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12 February 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 1:16pm

Bernie Sanders won in New Hampshire but the true victor could be Michael Bloomberg

After two indecisive contests, the billionaire and former New York mayor is well placed to seize the momentum.

By Ivo Dawnay

Whatever the radicals say, the moral victory was for moderate Democrats. Three hours after New Hampshire’s polls closed it was clear that – while Bernie Sanders may be the notional winner – the surprise rise of third-placed senator Amy Klobuchar and a strong showing by second-placed Pete Buttigieg were the talking points. That and the disastrous 8.4 per cent vote share of Joe Biden, the former vice-president, for whom this presidential race must be all but over. It was a disappointment, too, for Elizabeth Warren, the senator for neighbouring Massachusetts – less than one point ahead of him.

At the time of writing, Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist and 78-year-old Vermont senator, with 25.7 per cent of the vote is just one point ahead of the previously little-known Buttigieg. Add up the numbers, and the radicals, Sanders and Warren, command just over a third of the total vote. By contrast, the moderates – Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Biden – have more than half. 

For Michael Bloomberg, the 77-year-old billionaire entrepreneur and former New York mayor, this was a dream outcome. His decision to refrain from the presidential contest until Super Tuesday on 3 March was considered both arrogant and foolhardy. Today it looks brilliant.

As his rivals have slugged it out across two small and electorally insignificant states, Bloomberg has deployed his bottomless cheque book where it matters – in California, Texas, Virginia and the key rustbelt swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio. In the last quarter of 2019, the twelfth-richest man in the US, spent more than all of his rivals, including the president himself. 

Bloomberg’s advertising spend since January ($310m) is more than double the $115m deployed by the rest. Cynics are clearly going to get an answer to the eternal question: “Can the presidency be bought?”

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Until now, the election has been held in overwhelmingly white states (both Iowa and New Hampshire are more than 90 per cent white). Now the focus moves to Nevada, with a large Hispanic vote, and South Carolina, where a third of the population of five million are non-white, 28 per cent of them African-American. 

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For both Buttigieg and Klobuchar – both no-nonsense Midwesterners – the ethnic minority vote poses problems. As an ever more desperate Biden showed in attack ads on Buttigieg, the former small-town mayor lost black support after sacking his African-American police chief and introducing stop-and-search laws in South Bend, Indiana.

Minnesotan senator Klobuchar was a disciplinarian when working as a prosecuting attorney. “She’s the kind of woman behind the till at the bowling alley who you don’t argue with when she shuts up shop,” observed humourist, P.J. O’Rourke.

For 77-year-old Biden, survival depends on his black support. Polls suggest that Obama’s former veep still has around 30 per cent of the vote in South Carolina and is marginally ahead in Nevada. But the truth is that he has campaigned poorly by emphasising only his experience and “electability” – plus the name recognition reputedly needed to take on Donald Trump.

Having lost an early lead in both the opening contests, Biden’s electability is self-evidently unproven. Equally disputable was Sanders’ insistence at his victory rally last night meant that people want radical change. “Our campaign is not just about beating Trump, it’s about transforming the country,” he declared. 

All this spells opportunity for Bloomberg – and scrutiny. Last night, a Boston radio station had already unearthed recordings of the media titan bluntly justifying the targeting of ethnic minorities by police as a logical step.

Perhaps the biggest winner of all is Trump. Having buzzed downtown Manchester’s Elm Street in Air Force One on Sunday before rousing a 12,000-strong stadium full of ecstatic supporters, he called on the crowd to vote for the weakest candidate in the Democratic pack. “Actually, that is hard to do, because they are all weak,” he sneered.

The true Nightmare on Elm Street for the Democrats is the prospect of a “brokered” party convention in Minneapolis in July. That might give the 15 per cent of attendees known as “super delegates” the final decision. These are the ex-officio small-town mayors and party officials, many of whom, it is noted, have received financial support from Bloomberg to win their offices.

Should that happen, Sanders’ claims that the billionaire is the ultimate oligarch – the very class of people he has pledged to oppose – might have real resonance.