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Bernie Sanders's New Hampshire victory shows exactly how he could win the nomination

After Iowa, a lot of Democrats began to act as if the sky might be falling. In addition to the catastrophic breakdown in reporting the results, turnout was down compared to 2016. This seemed to imply that not only was the party incapable of running its election, but its candidates weren’t capable of inspiring its voters to turn up. After the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, those apocalyptic fears have chilled out a bit (at least insofar as perpetually terrified Democrats are ever capable of chilling out). And even as the last few votes continue to be counted Wednesday, turnout has officially surpassed not just the state’s 2016 primary, but also the record-setting 2008 primary. Notably, turnout as a percentage of total eligible voters also matched 2008 levels, even though there were 89,000 more registered Democrats in 2020 than in 2008. Ultimately, more than 295,000 votes were cast Tuesday in the Granite State, surpassing the 254,780 votes cast in 2016 and the 288,672 votes in 2008.

Although enthusiasm is high, certainty among the electorate is not. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won by only about 2 percentage points over Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana — though he was officially declared the victor, unlike in Iowa. Meanwhile, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar surged for a surprise third-place finish, while previous frontrunners in Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden dropped to fourth and fifth place, respectively. The voters split along familiar ideological and demographic lines — per exit polls, Sanders won with the more progressive factions of the party and secured a large margin of victory among younger voters, while Buttigieg and Klobuchar won among older, moderate-identifying voters. Sanders led among non-white voters, while he and Buttigieg tied among whites.

Overall, Sanders’s share of the vote stayed approximately consistent from Iowa. And while the vast majority of delegates are still up for grabs, Sanders’s performance in the first two states supports the conclusion that he has developed a passionate plurality of supporters among Democrats. It’s this group that made him into a surprisingly strong challenger to Hillary Clinton in 2016 — but it is nevertheless far from a majority. (Case in point: He lost to Clinton.) This time around, though, it might be enough.

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As of now, there is no good reason for Biden, Buttigieg, or Klobuchar to drop out. The former may be diminished after his weak finishes so far, but he’s still competitive in polling from his so-called “firewall” states of Nevada and South Carolina, which involve a much higher population of Black and Latino voters than either of the first two nominating contests. Buttigieg and Klobuchar, meanwhile, have finished Iowa and New Hampshire with impressive numbers, despite spending most of the race as underdogs. There’s also an ex-mayor ex machina looming in the moderate lane: Michael Bloomberg, who’s already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertisements in Super Tuesday states that vote next month.

All of this is painting a rather pretty picture for Sanders, allowing him to dominate the progressive lane and continue to win states while his four main moderate rivals split their share of the vote. One wildcard in all of this is Warren, who after a strong summer and fall last year has been flagging in the polls and may bo longer have an evident path to the nomination. Without a surprising upset in the next few races, where she’s polling poorly, she may well drop out — and if she does, the majority of her supporters will likely back Sanders, per a FiveThirtyEight analysis from December.

Assuming Sanders manages to keep winning contests against a divided field, his path to victory will look a lot the one Donald Trump trod in 2016. In that race, Trump managed to ride a plurality to victory against a fractured Republican field. Running against nine established GOP politicians, Trump benefited from the fact that they were crowding the same lane to the White House; he, meanwhile, was appealing to an entirely separate swathe of voters. If all of his rivals but one had dropped out early, Trump probably wouldn’t have won, but instead, they stayed in and hamstrung each other.

For now, Sanders is struggling to turn primary victories into ineffable shiny media points. If he wins the next few contests, though, expect that to change in a hurry.

Sanders seems to be on pace to pull off something similar. One thing standing in his way that Trump didn’t run into, however, is that Republicans have multiple winner-take-all contests, where a marginal victory racks up a major delegate bonanza. Democrats have none such contests, meaning that if Sanders notches a string of victories by low margins like his New Hampshire win, he’s not going to be able to claim a majority of delegates before the Democrats’ convention in Wisconsin this summer. If that happens, it could open the door to a brokered convention, which some pundits are already predicting would be a showdown between Sanders and Bloomberg.

Still, with Sanders leading in polls of delegate-rich states like California, he currently seems likely to arrive at the convention with a lead in delegates overall. Yet there appears to be a weird kind of allergy among certain mainstream voices to ascribing Sanders frontrunner status, despite the fact that he finished first in the popular vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

On MSNBC, Jim Messina — a former strategist for former President Barack Obama — opined that because moderate candidates performed relatively well, "the big winner last night could be Mayor Bloomberg." Bloomberg was not on the ballot in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Jeremy Peters, a New York Times political reporter, tweeted Tuesday night that because Buttigieg “is almost beating” Sanders in a state Sanders won handily in 2016 — when he was running mainly against just one other person, remember — Buttigieg was the real frontrunner to be crowned out of New Hampshire. It bears repeating: Buttigieg lost New Hampshire to Sanders (though due to delegate math, the candidates will take the same number of delegates from the Granite State).

In a piece for The Washington Post titled “The media keep falling in love — with anybody but Bernie Sanders,” Margaret Sullivan identified a “deep-seated sentiment that Sanders, if nominated, has little chance of winning the general election.” She also argued that his lack of frontrunner accolades reflects the fact that “many journalists don’t identify easily with Sanders in the same way they do with, say, Warren or [former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke] or Buttigieg.”

For now, Sanders is struggling to turn primary victories into ineffable shiny media points. If he wins the next few contests, though, expect that to change in a hurry.