Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, fending off strong challenges from Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar as he sought to solidify his status as standard bearer of a Democratic party split between progressives and moderates.

With 87 per cent of the precincts reporting, Sanders had 25.7 per cent of the vote and Buttigieg had 24.4 per cent. Klobuchar was third with 19.8 per cent, according to the Associated Press, which called the race.

The tight finish allows multiple candidates to claim success, even though Sanders came out on top. Voters looking for a moderate alternative to Sanders’ democratic socialism were left without a clear choice.

Buttigieg gains credibility from his strong second-place finish coming on the heels of his top showing in Iowa. He also maintained his lead in delegates. Klobuchar was the night’s big surprise, coming in third place on a surge of late support following a memorable performance in last week’s debate.

That said, a win is a win, and Sanders seized on his top showing to assert front-runner status.

“It’s on to Nevada, it’s on to South Carolina, it’s on to win the Democratic nomination, and together I have no doubt that we will defeat Donald Trump,” Sanders told supporters in Manchester, New Hampshire, as he claimed victory.

After Tuesday, the race accelerates and shifts into a multi-state dash that makes it impossible for candidates to make the personal connections with voters that defined the Iowa and New Hampshire contests.

At stake in New Hampshire were 24 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, a small prize compared to Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states and territories including California and Texas vote. The Associated Press projected that Sanders and Buttigieg would get at least eight delegates each from New Hampshire, with Klobuchar picking up five.

Still, New Hampshire held outsized importance because it was the first primary election of the 2020 nominating contests, followed by Nevada’s caucuses and South Carolina’s primary later this month.

Speaking to supporters on Tuesday night, Buttigieg urged unity and said Democrats must find way to come together behind one candidate to defeat Trump.

“The stakes could not be higher,” he said. “We can’t afford to miss the mark or miss this moment. We must get this right. We dare not risk four more years of this presidency. We must get this right.”

An exultant Klobuchar credited her “scrappy” campaign for keeping her bid going.

“We have beaten the odds every step of the way,” she told supporters. “Because of you we are taking this campaign to Nevada, we are taking this campaign to South Carolina and we are taking our message of unity to the country.”

Early leaders in the Democratic nominating race, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, faded in the New Hampshire primary. Warren finished fourth with 9.3 per cent, while longtime frontrunner Biden had 8.4 per cent.

'Unite This Party'

Warren has long said that her broad organization would keep her going deeper into the nominating race. On Tuesday, she warned of a long fight after her second disappointing finish, but insisted she was still the best positioned candidate to beat Trump.

“We can unite this party and this country by mobilizing people behind ideas that are not only popular with huge majorities of the American people -- but that also accomplish structural change for our broken government and our rigged economy,” she told supporters.

Warren paid homage to the top New Hampshire finishers, especially Klobuchar. “I also want to congratulate my friend and colleague Amy Klobuchar for showing just how wrong the pundits can be when they count a woman out,” she said.

The Massachusetts senator also warned against negative attacks that highlight the growing divide between progressive and centrist Democrats, saying the party needs to be united to defeat President Donald Trump.

“If we’re going to beat Donald Trump in November, we are going to need huge turnout within our party, and to get that turnout, we will need a nominee that the broadest coalition of our party feels they can get behind,” she said.

Yang, Bennet Exit Race

The New Hampshire primary did manage to winnow the large field, something Iowa’s messy caucus process had failed to do. Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet both ended their 2020 bids on Tuesday.

The top issues for Democrats on Tuesday were health care, 37%, and climate change, 28%, according to exit polls broadcast on CNN.

But Democrats also prioritized the ability to beat Trump over specific issues. A full 62% said it was more important to find a candidate who can win in November to only 34% said it was more important to find someone who shared their ideas, according to CNN.

One candidate happy to move onto later contests was Biden, who packed up and left even before the polls closed. He addressed supporters via live-stream from South Carolina, where he hopes to revive his flagging campaign.

“When you hear all these pundits and experts, cable TV talkers, talking about the race, tell them: it ain’t over, man. We’re just getting started. Our votes count too. We’re not going to let anyone take this election away from me,” he said.

Biden has staked his candidacy on the argument that he’s best positioned to win in November. But without any primary victories, that argument gets harder to make.

Super Tuesday

Cash will be key as the primary calendar moves onto bigger, more expensive states. All the top candidates insist they have the funds to continue through Super Tuesday, but it will be hard to raise money to keep up the fight without positive results to show for it.

Michael Bloomberg’s candidacy challenges all conventional wisdom about spending and fundraising. He has already topped $300 million in advertising spending so far, eclipsing the rest of the field. He isn’t even competing in the early states and is instead spending lavishly on advertising around the country, including in Super Tuesday states.

As a result, he is on the cusp of qualifying for next week’s debate in Nevada with three polls showing him with national support above 10%. One more qualifying poll before Friday and he will be allowed on the stage.

(Disclaimer: Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, which is a content partner of BNN Bloomberg.)

--With assistance from Emma Kinery, Tyler Pager, Jennifer Epstein and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou.