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Buttigieg used his Nevada concession speech to make the case against Bernie Sanders

Buttigieg argued Sanders is too divisive to defeat President Donald Trump.

Pete Buttigieg campaigns in Aurora, Colorado, on February 22, 2020 after finishing third in Nevada.
Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images

After Bernie Sanders decisively won the Nevada caucuses on Saturday night, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg used his concession speech to make a pointed case against the senator from Vermont — arguing that Sanders is too divisive and therefore cannot defeat President Donald Trump.

“Before we rush to nominate Sen. Sanders in our one shot to take on this president, let us take a sober look at what is at stake, for our party, for our values, and for those with the most to lose,” he said.

“I believe the best way to defeat Donald Trump and deliver for the American people is to broaden and galvanize the majority that supports us on critical issues,” Buttigieg said. “Sen. Sanders believes in an inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans.”

The pointed attacks are a reminder of how close the race remains ahead of South Carolina’s primary and Super Tuesday’s contests, particularly with respect to Sanders and Buttigieg. The two men were neck and neck in the race’s first primary contests: They essentially tied in Iowa and emerged from New Hampshire with the same number of delegates, although Sanders received more votes. Following the Nevada caucuses, the two candidates are first and second in the national delegate count, with Sanders currently at 34 and Buttigieg at 23.

Buttigieg has made the critique before that Sanders’s campaign is not powered by a broad coalition. But at least in Nevada, that claim is not proving true.

For instance, in Nevada, the primary’s first racially diverse state, Sanders won decisively, with 46 percent of the vote. Buttigieg finished third, after former Vice President Joe Biden. Sanders also finished first among men and women, all voters below the age of 65 (those above favored Biden), and both Democrats and independents, according to entrance polls.

Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigns in San Antonio, Texas, after decisively winning the Nevada caucuses.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Broadly, Buttigieg’s relationship with nonwhite voters has consistently been among his campaign’s weakest points, and in Nevada, this proved the sharpest contrast between him and Sanders. Sanders won 27 percent of the black vote and 51 percent of Latinx voters while Buttigieg won just 2 percent of black voters and 10 percent of Latinx voters, according to the Washington Post.

As Vox’s Li Zhou has pointed out, Buttigieg’s lack of support from voters of color could prove an ongoing problem as the contest moves into more diverse states, such as next week’s South Carolina primary. Nationally, black voters make up 20 percent of Democratic voters.

But in an election in which so many Democrats are fixated on exactly one agenda item — removing Trump from the White House — Buttigieg also hammered home the message that, because Sanders is not a unity figure, he would weaken the party as a whole if he became the nominee.

Specifically, the former mayor argued that Sanders would undermine the candidacies of down-ballot Democrats and threaten the party’s House of Representatives majority, using terms that painted Sanders as selfish and uninterested in supporting the Democratic Party.

”I believe the only way to truly deliver any of the progressive changes we care about is to be a nominee who actually gives a damn about the effect you are having, from the top of the ticket, on those crucial, front-line House and Senate Democrats running to win, who we need to win, to make sure our agenda is more than just words on a page,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg went on to accuse Sanders of “ignoring, dismissing, or even attacking the very Democrats we absolutely must send to Capitol Hill in order to keep Nancy Pelosi as speaker, in order to support judges who respect privacy and democracy, and in order to send Mitch McConnell into retirement.”

It is true that Sanders — while certainly not lacking support among progressives in Congress — does not have the support of many of the more prominent moderate members who helped bring the House back under Democratic control in 2018. Many of those members, like Reps. Conor Lamb and Abby Finkenauer, have endorsed Biden; others, like Mikie Sherrill and Lucy McBath, have endorsed former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

But it is also true that Sanders won Nevada with a diverse base of support and may be open to moderating his message, as his campaign surrogate Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has signaled recently with statements about seeking a compromise on Medicare-for-all.

And should Sanders be able to build coalitions similar to his in Nevada in the states to come, it would undermine Buttigieg’s argument that he cannot form a broad coalition.

Until that time, however, Buttigieg will likely continue to give voice to, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias put it, an “alarm, clearly visible in a range of mainstream Democratic circles over the past several weeks, [that is] now going to kick into overdrive.”