American headline writers are never satisfied with a pun until they've beaten it to death. Their predilection for overkill was on full display Wednesday morning, after socialist underdog Bernie Sanders bested Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary, building momentum after his strong showing a week earlier in the Iowa caucuses. "New Hampshire feels the burn," cried The Nation. The Daily News echoed the sentiment, while Mashable opted for the more succinct, "Bern, baby, Bern."
The polls had been signaling for weeks that Sanders would win in New Hampshire, but observers in the press were still taken aback by his 22-point margin of victory. Just a few months ago, Clinton’s nomination appeared to be all but a foregone conclusion; as of this week, anything seemed possible. Guardian columnist Lucia Graves raved that Sanders had “effectively swiped Hillary Clinton’s frontrunner status."
A double-digit victory in an early primary state is nothing to sneeze at, but Sandernistas would do well to curb their enthusiasm. Clinton remains the indisputable frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Sanders’s early success, remarkable as it is, has done nothing to change the underlying dynamics of the race.
The real test for Sanders begins in the next two primary states, Nevada and South Carolina, where demographics work heavily in Clinton’s favor.
Iowa and New Hampshire are 92 percent white and 94 percent white, respectively, according to 2014 Census estimates. Polls show that Clinton tends to perform better among black and Latino voters. She’ll likely have the advantage in South Carolina, where more than half of 2008 Democratic primary voters were black, and in Nevada, where progressive activists have spent years targeting the Latino community with an aggressive voter registration campaign. Those states will provide a better sense of the Sanders coalition’s chances than either Iowa or New Hampshire, which are two of the ten whitest states in the country.
Nevada and South Carolina will also test the longevity of the Sanders campaign’s infrastructure. Clinton may have fallen behind her opponent when it comes to fundraising from direct campaign contributions, but she commands endorsements from some of the nation's biggest progressive activist groups, including the labor union SEIU, with its army of two million members, and support from a bevy of lavish super PACs. Sanders has nothing close to that level of institutional support.
With $163.5 million in overall contributions compared to Sanders's $75.1 million, the Clinton campaign has been able to lay its groundwork in these states well in advance. The first Clinton field office appeared in Nevada in April 2015, a month before Sanders even announced his candidacy. The Sanders campaign didn't set up its first office in Nevada until October.
Even measured by committed delegates — the narrowest possible measure of “frontrunner status” — Sanders is at a massive disadvantage. Yes, his campaign has netted a combined total of 36 delegates from Iowa and New Hampshire, narrowly edging out Clinton’s haul of 32 delegates so far. But that’s not counting the superdelegates, a group of 370 Democratic potentates who can flock to their preferred candidates without being constrained by state primary outcomes. Clinton has the pledged support of 362 superdelegates to Sanders’s eight, giving her an overall 394 to 44 delegate lead even before the next 48 states head to the polls.
That's not to say a Sanders victory is completely unthinkable. Primary electorates tend to be fairly small, and they sometimes confound expectations. In Nevada, where there hasn’t been much polling of the Democratic race and grassroots labor activism could break in Sanders's favor, an upset isn’t totally out of the question. But for Sanders to take the lead nationwide would be nigh miraculous. The Democratic primary may have been rattled, but its fundamentals all still point the same way — to Clinton.