Hburg and Virginia voters are on deck to weigh in on muddled Democratic presidential primary

Updated Monday afternoon after Amy Klobuchar announced she was dropping out of the race.

By Bridget Manley and Ryan Alessi, publishers

Harrisonburg voters, along with those in the rest of Virginia, will go to the polls Tuesday to weigh in on the biggest day of the Democratic presidential nomination contest that has 1,357 delegates at stake

And the outcome — both locally and nationally — is very much uncertain heading into Super Tuesday, local political observers and Democratic party leaders say. 

Marty Cohen, an associate professor of political science at James Madison University, said he can’t predict who will win Tuesday’s race — or what kind of an effect Saturday’s contest in South Carolina might have. Former Vice President Joe Biden handily won South Carolina with 48.4% of the vote after finishing fourth in Iowafifth in New Hampshire and a distant second in Nevada. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont U.S. senator, won Nevada and New Hampshire and finished with the second-most delegate equivalents in the Iowa caucuses. 

Virginia appears very much in play, Cohen said. 

“From what I’ve seen in the polls there’s a significant number of people who are undecided, even at this late date,” Cohen said. “It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen.”

In fact, the latest Virginia poll, conducted by Christopher Newport University, that came out Friday — the day before South Carolina’s primary — showed Biden leading Sanders 22% to 17% with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg running third with 13%. The survey of 561 likely voters in the Democratic primary was conducted by landline and cell phones between Feb. 3-24 and has a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points. 

Harrisonburg Democratic Committee Chair Alleyn Harned also said many local Democrats have remained undecided in the final days before the primary. 

“There’s obviously a lot more people on the ballot,” Harned said. “I think people are very aware of the primary. They’ve been thinking about this moment for months, or years. I think with so many people on the ballot, folks in our area are making up their minds on who they are voting for. Some are committed, but some are still looking.” 

Crowded ballot thins out

The names of 14 Democratic candidates will be on Tuesday’s ballot. But nine candidates who had filed to run in Virginia  dropped out by Monday, including businessman Tom Steyer, who ended his presidential bid Saturday night after finishing a distant third in South Carolina, and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who left the race Sunday after steadily falling back in the pack with each successive primary contest. Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was the latest to drop out when she announced Monday afternoon she would end her bid and endorse Biden.

That leaves Sanders, Biden, Bloomberg, Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Hawaii U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard still vying for the nomination. 

“I think it’s going to be maybe a potentially higher turnout race for that reason,” Cohen said. “But I also think that there are going to be some voters who think strategically about who they want to vote for. Their first choice may be someone who is on their way out of the race, and they may not want to waste their votes on someone who may not be around much longer. So that may move some of the votes to the more viable candidates.”

Harned said believes the Democratic Party can unite under the eventual nominee is, regardless of how heated or competitive the primary gets. He said many Democrats are unified in defeating President Donald Trump in November.

“While our leadership at the presidential level has not been defined, we are really ready for that dialogue and to build that coalition we need for the fall,” Harned said. “I think that there remains a tangible excitement for coming together and for building.” 

Cohen, though, said he’s not as sure all factions fully unite behind any one of the candidates. 

“It’s hard to imagine, the way it’s starting to work, that the party will be totally unified now,” Cohen said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be 100% unity, but in order to win a close election against an incumbent president with, until this week, an economy that was fairly strong, you’re going to need some sort of unity, and that could really hurt the democrats in the fall.”

“Whoever gets the nomination is going to have to make a real effort to unite the party and mend all the fences and rebuild all the bridges that have been burned down during the campaign,” Cohen said. 

Hburg and Virginia’s role on Super Tuesday

Virginia is one of the bigger prizes of Super Tuesday when voters in 14 states plus American Samoa and Democrats abroad will vote. Virginia has 99 delegates at stake, fourth most that day after California (415), Texas (228) and North Carolina (110). 

Virginia is also an open primary state, meaning any registered — Republican, independent or other — voter can show up to the polls Tuesday and ask for the Democratic ballot. The Republican Party doesn’t have a primary and instead will formally select the nominee at a statewide convention later this spring.    

Cohen said open primaries sometimes can work to the advantage of an insurgent candidate — someone outside of the “establishment.” 

“So that could also work in Bernie’s favor here as it has in New Hampshire in both 2020 and 2016 — also another state where you can get independent and Republican votes,” he said. 

In 2016, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County were two of the 16 localities Bernie Sanders won, even as Hillary Clinton easily won the state with 64.3% of the vote. In Harrisonburg, Bernie Sanders flipped that script, garnering twice as many votes as Clinton (2,914-1,482)), while it was much closer among Democratic voters in the county (1,943-1,735). 

Cohen says that may be possible in Tuesday’s primary, but in a wide-open field with more options, the total number of votes Sanders receives might be lower.

“I think he could win the area. I think it will certainly be a more spread out vote total because there are more viable candidates than there were last time,” Cohen said. “I think when you look at Bernie versus Hillary, if you didn’t want the establishment choice then there was only one option, and that was Bernie Sanders. In this race there are a lot more options.”

Campaign donations also don’t offer a clear picture about how Harrisonburg voters might lean in the Democratic primary because figures available only include those who gave $200 or more directly to the campaign or those who gave less than that to a candidate via another organization, such as ActBlue. 

Of the donations tracked, Sanders leads in 22801 and 22802 zip codes among Democratic candidates with 41 donors, totaling $7,572, according to figures aggregated by the Virginia Public Access Project

Warren is second in money raised with $7,393 from 14 donors between the two zip codes, followed by Buttigieg, Biden and Klobuchar, in that order. Bloomberg is self-funding his run. 

Trump leads all presidential candidates in Harrisonburg with 50 total donors and in dollars raised with $12,768. 

Harned says that Harrisonburg voters are an engaged group who have been working with national campaigns in recent months and that he believes the Valley is an important component to any of the candidates seeking the nomination.

“I’ve heard from several national campaigns, and I think that reiterates that the Valley is important. That Harrisonburg is important. That Virginia is important,” Harned said. 

Polls are open in Harrisonburg on Tuesday from 6 a.m.-7p.m.

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