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OPINION: Bernie has momentum after New Hampshire, but he must broaden his base



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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., narrowly wins the New Hampshire primary. Tribune News Service

New Hampshire, oh how hardly we knew ye.

Bernie Sanders emerged victorious in the Granite State’s Democratic primary Tuesday, capturing 25.8% of the vote. His closest competitors, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, received 24.5% and 19.9% of the vote, respectively. 

High-profile commentators, including FiveThirtyEight analysts and CNN journalist Jake Tapper, have declared Sanders the Democratic frontrunner. With Sanders leading in a new national poll and his aides confident about the Nevada caucuses, his campaign appears to be on the path to achieving what it failed to achieve in 2016: the coveted nomination.

However, taking a closer look at the New Hampshire results, concerns still loom about the overall viability of his campaign. Sanders still has much work to do to expand his electorate by reaching out to disaffected supporters of other campaigns and recharging more of his 2016 base.

Sanders got 50% fewer votes this time around in New Hampshire than he did in 2016. Of course, with a primary that has expanded from a two-way race in 2016 into a multi-candidate circus this election, there must be some votes must be going to other individuals. But concerns remain among some commentators that Sanders acted more as a foil for Hillary Clinton in 2016 without having strong baseline support.

Still, thanks to Iowa and New Hampshire, there is evidence he can expand his core base of fervent supporters. In Iowa, for example, the proportion of voters under 30 spiked from 18% of the turnout in 2016 to 24% in 2020.

One key group remains a vulnerability for Sanders: older Americans. More than 70% of Americans over the age of 65 voted in the 2016 election, compared to 46% of those between the ages of 18 and 29. Exit polls in New Hampshire showed Sanders in third place with voters more than 45 and older. The county-level results suggested that new voters in New Hampshire turned out for Buttigieg and Klobuchar instead.

Improving his anemic numbers with older Americans is a must for a strong primary victory. Sanders should focus more on Social Security expansion and emphasize his record in ensuring safe retirement for all.

Similarly, Sanders must reach out to the disaffected supporters of his rival campaigns. While his core base is passionate, he needs other candidates’ supporters to turn a plurality into a majority.

Lenny Bronnern, a data scientist for the Washington Post, estimated about one-third of New Hampshire residents who voted for Sanders in 2016 voted this year for Warren, Buttigieg or Klobuchar. If these candidates drop out or lose major steam, the Sanders campaign should break its back to win over their supporters.

Andrew Yang, who dropped out Tuesday after a disappointing showing in Iowa and New Hampshire, could help Sanders’ success, too. Even with just a 3% national polling average before dropping out, Yang’s supporters could be the difference between a first-place and second-place primary finish for Sanders.

Sanders appears likely to gain new support from minorities. Former Vice President Joe Biden, after his disappointing fifth-place performance in New Hampshire, hyperbolized that “99.9% of African Americans” and “99.8% of Latinos” have yet to vote. His sentiment is valid: Iowa and New Hampshire are some of the least racially diverse states in the nation.

Sanders has surged to become the first choice of nonwhite voters overall, but remains behind Biden among black people, according to two recent polls. He has room to grow if Biden's share of black voters decreases. Minority voters, including Muslims and Ethiopian immigrants, helped Sanders win the popular vote in Iowa.

Nevada and South Carolina are the next two states in the primary calendar, scheduled for on Feb. 22 and Feb. 29, respectively. Both states are more racially diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire, which makes them vital for continuing Sanders’ momentum. A strong victory for Biden or Buttigieg in Nevada or South Carolina would be a bad omen for Sanders’ campaign.

New Hampshire was a great victory for the Sanders campaign and showed that, yes, he can win the nomination. However, his supporters shouldn’t be complacent and instead should work to broaden the base, especially with older and minority voters.

Max Sandefer (he/him) is a sophomore studying Spanish and political science. He is currently a legislative intern on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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