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The Democratic race isn’t going to be pretty

“When the president is this divisive, we cannot risk dividing America further, saying that you must either be for a revolution or you must be for the status quo,” the former South Bend, Ind., mayor said. “Let’s make room for everybody in this movement.”

That might sound unobjectionable, especially at a dinner designed to showcase party unity. Not to supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Holding flashing purple lights that spelled out “Bernie,” they were having none of it. “Wall Street Pete!” they chanted. “Wall Street Pete.”

This is not going to be pretty. Rather, the battle for the Democratic nomination increasingly looks like it could result in a divided and possibly even brokered convention in Milwaukee in July. New Hampshire may claim to pick presidents, but whatever the results Tuesday night, there is not likely to be much more clarity in the presidential field any time soon.

Rather, the results seem likely to underscore the stark ideological divisions within the party; the persistent and even expanding unwillingness of the party’s left wing to tolerate ideological impurity; and the fractured nature of the battle for the not-Sanders voters. All of this is concerning, extraordinarily so, for Democrats’ prospects in November.

In New Hampshire, some candidates might enjoy a bump — in particular Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, if she manages to secure a third-place finish. Others may be winnowed out or suffer near-fatal wounds, with former vice president Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren most at risk. South Carolina, where two-thirds of the Democratic electorate is African American, may be Biden’s firewall, but it’s 18 days off. That’s an awfully long time to be fighting a raging fire.

African American voters, the Democratic Party’s key demographic, have a demonstrated pragmatic streak: In 2008, they were resistant to backing Barack Obama, as much as they liked the idea of his candidacy, until the then-senator from Illinois demonstrated his ability to win. In 2020, the reverse may be occurring: African American voters who have an emotional connection with Biden, and have supported him because they believe he can beat President Trump, might abandon him if that electability argument proves a mirage.

Of the avalanche of recent polls, the most significant may have been a national Quinnipiac poll that showed Biden having lost nearly half his support among African American Democratic primary voters, falling from 49 percent to 27 percent since late January — still the highest in the field but a precipitous drop.

The flip side of that poll involved Mike Bloomberg. With 15 percent support overall, the former New York mayor found himself edging closer to Biden (17 percent) and Sanders (25 percent). More significantly, his African American support surged from 8 percent in January to 22 percent. Biden’s loss was, mostly, Bloomberg’s gain.

Bloomberg’s looming presence and his unprecedented tsunami of spending augur more uncertainty ahead. Bloomberg might have entered the race because he saw the need for a moderate alternative to Sanders and worried about Biden’s viability and the absence of a credible alternative. But the consequence may be a self-fulfilling prophecy: to choke off the very emergence of that alternative. It is difficult for a candidate like Buttigieg or Klobuchar to muster the financial wherewithal to compete with Bloomberg in the expensive Super Tuesday contests, including behemoths such as California and Texas.

The resulting muddle could be intensified by the Democrats’ practice of awarding delegates by proportional representation, in contrast to the winner-take-all or winner-take-most rules used in many Republican primaries (which vary by state). This arrangement could end up helping Sanders, since the rules require candidates to win at least 15 percent to qualify for delegates — a challenge in a race featuring numerous contenders for the non-Sanders vote. But it could also make it difficult for a single candidate to amass the required majority of delegates.

But would the party really deny Sanders the nomination if he were to enter the convention with a significant plurality of delegates? If that happened, chants of “Wall Street Pete” might sound mild, and Sanders supporters’ booing of Hillary Clinton at the 2016 convention a minor distraction.

Sanders himself has pledged to support whoever is the Democratic nominee. But his sharp words for both Bloomberg and Buttigieg — he criticized one for “spending millions to buy the election” and the other for taking money from billionaires — would not make it easier for his supporters to rally behind one of their candidacies. Conversely, Sanders as nominee would require a lot of Democratic nose-holding.

The chief message from speaking with voters over several days here was indecision about the best nominee and anxiety about the ultimate outcome. Both emotions seem more than justified.

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