(CN) – Senator Bernie Sanders won a narrow victory over Pete Buttigieg in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night, with Senator Amy Klobuchar coming in a strong third.
With 90% of the precincts reporting, Sanders had 26% of the vote. Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, had 24.4% and Klobuchar had 19.8%.
Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden were fighting it out for fourth and fifth place, with Warren at 9.4% and Biden at 8.4%.
Coupled with Sanders’ strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, a win in New Hampshire makes him at least the nominal frontrunner. Three national surveys released since yesterday showed Sanders now leading Biden by three to 10 points. And Sanders is polling better than Buttigieg and Klobuchar by large margins in the Real Clear Politics average in the next two states holding presidential primaries, Nevada and South Carolina, as well as in California where he is considered the favorite.
A key to Sanders’ victory was that New Hampshire voters came to view him as the most electable candidate, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
Prior to Iowa, Biden was seen among New Hampshire voters as more electable than Sanders by a 41% to 20% margin, Smith said. But after Iowa, Sanders led Biden on this measure by 30% to 23%.
The difference was simply that Sanders outperformed Biden in the Hawkeye state, Smith explained. “You demonstrate that you’re a winner by winning,” he said.
Sanders solidified his position as the leading progressive with a strong debate performance last Friday, according to Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
And while Biden lost support, his voters “didn’t go to any one person,” Scala said. Instead of coalescing around Buttigieg, they helped Klobuchar and others, fragmenting the moderate vote.
Sanders’ performance is not overly surprising given that he won the New Hampshire primary in a landslide in 2016 in a two-person race against Hillary Clinton. However, his vote total today is “a better indication of his core support in the state” than the more than 60% he garnered in 2016, said Smith, because in 2016 many voters “didn’t vote for Sanders so much as against Clinton.”
The results represent a devastating blow to Biden, who was running even with Sanders in New Hampshire as recently as a Saint Anselm College poll released on Feb. 2 and a strong second in a number of other polls around that time. It appears that his support quickly evaporated in light of his fourth-place finish in Iowa.
Although Biden is still leading the RCP polling average in Nevada and South Carolina, recent surveys have shown his leads narrowing, and a poor showing in New Hampshire – combined with a bad finish in Iowa – could erode his support there as well as dry up his fundraising nationally.
Biden didn’t even stay in New Hampshire for the results, instead traveling to South Carolina before the polls closed. “Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, we plan to move forward,” Biden senior advisor Symone Sanders told the Associated Press.
Tonight’s results were also a blow to Warren, who had been seen as vying with Sanders for the progressive vote. Iowa and New Hampshire were considered her strongest chances, since she spent a lot of time in Iowa and hails from one of New Hampshire’s neighboring states. The fact that she was unable to finish first or second in either state means that she could have a lot of difficulty going forward.
Still, Warren told supporters tonight, “Our campaign is built for the long haul and we’re just getting started.”
Although Klobuchar finished third, she did far better than expected given that she invested little time, money or organization in New Hampshire and was consistently polling in single digits just a few days ago. She also did better than expected in Iowa. On Tuesday, her campaign announced its first purchase of advertising in Nevada. But she has been little more than an asterisk in polling in the upcoming states so far, and the future of her campaign still remains unclear.
Moving forward, Scala says, Sanders will face a “big bandwagon test” in which he must prove that a campaign that in the past has had a narrow ideological focus and strong support only among young people can expand to include other groups that are necessary to become a true frontrunner.
Sanders will have a chance to demonstrate support among Latinos in Nevada and African Americans in South Carolina, and among older and suburban voters in the Super Tuesday states.
“It’s great to have a lane, but after New Hampshire you have to be able to reach across lanes,” Scala said.
If Sanders has trouble expanding his base, then there will be an opening for a more moderate candidate – and a potential brawl for that role among Biden, Buttigieg, and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has skipped the early states but is spending with abandon on advertising for Super Tuesday. If Klobuchar remains in the race and picks up momentum from New Hampshire, the outlook could become even more cloudy.
As of press time, the FiveThirtyEight blog showed a remarkable 27% chance of no candidate arriving at the convention with a majority of pledged delegates.