Manchester, New Hampshire—If Bernie Sanders has his way, the final days of the long New Hampshire primary competition will not be what the polls suggest—a tight contest between the senator from Vermont and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg—but a fight over the role of billionaires in Democratic politics.
In the last debate before Tuesday’s primary, as in appearances on the campaign trail, Sanders painted Buttigieg as a favorite of the billionaire class, which the democratic socialist senator has targeted as the source of compromise in the party and corruption in governing.
Ripping into Buttigieg during Friday’s final pre-primary debate at St. Anselm College, Sanders pointed out that “unlike some of the folks up here, I don’t have 40 billionaires, Pete, contributing to my campaign, coming from the pharmaceutical industry, Wall Street and all the big money interests.”
Sanders then took the critical next step of linking his centrist rival’s willingness to take big money to the broader question of whether Democrats will stand for fundamental change in a bid to replace a Republican president who proudly identifies as a billionaire. “If you want to change America,” argued Sanders, “you’re not going to do it by electing candidates who are going out to rich people’s homes begging for money.”
Sanders and Buttigieg came out on top of the mangled count from Monday’s Iowa caucuses. That result has boosted an already strong Buttigieg campaign in New Hampshire into a surging run that backers of the 38-year-old moderate hope will displace Sanders, the progressive who easily won the state’s first-in-the-nation primary in 2016.
The polls show a tight race. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polls has Sanders at 26.4 percent and Buttigieg at 22.2 percent, with Buttigieg generally seen as rising. Former vice president Joe Biden was at 12.6 and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren at 12.2, while Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is at 7.4. No other candidate is above 5 percent.
Sanders is not the only candidate who is going after Buttigieg for accepting the support of billionaires. Warren, who like Sanders has relied on small-donor support to power her campaign, did not mention the former mayor by name on Friday night, but still landed a blow. “I don’t think anyone should be able to buy their way into a nomination or to be president of the United States,” declared Warren, who added, “I don’t think people who suck up to billionaires in order to fund their campaigns ought to do it.”
Buttigieg offered the standard defense of Democrats who rely on support from wealthy donors and those with ties to special interests. “We are going into the fight of our lives,” said the former mayor. “Donald Trump—according to news reports—and his allies raised $25 million today. We need to go into that fight with everything that we’ve got.”
Exchanges like this suggest to voters that “Biden or Pete both cultivate the wealthy” and create an impression of Buttigieg as “a young Joe,” says Arnie Arnesen, a former New Hampshire legislator and Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
That will resonate with a good many progressives in a state where there has been a great deal of organizing over the years for campaign finance reform and anti-corporate agendas. But Arnesen emphasized that there is “no generic answer” regarding the effectiveness of a challenge to a candidate that focuses on how he or she finances a bid.
Polls suggest that in New Hampshire, a swing state that Trump almost won in 2016, a great many Democrats are focused primarily on finding the strongest contender and the strongest strategy for beating Trump. In this regard, Klobuchar’s sharp attack on fellow-centrist Buttigieg’s maturity as a candidate—she tore into him during the debate for making glib comments regarding Trump’s impeachment trial—could also resonate. Indeed, Arnesen says of Klobuchar’s withering critique, “Amy’s performance took from Pete.”
At this point, however, the Sanders-Buttigieg struggle appears to have taken center stage. The candidates both have packed schedules that will take them to Democratic strongholds across the state in the closing days of a race that has seen each campaign staffing up field offices, filling the media with ads, and collecting key endorsements.
Buttigieg got a big one from US Representative Ann McLane Kuster, a high-profile New Hampshire Democrat who has been introducing him at events as “the leader who can finally turn the page on the Trump presidency and bring our nation together.” Sanders has secured vital labor support from unions such as SEA/SEIU Local 1984, which identifies as New Hampshire’s second-largest union, with more than 10,000 public and private sector members.
In a state where primary voters often upend the conventional wisdom with last-minute twists of sentiment and embraces of “fresh faces” like Gary Hart in 1984 and Paul Tsongas in 1992, Sanders is well-aware that he will have to fight to maintain his lead. And he has clearly determined that a part of that fight will involve pinning the “big money” tag on Buttigieg. That may not draw many of Buttigieg’s core backers to break with their candidate. But it could help Sanders attract progressives who have considered other contenders—as well as voters who think an outspoken critic of traditional politics would be the best alternative to Trump.
In an appearance Friday at Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Sanders pulled no punches: “I’m reading some headlines from newspapers about Pete Buttigieg. ‘Pete Buttigieg has most exclusive billionaire donors of any Democrat.’ That was from Forbes. The Hill: ‘Pete Buttigieg tops billionaire donor list.’ Fortune: ‘Pete Buttigieg takes lead as big business candidate in 2020 field.’ Washington Post: ‘Pete Buttigieg lures even closer look from Wall Street donors following strong Iowa caucus performance.’ Forbes magazine: ‘Here are the billionaires backing Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.’”
Sanders concluded: “I like Pete Buttigieg, nice guy. But we are in a moment where billionaires control not only our economy but our political life.”
The senator also went after a Democratic contender who is not campaigning in New Hampshire: free-spending billionaire Michael Bloomberg. “He is spending hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the election. There’s something wrong with that,” said Sanders. “How do we feel about living in a so-called democracy when a billionaire—multibillionaire, $55 billion—can spend unlimited sums of money?”
The Bloomberg campaign called the senator’s remarks “insulting.” That critique is unlikely to bother Sanders, who proudly declares that he is running against “the billionaire class.” But Arnesen says Sanders will need to take Bloomberg seriously.
A longtime critic of the influence of big money on American politics, who has few kind words for Bloomberg, Arensen says she hears from plenty of New Hampshire Democrats who think the billionaire might be the one to beat the president. “People are exhausted. They just want someone who can overwhelm Trump,” explains Arnesen. She predicts that Bloomberg, whose ads on Boston TV stations are seen by people across southern New Hampshire, could even secure a credible number of write-in votes in the primary.
“Whoever comes out of New Hampshire,” she says of the Democrats, “is going to end up running against a billionaire named Bloomberg.”