After what was essentially another split decision in the quest for delegates, the Democratic presidential campaign appears headed for a long, drawn-out fight that could stretch into the summer.
A battle between the progressive and moderate wings of the party, as well as a newly flaring fight among the moderates themselves, has combined with changes to the Democratic nomination process to provide little hope a nominee will be determined any time soon.
“I think you might have a situation where there’s a winner in May or June,” said Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania who also served as chairman of the national Democratic Party.
That leaves candidates fighting among themselves — pointing out each other’s flaws — while President Trump already is running a general election campaign focused on the flaws of his opponents.
Democrats are desperate to find the strongest candidate to defeat Trump, but if they hoped for clear answers out of New Hampshire’s primary, they’re out of luck. Muddled is the word many have used to describe this primary battle as it heads into the next phase with hardly more clarity than before voting began in Iowa on Feb. 3.
“For all intents and purposes you had a repeat of Iowa,” Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist who advises progressive and labor groups, said of the New Hampshire results.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, won New Hampshire with 25.7 percent of the vote, trailed closely by former South Bend, Ind. mayor Pete Buttigieg with 24.4 percent, providing Sanders with the smallest margin of victory in the history of that state’s Democratic primary.
Four years ago, he won that primary with 60 percent of the vote.
The outcome left one-time presumed front-runners, namely former vice president Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, struggling but vowing to soldier on. And underdog third-place finisher Amy Klobuchar suddenly has a chance.
“It’s not so much a negative in itself; it’s the absence of a positive,” lamented Barney Frank, the former Democratic congressman from Newton, about the state of the effort to defeat Trump in November.
Frank, who supported Hillary Clinton four years ago, said the combined vote totals for Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden show that a majority of Democratic voters so far favor a more moderate candidate.
“[Sanders] represents what’s clearly a minority faction among the Democrats, but because the others are doing more of a three-way, he has more of an advantage,” Frank said.
Another looming factor is Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, who is targeting the contests that begin on Super Tuesday and has been blanketing those states with ads.
“Bloomberg is not going away. Bloomberg will do well enough on Super Tuesday to remain a strong factor,” said Rendell, who has endorsed Biden.
The raw numbers of all important convention delegates tell the story of a race far from settled.
Sanders and Buttigieg each earned nine delegates from the New Hampshire primary, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar got six. That made the total after two contests Buttigieg, 22, Sanders, 21, Warren, 8, Klobuchar, 7, and Biden 6.
To put that in context, a candidate needs 1,990 pledged delegates to secure the nomination on the first ballot at the convention. So the race has just begun. But voters typically look to the first two voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire for a sign of which candidate is the most viable.
More clarity could come on Super Tuesday, March 3, when 14 states, including Massachusetts, hold primaries and 1,357 delegates will be awarded.
The lack of a clear front-runner does nothing to solve the ideological tug-of-war in the Democratic Party between the progressive and moderate wings. While Sanders has taken the lead as the strongest progressive candidate at the moment, the race among the moderates appears to only be starting.
Bannon, who is not backing a candidate, said the only clarity so far is that Sanders will likely carry the progressive wing into the next phase of the nomination fight. Warren, who ran on a similar platform and surged over the summer and fall, underperformed in the first two contests.
Her campaign this week sought to minimize expectations, as did that of Biden, who has no plans of dropping out, his advisers said.
“No candidate has come close yet to receiving majority support among the Democratic primary electorate, and there is no candidate that has yet shown the ability to consolidate support,” Warren’s campaign manager Roger Lau wrote in a memo to supporters on Tuesday, foreshadowing a long race.
Bannon said that could be problematic if no candidate has secured enough delegates for the nomination before the Democrats hold their convention this summer in Milwaukee.
“That means a lot of backroom infighting, a lot of deals cut in Milwaukee, and in the age of transparency, backroom deals are a bad thing,” he said.
The Democrats’ way of allocating the delegates is different from the Republicans’ and draws out the process.
While Republicans allow states to allocate delegates on a winner-take-all basis, Democrats require delegates to be awarded proportionally to any candidate that earns more than 15 percent of the vote in a state primary or caucuses. So it takes longer for a Democratic candidate to earn the majority of delegates needed to secure the nomination.
On top of that, the Democratic National Committee made changes for 2020 that would further lengthen a close race, after complaints from Sanders and his supporters that the 2016 nominating process was tilted against his upstart candidacy.
In addition to the 3,979 delegates pledged to candidates based on how they do in primaries and caucuses, there are another approximately 770 superdelegates who can back whichever candidate they want. They are Democratic governors and members of Congress along with DNC members and some other party insiders.
Normally, those superdelegates can help swing the nomination to a candidate who is short of a majority of pledged delegates. But this year, those superdelegates have lost a lot of power.
A rule change prevents them from voting on the crucial first ballot in a convention where the nomination is contested. Some DNC members reportedly want to reverse the rule change and allow superdelegates to vote on a first ballot if no Democratic candidate has secured a majority of pledged delegates heading into the convention.
Senator Doug Jones, a Democrat from Alabama, said allowing the nomination process to play out slowly is healthy.
“I think the media is trying to anoint a nominee at this point when it’s really still pretty early. And there’s some really good candidates out there, there’s still some viability for them, the moderate voices are strong,” he said Wednesday.
But Frank thinks all the division will ultimately help Bloomberg, who has set his sights on Trump, not other Democrats.
“This one guy who is acting as if ‘let’s worry about the final’ is winning support and that’s what you lose as long as the candidates have to differentiate themselves from each other. They have less energy and less attention from the voters to go after Trump,” Frank said.
Trump, meanwhile, appears to be reveling in the Democrats’ plight.
“They are all fighting each other, they are all going after each other, you have got them all over the place,” he said at a raucous rally in Manchester, N.H., on Monday. “They don’t know what the hell they’re doing”
Globe correspondent Syd Stone contributed to this report.