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Chaos Reigns

New Hampshire exposed the glaring weakness of the Democratic field.
February 12, 2020
Chaos Reigns

Once begun, the primary process becomes an omnivorous and constantly mutating beast, an unstoppable organism comprised of potentially toxic elements: the jittery judgements of a suffocating and febrile media; the myopic magnification of petty mistakes into epochal blunders; the repetitive over-interpretation of slips and bon mots in over-hyped pseudo-debates; the soul–grinding pressure and anxiety which buffets contestants fearful of political mortification; the corrosive discord and rivalries of advisors competing for influence; the poisonous proliferation of falsehoods by lunatics and cynics swarming in cyberspace; the cacophonous cries of competing constituencies with conflicting claims; the bumptious interventions of interest groups and Super-PACs bent on redirecting events; the peremptory fickleness of big-money funders looking to advance their own interests; the staggering transfusions of cash the beast and its occupants need simply to survive; the ossified early primary map which distorts demographics by creating racially homogenous primaries in underpopulated states—and, as a consequence, trumpets “winners” who are losers-in-waiting.

And, as always, this randomly-evolving admixture awaits the destabilizing intrusion of interplanetary events no one has planned for—like the stupefying inability of Iowa Democrats to count heads in high school auditoriums.

For seven days, the globular beast oozed through New Hampshire, roiling the populace while absorbing its character before, inexorably, leaving for places nothing like New Hampshire at all.

In those seven days much happened—some trivial, some significant, all breathlessly reported.

The presumptive favorite, Bernie Sanders, campaigned with the peculiarly stentorian serenity of a career ideologue confident in his momentum and message. Pete Buttigieg savored his Iowa bounce with a newly triumphalist air, further siphoning support from Joe Biden. Plummeting in the polls, Biden shook up his campaign staff before retreating to prepare for a debate in which he hoped, vainly, to find something within himself to resuscitate his flagging quest. Stalled, Elizabeth Warren was compelled to husband her resources by cutting a crucial TV buy for Nevada and South Carolina—a troubling harbinger of travails to come.

But Biden and even Buttigieg squandered precious time on the trail to forage among gimlet-eyed donors for enough money to survive the brutal gauntlet of March.

And before our eyes, the beast’s volatile alchemy changed the dynamic among them.

In debate and on the stump, witches’ shafts flew. Ignoring Warren, Sanders cast Mayor Pete as a billionaires’ pet. Out of desperate necessity, Biden went after both Buttigieg and Sanders: one for magical thinking, one for inexperience. Buttigieg labeled Sanders as a practitioner of “my way-or-the-highway politics” while casting Biden as a shopworn impediment to generational change.

And then, in the debate, the also-ran Amy Klobuchar lapped her fellow moderates, raising the discomfiting thought that she may be better at this than they are—not least when sticking it to Mayor Pete, who she holds in barely-concealed contempt as a glib and presumptuous tyro. Amidst all the jibes, Warren’s relative pacifism stood out. The formerly combative progressive presented herself as a unity candidate, hoping to fill a space between Sanders and the moderates which, it transpired, was underpopulated.

But Biden and Warren labored in vain. By the end of Tuesday night, New Hampshire had largely ratified the muddle of Iowa, bestowing its top laurels on Sanders, followed closely by Buttigieg, without confirming their political divinity. Or even auguring much about the two primaries which climax the month.

The most interesting potential complication—that Klobuchar took a serious chunk out of both the rising Buttigieg and the humbled Biden—says less about her ultimate chances than it does about the accelerating damage the moderates are doing to each other. Anyone who claims to see all the way from Concord to the convention is divining too much from the entrails of goats, and too little about the mutability of the beast as it forages ahead.

Indeed, New Hampshire is even smaller, older, and more Caucasian than Iowa: 90 percent white; 1.5 percent African-American; possessed of a Hispanic population measured in decimal points. This wildly-unrepresentative pittance of America preserved Sanders and Buttigieg atop the greasy pole of horserace hysteria, but not as the powerhouses their enthusiasts imagine. Sanders prevailed by marshaling his usual corps of the convinced, feeding the suspicion that he is less Barack Obama than the second coming of George McGovern. Buttigieg cemented his ephemeral status as the darling of white moderates from Merrimack to Manchester.

All of which left Biden leaking electability, Warren hemorrhaging progressives, and Klobuchar admirably ascendant for what will likely prove a political wrinkle in time. As for the rest, the gluttonous creature has leeched them of life-blood. There are no participation awards in politics.

But like any organism which requires symbiosis with its host, the beast evolves with its environment. And its next two feeding grounds, Nevada and South Carolina, are far more indicative of the diverse demographics which, in the end, will determine the Democratic nominee.

Nevada is a notably nonwhite, union-heavy state with one of America’s highest percentages of Hispanics. South Carolina’s Democratic electorate is majority-minority African-American, supplemented by whites more partial to the center than to socialism.

By the end of February, the perpetually-evolving beast will have a very different character—and so will the prospects of those momentarily deemed to be the most conceivable nominee six months hence: Sanders, Buttigieg and, still, Biden. Those entrails are what they look like: a mess.

Of those three, Sanders is by far the best positioned.

By narrowly winning New Hampshire, Sanders claimed the mantle of front runner. No matter how atypical Iowa and New Hampshire may be; the perception of momentum breeds its own momentum. Thus a growing number of voters perceive this self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” as the candidate best equipped to challenge Donald Trump.

There are compelling reasons for doubt. But, indubitably, Sanders has a solid base of support which advantages him in a multi-candidate field. He is much stronger among minority voters today than he was in 2016, thereby cutting into Biden’s edge. Critical to success in Nevada and beyond, Sanders is soaring among Hispanic voters nationwide—not least because Hispanics skew younger, and the youth vote is the key Sanders demographic. And in union households, another Biden bulwark, Sanders is quickly catching up.

Sanders’ grassroots fundraising is seemingly inexhaustible. He led the fundraising race in 2019, and raised a stunning $25 million in January 2020 alone. Over the rest of the campaign he will almost certainly out-spend everyone but self-funding billionaires.

His perpetual ATM will be fueled by the fury of supporters galvanized by resentment and paranoia. The Iowa debacle spawned a feverish conspiracy theory: That the Democratic establishment rigged the count by contracting with a shadowy company called, appropriately, Shadow. Some even claimed that the Buttigieg campaign killed an election eve poll by the Des Moines Register which showed Sanders leading—not because of errors in methodology, as the Register claimed, but to cover up the perfidy to come. The zeal of Bernie’s diehards, it often seems, waxes in inverse proportion to their purchase on reality.

All this deepens the Sanders campaign’s rift with the DNC, prefiguring suicidal fractiousness should he lose the nomination. But however destructive this might prove in November, such incendiary grievances will only fortify Sanders in the primaries to come.

He could easily win Nevada. Caucuses reward candidates with the most committed supporters: Sanders did well there in 2016, and his standing among Hispanics and working people has swollen since. While he probably won’t take South Carolina, no one expects him to, and he should do well enough among black voters to avoid the conspicuous embarrassment awaiting other candidates.

The serious problem for Sanders is that, on the evidence to date, he remains a factional candidate who becomes more vulnerable as the field of moderates narrows. As with Iowa, the New Hampshire vote provided no evidence to support his claim that he will bring in a wave of new voters untapped by anyone else. In 2020, Sanders got 152,000 votes. This year? Less than half as many. Which suggests that a base whose floor is close to its ceiling.

As in Iowa, New Hampshire measured his committed but finite following against moderates divided between Buttigieg, Biden, and Klobuchar. But a significant segment of Democrats find his “political revolution” too extreme and, quite literally, incredible. Democrats remain where they were: perilously split between moderates and progressives with no happy resolution in view.

By besting Biden among moderates, Buttigieg garnered further premature acclaim as the principal challenger to Sanders. A perhaps more discerning view is that, up to now, he has served as Bernie’s best friend, tarnishing his centrist rivals without establishing serious long-term prospects of surpassing Sanders himself.

Pending Nevada, Buttigieg is simply the runner-up in what has amounted to a white people’s primary in two states which apportioned, in total, 3 percent of the delegates required to win the nomination. That says little about his impending fate among the far more populous and diverse electorates which will determine the nominee. But give Buttigieg this: Thus far he has neatly executed the political plastic surgery of grafting a young man’s face onto Joe Biden’s moderate pitch.

Viewed coldly, Buttigieg emerges as a passion-free pragmatist with an instinct for the jugular, a skilled but subtle knife-fighter with a gift for resumé polishing and political repositioning who—disguised as a high-minded unifier—cleverly wielded single-payer healthcare to eviscerate Warren as he moved from the progressive lane to the moderate in mid-campaign.Now he threatens to displace Biden among the sharp-eyed bundlers of Wall Street who siphon buckets of cash to whatever candidate is best situated to serve their purposes, while cloaking his reliance on the donor classes in the pious platitudes of inclusion.

No wonder he makes Klobuchar’s teeth grind.

But so far, so good. Buttigieg’s veneer of idealism and talent for plasticity have expanded his appeal among white Democrats of various demographics in racially homogenous states.

The problem for Mayor Pete is that the beast feeds on weakness as it moves, and there’s something in Buttigieg that seems a little off. Bernie galvanizes young people; Pete not so much: a new Economist/YouGov poll shows him trailing Sanders among 18 to 29 year-olds by 43 percent to 5 percent. Quite often he seems to be alien to his own generation, the old person’s idea of what a young man should be. Over time his ever-polished persona feels curiously incomplete, as though he can’t quite escape the emotional and intellectual confines of that insular slice of America wherein he rose: the haute bourgeois meritocracy.

That deficit in comprehension may account for his biggest weakness: a persistent inability to internalize, or touch, the differing sensibilities of minorities—most critically African-Americans. It is that, in the end, which may define the boundaries of his considerable gifts. Imagine Mr. Spock hanging out with Martin Luther King.

In this, one cannot help but feel for Buttigieg. Whatever the problem may be, he certainly does not wish it. Beneath his unflagging self-possession, he no doubt finds these difficulties painful and bewildering, personally as well as politically.

It is hardly a matter of ill will: Assiduously if belatedly, he has labored to change how African-Americans perceive him. But people of color writ large don’t yet cotton to him as their president and, in this onrushing cycle, that is unlikely to change either swiftly and dramatically enough to win him the nomination.

Most of the reasons are well-known: His controversial firing, early in his tenure as mayor, of a black police chief he replaced with a white officer in a racially fractious force. A dramatic decline in the force’s diversity during his eight-year tenure. The fatal shooting under ambiguous circumstances of a black man by a white officer with a record of racist statements.

A residual resistance to gay marriage among some socially conservative blacks. A dearth of support among African-American leaders in South Bend or, more recently, across the country.

That last difficulty points to a deeper problem which has gone less remarked: Early on in his presidential quest, Buttigieg was advised that it was imperative that he reach out to leaders in the national African-American community and to solicit their views. His failure to sufficiently prioritize this effort suggests a nagging underappreciation of our racial complications, and their role in his party and our country.

That’s no small thing. The abrasions of race surface everywhere—drug laws, incarceration rates, police shootings, wealth and health disparities, the stubborn persistence of economic and racial segregation in our neighborhoods and schools. Democrats are not only roiled by ideology but, in a year when the major remaining presidential contenders are white, by the question of minority representation within the party. All this bears on the success or failure of a presidential campaign which requires the commitment of diverse constituencies to beat Trump.

More immediately, that reality has practical implications for Buttigieg in this month’s remaining primaries. His deficit among Hispanics weakens him in Nevada; his more glaring shortfall among African-Americans will likely be lethal in South Carolina. A recent Fox News poll placed him at an abysmal 2 percent among African-Americans; the fresh Economist /YouGov has him trailing Biden by 43 percent to 4 percent.

Buttigieg’s challenge is not simply that Biden and Sanders are likely to trounce him in a single primary. It is that the many and diverse primaries jammed into March are likely to prove inhospitable—decisively diminishing his chances of derailing Sanders, or whoever else endures.

Which brings us back to Biden.

The initial promise of Joe Biden’s campaign was that a wide spectrum of Democrats believed that he could win, which in turn made him a winner. While he campaigned as a moderate, he aroused the greatest enthusiasm as the man most likely to banish Trump.

That’s all gone now. He underperformed badly in Iowa and disastrously in New Hampshire. If Biden ultimately prevails, it will happen because he summons such deep reserves of grace and grit that Democrats reimagine him as their leader.

He has showed too little of this spirit for too long. His message of experience and civility soothed without inspiring; he sometimes struggled to find a tenor which galvanized even himself. After Iowa, the media began describing his campaign apparatus as creaky and superannuated; Biden with a condescension akin to pity, as though he were a pensioner who had stayed up past his bedtime.

One can imagine this uncharitable assessment proving premature. Our recent history features frontrunners who faltered badly before reviving to win their party’s nomination: Walter Mondale in 1984; John McCain in 2008. And Biden is a widely- beloved figure pulsing with humanity—unlike the often one-dimensional ideologue, Sanders, or Buttigieg, who can come across as a clockwork candidate.

But if Biden is to rise again, the reasons must include his strength among minorities. Nevada and South Carolina will be the moments of reckoning.

First, Nevada. Nationwide Sanders is atop several polls of Hispanics. Should this hold true in the Nevada caucuses, Sanders could win there, swelling the perception that Biden’s standing among minorities is crumbling with his candidacy—and that voters seeking a winner should look elsewhere.

More ominous for Biden is a recent Quinnipiac poll suggesting a serious slippage in his support among African-Americans: at 27 percent he edges Michael Bloomberg—of all people—by mere 5 percent and Sanders by only 8 percent. There are 18 fateful days left until South Carolina, and black voters there, pragmatic of necessity, are alert to changes in the prospects of candidates in whom they would repose their hopes.

Nor can Biden assume that his standing among minorities will go unchallenged. Were they so inclined, his rivals—here, Buttigieg seems a prospect—could try to link Biden to the significant number of deportations which occurred during the Obama years, or stress his earlier associations with hardline legislation which disproportionately affected blacks. In response, Biden can cite the bona fides of actual experience: his role as a leading proponent of immigration reform and the Dream Act, and the overwhelming support of African-American officeholders who have known him over time.

But in his vulnerability, even in South Carolina—his supposed firewall—his opponents will concede him nothing: the potential rewards of finishing him off are far too great. Biden may have no choice but to escalate his suggestions that Sanders is too impractical and Buttigieg too callow to beat Trump. It will all become less than pleasant.

But mere unpleasantries don’t come close to describing the problem of Hunter Biden, a festering threat to his electability argument that none of his Democratic rivals need exploit. Trump has been doing it for them.

Start with an inescapable truth: Hunter Biden was laughably unqualified to serve on the board of the shady Ukrainian petroleum company, Burisma, and his tenure was sleaze-as-usual. He was monetizing the appearance of influence as the son of an incumbent vice president. To be fair, that is not illegal, and one can question whether Biden could, or should, have done more to stop it—though one must wonder why he did not try.

But fairness has nothing to do with it. Inevitably, the GOP used the Trump impeachment hearings as an infomercial to tar both Bidens with unethical—true of Hunter, not true of Joe—and even criminal—untrue of either—conduct and, implicitly, to convince voters that their behavior was the moral equivalent of the predation practiced by Donald Trump and his relentlessly avaricious family.

Loathsome? Certainly. The party of Trump is a cesspool of lies populated by demagogues, idiots, and invertebrates. But the damage is not simply done. It’s renewable. Should the Democrats nominate Biden, the worry goes, they will yield a piece of moral high ground in November—at least in the minds of the low-information voters in a handful of states who get their news from Facebook or Fox and may help determine the outcome.

For this reason, among others, Biden’s decline is mirrored among small online donors and rich bundlers alike. This further aggravates his dilemma: As of yet, the Biden campaign has scheduled little advertising time in Nevada or South Carolina. This is ominous for Biden’s prospects in both states and, should he survive them, immediately thereafter: Already, the beast in its organic progress has incorporated the voracious media maws of big-market states such as California and Texas.

In theory, Biden could still become the moderate alternative to Sanders, and the best general election matchup against Trump. But this much is already clear: Biden must win in South Carolina. Full-stop. Anything less and his campaign is finished.

As for Warren and Klobuchar, extinction is closing in fast. Warren has lost the left to Sanders without opening new ground; Klobuchar lacks the money, organization and breadth of support needed in any of the primaries dead ahead. Absent the wholly unexpected, the death of viability looms for both.

But all contestants save, perhaps, Sanders should beware the Ides of March. Michael Bloomberg awaits there, hands in his very deep pockets, eager to feed the beast until it gags up his rivals. Chaos beckons.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.