden spoke at a “launch party” in Columbia, S.C. Having lost in Iowa and New Hampshire, where white voters make up a disproportionate amount of the electorate, Biden is pinning his hopes on the voters in more diverse states.
“Up ‘til now, we haven’t heard from the most committee constituency in the Democratic Party, the African American community. And the fastest growing segment of society, the Latino community,” he said. “So to hear all these pundits and experts, all these cable TV talkers talk about the race, tell them: ‘It ain’t over, man. We’re just getting started. Our votes count too’.”
For the last three decades, Democrats have picked as their nominee the candidate who received the most primary support from black voters, according to Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.
That could be bad news for Sanders’ closest rival, Buttigieg. He has struggled to connect with a significant share of black voters.The same is true for Klobuchar
Even before voting was completed Tuesday, Buttigieg told NBC’s “Today” he was getting “the look that we now need as we will travel directly to states like Nevada, South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states that have a lot of racial diversity and where we can make that case eye-to-eye.”
The next few weeks are a grind
Biden had a five-point lead over Sanders in a Post and Courier-Change Research poll of South Carolina Democrats that was released Feb. 2. Buttigieg was fifth, polling behind Tom Steyer and Warren.
There have been no recent polls in Nevada, a tougher state to survey because of the complexities of a caucus system over a primary. But Buttigieg was likewise in fifth place, and in single digits, in polls taken there in January.
All the candidates also are looking ahead to Super Tuesday, when one-third of the pledged delegates will be divvied up. Early voting has already started in California, the state that will award the largest cache of delegates on March 3. Candidates also will have a chance to shake up the race at upcoming debates on Feb. 19 and 25.
And looming after the first four states is former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who skipped the early contests but has been spending heavily on advertising and campaign staff across the rest of the country.
Bloomberg adds to the mix another choice for Democrats uneasy about giving the nomination to Sanders. The plethora of candidates competing to be the main alternative to Sanders has made it harder for the center-left wing of the party to head off his momentum. Klobuchar’s surge to third place in New Hampshire increases the turbulence of the contest.
Iowa failed to perform its usual winnowing of the field after the state party took days to tabulate the results of its caucuses. The campaigns of both Sanders and Buttigieg have asked for those results to be reviewed.
While Klobuchar faces significant challenges going forward, her third-place finish is a blow to Biden’s campaign. Biden has presented himself as the Democrat who would fare best against President Donald Trump in November. But his poor showing in Iowa followed by Klobuchar’s surge in New Hampshire punches a huge hole in his electability argument.
Warren will also face big questions about her viability after being bested in a state neighboring hers where the Boston media market has made her well known.
Sanders, whose campaign is fueled by small donations, has outraised the field. But he’s been outspent by Bloomberg and activist Tom Steyer who have poured millions of their own money into their campaigns.
“I don’t begrudge his wealth, but I do begrudge a billionaire thinking he can buy the election,” Sanders told NBC’s Lester Holt.