World·Analysis

With Biden struggling, this is not the primary campaign many Democrats expected 

According to the most recent polls, Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind. mayor is expected to finish second behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, while former vice-president Joe Biden struggles ahead of Tuesday's primary.

Pete Buttigieg is expected to finish second behind Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire primary

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. is expected to finish second in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, while Sen. Bernie Sanders is expected to win, according to polls. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

It looks like former vice-president Joe Biden will take another brutal pummelling from voters tonight. Biden's best pitch in the race for the Democratic nomination used to be that he's a winner; the candidate best able to beat Donald Trump in November's presidential election.

Then he finished fourth in last week's Iowa Democratic caucuses.

Now, according to the most recent polls, Biden is struggling with senators Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren for third place in snowy New Hampshire's "first-in-the-nation" primary. Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor is expected to finish second. But it's the self-described socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is expected to win, the polls suggest.

This is not remotely how Democrats thought the race would look a year ago when it began. Back then, California Sen. Kamala Harris was a top-tier prospect for the nomination; youthful Texan Beto O'Rourke was teeing up his campaign on the cover of Vanity Fair; and almost no one knew the name Buttigieg, let alone how to say it or why they might ever want to.

Harris and O'Rourke dropped out of the race long before the voting began, and now Buttigieg (Boot-edge-edge if you're still unsure) might be the party establishment's last best hope to stop Sanders.

"It's like we're losing our damn minds," the veteran Democratic strategist James Carville told the website Vox.

Joe Biden's best pitch used to be that he's a winner; the candidate best able to beat Donald Trump in November's presidential election. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Carville, the eccentric ragin' cajun from New Orleans, who's best remembered for getting Bill Clinton into the White House nearly 30 years ago, has been hanging out on cable news this week and last, griping and frothing that his party is experimenting with ideas most voters couldn't care less about — should prisoners vote, for instance.

He says he's "scared to death" by what's happening and that Democrats need to get relevant, focus on what ordinary people care about, and understand that the one job they have in this world is to save it from Trump.

Sanders as disrupter

Judging from social media, Carville speaks for many Democrats who fear the party will be heading off on a road to nowhere if it chooses Sanders as its nominee.

Sanders supporters obviously think otherwise. To some, Trump is, oddly, living proof that the country wants a disrupter — albeit a disrupter more like Sanders — in the White House.

"If that horse's ass can be elected president of this country, a guy like Bernie Sanders should have no problem," Rene Demuynck, a New Jersey Democrat told CBC News at a Sanders rally Monday.

Not so fast, there's more than the presidency at stake, says Carville. 

Tuesday's primary, the second in a state-by-state nominating contest, will test the staying power of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who finished third in Iowa (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

"Let's say Sanders is our nominee, I'm gonna' vote for him," he told MSNBC, but in the next breath he said, "You know what's gonna change? Nothin.'"

Carville believes Sanders, even if he takes the White House, won't have enough appeal in swing states to flip the Senate to Democrats. Without the Senate not only would most of the Democrats' agenda stall, Republicans would keep their power over judicial appointments. Democrats need a candidate who can win the White House, keep the House and flip the Senate, says Carville.

WATCH | Sanders relies on strong base as Biden slumps, Buttigieg surges:

Bernie Sanders is relying on his strong base to make him the Democratic nominee for president, especially as Joe Biden appears to have hit a slump and Pete Buttigieg surged after the Iowa caucus. 6:04
 

While all this enrages Sanders supporters in New Hampshire, elsewhere a couple of hundred million dollars in TV ads for billionaire Michael Bloomberg's bid for the Democratic nomination are flooding across America's airwaves.

And finally that investment might be paying off: A Reuters/Ipsos poll Monday of Democratic and independent voters had Bloomberg surging to third place nationally, with 15 per cent, behind Biden with 17 per cent and Sanders at 20 per cent.

Whether a path to the nomination for Bloomberg even exists still isn't clear. But if it does, it might start out like this: Bloomberg overtakes Buttigieg and Biden in the polls in time for his formidable ground team (he is reported to have 2,000 people on the payroll) to take the battlefield in big primary states on March 3, Super Tuesday. If that was, indeed, the plan, it might be starting to fall into place.

The ultimate showdown, presumably, would have Bloomberg face off against Sanders — the multi-billionaire against the champion of the working class — in what could be the most divisive Democratic convention since Hubert Humphrey took the nomination in 1968 without competing in any of the party primaries.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks Monday at a campaign event in Manchester, N.H. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, Trump has been creeping up in the polls. He's nearly 44 per cent in the polling average on FiveThirtyEight, a poll analysis site, his highest point in almost three years. That's still historically low for a president enjoying a strong economy as Trump does, but it only adds to the twitchiness of an already nervous group of Democrats who are terrified they might blow the opportunity of taking back the White House.

It's still possible—maybe even still likely—that Biden will recover his front-runner status in the South Carolina primary later this month, where he hopes to demonstrate an enormous lead among African American voters without whom a Democratic nominee cannot win in November.

But he is disappointing to Democrats who thought he'd put on a better show than he has so far. Maybe they were unrealistic. Biden's campaign history is not inspiring. He has run for president twice before (1988, 2008) but didn't get far either time. 

This is his first New Hampshire primary. And he knows what everyone knows: you can't win the nomination here, but you can lose it.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks at a campaign event Monday in Exeter, N.H. According to the most recent polls, Biden is struggling with Senators Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren for third place ahead of Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

About the Author

Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.

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