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Fresh From Victory, the Sandernistas Ready for Tough Slog

The field is full and the path uncertain, but now Buttigeig and Klobuchar have to catch up to Bernie's well-oiled ground game.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) takes the stage during a primary night event on February 11, 2020 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

MANCHESTER, N.H. – Among the Sandernistas, the mood for most of last night was guarded hope. Damp and cold in a 90-minute line that snaked hundreds of yards to Southern New Hampshire University’s fieldhouse, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ partisans talked proudly about knocking on doors—150,000 of them on Saturday alone, the proud haul of Sanders’ vaunted ground game in the first in the nation primary. After Iowa’s mess though, no Sanders supporter I spoke to was totally sanguine.

Befitting the followers of a self-avowed socialist, the Berners last night were an Abraham Lincoln Brigade in reverse, with Canadians and at least one Amsterdamer in their ranks—foreign election interference that probably won’t occasion another impeachment. Domestic volunteers came from next-door Massachusetts, far-off Idaho, and points in between. 

After about an hour, as early results trickled in and seemed to validate their work, the Sanders volunteers near me began speculating about vice presidential choices. They were still a little scared, but superstition and jinxes didn’t keep them from talking about what came next. Biden’s voters, it was judged, would be more likely to join their ranks than Warren’s would. Many volunteers still muttered darkly about MSNBC and CNN’s plots, though the fleet of TV vans a few yards away occasioned only mild interest, not disgust.

As the night wore on, and the voting percentages crept up while the gap between Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg slowly shrank, the nervous energy inside the gym of the SNHU Penmen became palpable. The most motivated staffers led cheers that rolled through the tight crowd of a few hundred. “Bernie Beats Trump” was the consistent favorite—though “Wall Street Pete!”, a spontaneous reaction to Buttigieg’s speech playing mutely on the big screen TV, packed the most volume and energy.

Sanders snuck out of New Hampshire with a narrow win last night, besting Buttigieg by just 1.5 percent. As in all things political and primary, this can be spun in both directions. Sanders skeptics will say that he barely won, with the lowest winning percentage in the history of the New Hampshire primary, after beating Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire with over 60 percent of the vote in 2016. Despite home court advantage—Vermont less than two hours away—Sanders struggled mightily to dispatch Buttigieg.

The counter is that Buttigieg, and indeed most of the centrists, threw everything they had at Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden and Warren aside, the others have little organization in the states to come and will be straining to fill the gap with TV ads. Yes, to the victors will go the spoils: Klobuchar raised $3 million off her much-lauded debate performance on Friday night and one expects that Wall Street Pete will reap an even greater bounty in the weeks to come. But neither candidate has Sanders’ ground game or overall national organization. Such things are not built in a day.

Sanders’ base is also young, and, unlike in 2016, increasingly brown. He can drive south and west with some confidence about his hand in the contests to come.

The most important outcome of New Hampshire is that the field will remain crowded for the foreseeable future. No semi-plausible contender dropped out of the race last night. Only Andrew Yang and Senator Michael Bennet are done. Yang, a real human who isn’t afraid to think, talk, or joke, is a loss to be lamented, whatever one’s views on the coming robot apocalypse. The only tears for Bennet will come from a corner of Louisiana and a corner office at the New York Times.  

Amy Klobuchar, wearing a Cheshire cat grin all night, is suddenly the belle of the ball. Viewed before as playing for another job, a slot as someone else’s vice president with a mandate to secure the suburbs and the Midwest, she is suddenly at least a quasi-contender. Her interns can sleep with both eyes closed for now.

Biden isn’t dead yet, but he may be mortally wounded. The putative frontrunner just two weeks ago, fourth- and fifth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire have left him with zero delegates and even less momentum. The former vice president wisely fled south before the polls closed, promising from the supposed safety of South Carolina that he had only just begun to fight. Biden’s southern wall is highly likely to go the way of Hillary’s Rust Belt blue wall: unbreachable until the moment it collapses. Biden’s presumption of electability and even inevitability was his only big advantage in the race. It is now punctured, if not shattered.

Warren, finishing an embarrassing fourth place, an hour from home, also appears to be going nowhere. She has the money and the team to hang around for a while, but to what end? Last night she preached party unity while her campaign manager spun about Super Tuesday. Warren seems in no hurry to throw her support behind Sanders.

Sanders’ time at the podium last night was short and wholly on-message, an abbreviated stump speech probably designed to get the emotionally drained horde of volunteers and supporters back to their cars as quickly as possible. Flanked on stage by family, he twice promised to “transform” the country, but mostly stuck to the familiar liturgy: Medicare for all, student debt forgiveness, billionaires paying more, comprehensive immigration reform.

The Sanders revolution, if such it is, is not stillborn, but neither is it surging. A long slog lies ahead: the grueling, bruising primary that many Democrats had feared but some, especially on the progressive Left, had welcomed. Sanders, the maestro of a true revolution in small-contribution fundraising, has both the people and the money for a long campaign. The centrists are split and the impact of both billionaires in the race has yet to be really felt.

Chris Matthews and Chuck Todd can rest easy though. Sanders Central last night had a distinct band camp vibe, a happy but nervous band of misfits. None of these be-buttoned Bolsheviks is going to put anyone up against a wall or in a camp. They might double your taxes though. The revolution rolls on.

Gil Barndollar is a New Hampshire native and a fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

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