NASHUA, N.H. - Bernie Sanders may have established himself as the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party's leftist wing with his strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire, but for moderates looking to rally around a candidate to fend him off, the picture just got even murkier.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, seemed well positioned to be the early favourite of the party's moderates after his narrow win in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses - until a surge by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar largely split the moderate vote between them in New Hampshire.
And while former Vice President Joe Biden lagged badly in both Iowa and New Hampshire, as the only moderate with substantial backing from African-American and Latino voters, he has vowed to fight on until Nevada and South Carolina, both with significant non-white populations, render their verdicts.
The three are also bracing for the entry of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is skipping the early contests but has built an unprecedented self-funded campaign machine to compete in expensive states such as California and Texas, which vote in March.
The outcomes of the first two nominating contests suggest that the battle for the Democratic nomination to beat Republican President Donald Trump in November could go on for weeks or even months, and who ends up the champion of the party's moderates is shaping up to be key.
At the end of Tuesday night's primary, the votes amassed by Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Biden - a combined total of 53% with 91% of precincts reporting - easily outpaced the votes received by Sanders and his fellow liberal, Senator Elizabeth Warren, who together won 35% in a possible sign that voters still prefer a centrist candidate who could appeal to a broader electorate, including independents and Republicans.
Sanders "is still a ways from taking much of a lead in delegates," said David Hopkins, an expert on presidential politics at Boston College.
"If the other candidates do well enough that no one is forced out of the race, we sort of move on."
Iowa and New Hampshire award just 65 out of the 3,979 pledged delegates who will help select a Democratic nominee.
While Sanders, a senator from neighbouring Vermont, got less than 30% of the vote in New Hampshire on Tuesday -- compared to the 60% he won in 2016 in a two-way race with Hillary Clinton -- there was no denying that his slim victory gave him the opportunity to build momentum.
Much of the Democratic mainstream worries that the unapologetically liberal Sanders would lose a match-up with Trump.
"There is some panic that is really starting to settle in with establishment Democrats with the idea of Bernie Sanders being at the top of the ticket,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist who worked for the Clinton campaign in 2016. “The chatter I hear is higher than ever on that.”
Sanders supporters, like Democratic Congressman Mark Pocan from Wisconsin, the co-chair of Congressional Progressive Caucus, believe the party will rally behind Sanders if he keeps winning and proves that his message is connecting with voters.
“I think everyone understands that he’s got a message that is appealing to a lot of people,” said Pocan, who joined Sanders on the campaign trail in Iowa.
The next two nominating states have diverse electorates and could provide a different verdict from Iowa and New Hampshire where whites account for more than 90% of the population.
Sanders, who has focused on turning out voters of colour, young voters and irregular voters, has a strong chance to win Nevada, with its large Latino population, while Biden is still hoping to call upon South Carolina’s African Americans to resuscitate his campaign.
While a new national poll this week from Quinnipiac University showed Biden support among black Democrats sliding from 51% to 27%, that's still ahead of 22% for Bloomberg and 19% for Sanders.
"Up 'til now we haven’t heard from the most committed constituency in the Democratic Party, the African-American constituency. 99.9%. That’s the percentage of African-American voters who have not yet had the chance to vote yet in America," Biden said in Columbia, South Carolina, on Tuesday night.
"When you hear all these pundits and experts on TV talk about the race, tell them, it ain’t over, it’s just getting started," he argued after his disappointing fifth-place finish in New Hampshire.
Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar face challenges over the African-American vote. Neither has shown inroads with black voters, with Buttigieg especially hampered by criticism of his tenure as mayor of South Bend, largely over his management of the police department and his economic development priorities.
While Bloomberg saw a surge in black voter support according to the Quinnipiac poll, a newly released audio of him defending the controversial “stop-and-frisk” program used by police during his time as New York mayor could threaten his newly found support. [L1N2AB1CX]
Money may end up being the determining factor. Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Biden were all scheduled to hold fundraisers in the coming days. Of the three, Buttigieg has consistently raked in the most cash, although Klobuchar’s campaign said on Tuesday it was making a new seven-figure TV ad buy in Nevada.
None of them will be able to compete with the financial might of Bloomberg, who has already spent more than $250 million on his campaign.
Hopkins said the looming presence of Bloomberg already has contributed to a feeling that the Democratic race is unsettled and could remain so even up to the nominating convention in July.
“It’s completely unique to this year,” he said. “It raises the prospect of no one getting the majority of delegates."
(Reporting by James Oliphant in Nashua, New Hampshire, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Sonya Hepinstall)