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CONCORD, N.H. - Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the top vote-getter in the first two presidential primary contests, has staked a fragile claim to being the Democrats’ early front-runner.

Whether he stays there, however, hinges on the answer to an existential question: How broadly can a white, male, 78-year-old democratic socialist expand his reach?

What has gotten Sanders this far is the fact that he has the most loyal and fervent supporters within the Democratic coalition. This is no small feat, especially for someone who isn’t actually a member of the party.

He has also been helped by the fact that Democrats, in their desperation to find someone who can beat President Trump in November, find themselves at a moment of extraordinary political fluidity.

According to the New Hampshire exit polls, half of those who cast their ballots in Tuesday’s primary waited until the final days to make up their minds. Most of those late deciders went to former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. This late surge dealt a major blow - potentially a fatal one - to the once-formidable candidacies of former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Sanders voters, on the other hand, stood out for the solidity with which they stood behind him. Among the 32% of primary voters who said they had made up their minds before last month, nearly half (46%) cast their ballots for him. As in the past, Sanders did especially well among the youngest and most liberal voters.

But in a sprawling field, Sanders has a smaller base, proportionally, than when he ran for the nomination in 2016. Four years ago, he basically split the votes with Hillary Clinton in Iowa, and trounced her in New Hampshire, topping 60%, which was one of the biggest victories ever in a contested Granite State primary.

This year, he won those states with far lower shares of the vote, getting 26.5% in Iowa and 25.8% in New Hampshire. He finished barely ahead of political newcomer Buttigieg in both states. And Buttigieg maintains a slight lead in the race for convention delegates.

It is possible to imagine Sanders slogging his way to the nomination the way Trump did in 2016, repeatedly winning pluralities against fractured opposition from the party establishment. The potential for that is greater if lower-performing candidates like Biden and Warren remain in the race.

On the other hand, Sanders’s vaunted online fundraising machine has yet to come up against the even greater resources of former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is blanketing the national airwaves in advance of next month’s Super Tuesday contests. Democratic establishment forces are increasingly viewing Bloomberg as their billionaire backstop against the possibility of running against Trump with a socialist at the top of the ticket.

Sanders is well aware that he must expand his support, including among constituencies that he lost to Clinton in 2016. In his victory speech on Tuesday night, he talked of building an “unprecedented multigenerational, multiracial political movement.”

As recently as October, national polls had Sanders running a distant third to Biden and Warren. That he now finds himself in the position of being the man to beat is an astonishing achievement. In the weeks to come, we will discover whether he has transformed the Democratic Party, or merely provided a foil for someone who will.

Print Headline: Will Sanders’ victories matter in the long run?

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