MANCHESTER, N.H. — The New Hampshire primary appeared unlikely to substantially winnow the field, leaving the hunt for the nomination more unsettled than in any presidential primary in the last 30 years and making the rapid-fire succession of contests that follow all the more crucial — starting with the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22, the South Carolina primary a week later, and Super Tuesday, when a third of delegates will be decided, on March 3.
Put another way, there are no fewer than seven Democratic candidates who still believe — some against mounting odds — that they have a shot at the party nomination.
“Usually we wake up after the New Hampshire primary and have a pretty good idea who the nominee will probably wind up being,” said veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who guided John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. “There are some exceptions to that, but this year we are in uncharted territory."
Looming over the race are a pair of billionaires, Tom Steyer and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who are dumping buckets of money into later-voting states. Their seemingly unlimited supply of cash could make for a long primary season, and cloud the future of the traditionally funded candidates.
“This is going to be a war of attrition,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "It’s going to be brutal.”
The fight for delegates will send the candidates in various directions.
Once the front-runner, Joe Biden fled to South Carolina hours before polls in New Hampshire closed, opting to hold a “launch party” in a state to which his campaign has pinned its battered argument that he’s the most electable. He sees South Carolina’s significant portion of Black voters as key to his survival.
Senator Bernie Sanders, who appeared headed for a good night, heads to North Carolina and Texas later in the week. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., will go straight to Nevada, before a swing through California and other Super Tuesday states.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who started the week with little cash and essentially no campaign infrastructure outside the first two states, scrambled to build on her late-breaking momentum. As New Hampshire returns started to roll in, her campaign announced they were going on the air in Nevada with two new TV ads in a “seven figure” ad buy, and started to fill out a schedule of stops, including visits to several Super Tuesday states.
Senator Elizabeth Warren plans to hit Virginia, also voting on Super Tuesday, for a town hall meeting before eventually making her way to Nevada for the next debate, slated for Feb. 19.
Bloomberg, for his part, remains an unpredictable factor. Skipping the early states and focused on Super Tuesday, the billionaire and onetime Republican has built a juggernaut in just 10 weeks. He’s hired more than 2,100 staff members and opened more than 125 campaign offices across 40 states and territories — the largest campaign operation of the Democratic field.
Bloomberg appears poised to qualify for the next debate thanks to a steady climb in polls fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising. His presence on that debate stage, which would be the first major test for his candidacy, is just one of countless twists ahead.
“The rules that apply generally are not applicable" because there’s never been a contest featuring a candidate with unlimited resources backed up with a good strategy, said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist. “You’ve had lots of rich people, but nobody like this."
The Biden campaign spent Tuesday lowering expectations and arguing that in the race to figure out who can take on President Trump, the real results that matter are in states with electorates more diverse than New Hampshire and Iowa.
After campaigning in South Carolina, Biden will be in New York City for fund-raising and to appear on “The View.” He will then jet off to Nevada, according to the campaign.
“South Carolina will tell you that there are resets in this political nomination process,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic consultant based in Columbia, S.C. He said it is impossible to have a final picture of who Democrats want to be their standard-bearer “until the ink of African-Americans is dry on the political canvas because they are without a doubt the most decisive and probably charged-up voting group.”
But Biden’s much-touted support with Black voters looks like it could be softening, A Feb. 10 Quinnipiac University poll found Biden’s support among Black voters dropping 22 points nationally since his dismal performance in Iowa.
Still, Biden performs better than any of the other Democrats with Black voters. Overall, the survey showed Sanders overtaking Biden to be the national front-runner for the first time.
While largely overlooked by a number of candidates and the media, Nevada — one of just five states where non-Hispanic whites are a minority of the population — could also end up playing a major role, according to campaign strategists.
The Nevada Democratic caucuses proved to be a critical stopgap for Hillary Clinton in 2016. After she lost the New Hampshire primary to Sanders by 22 points, her victory in Nevada righted the ship and set her off to win South Carolina and the nomination.
Some moderate Democratic leaders worry that with Buttigieg, Biden, Klobuchar — and eventually Bloomberg — splitting up the moderate vote, Sanders could benefit and pick off a number of states where he already has an established organization.
In fact, according to Megan Jones, a Nevada Democratic strategist and former top aide to retired Senate majority leader Harry Reid, it will be hard for upstart candidates to quickly build an organization to compete with Sanders.
For the first time ever, the Nevada caucuses will have a form of early voting. That begins on Saturday.
“There isn’t a lot of time for campaigns to come here after New Hampshire thinking they can suddenly do a campaign reset and run a full campaign here if they haven’t already invested months ago,” said Jones, who had advised Senator Kamala Harris’s campaign in Nevada.
Buttigieg, for example, placed his first major buy of television advertising in Nevada on Tuesday.
Still, Sanders is by no means guaranteed victory there.
Some 70 percent of all Nevada Democratic caucus-goers live in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located. This is also home to powerful labor groups, including the 60,000-member culinary union, which represents hotel, casino, and restaurant workers.
While the culinary union has not endorsed a candidate, it has signaled that it doesn’t like Medicare for All, the signature health care proposal backed by Sanders and Warren. The union argues it has negotiated superior health care benefits that should not be scrapped for a fully government-administered plan.
This week, the union circulated a flier that did not mention Warren or Sanders by name but did say, “We have fought for 85 years to protect our health care. Why would we let politicians take it away?”
Another factor in Nevada is Steyer, who has been blanketing the airwaves there for months. Figures provided to the Globe by the nonpartisan ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics show that Biden has spent $900,000 in advertising there, Warren a little over a million, and Sanders $1.6 million in television ads.
Steyer has blown them all out of the water, pouring $13.1 million into Nevada advertising since July.