It is unlikely to matter much who wins Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary; the real drama will be in who loses, and by how much.
Granite Staters have been at the polls since seven o’clock Tuesday morning and will be voting throughout the day, wrapping up around 8 p.m. Democrats are vying for 24 delegates, which will be distributed proportionally among candidates who get votes in excess of 15 percent. (President Donald Trump is also expected to crush his only big-name opponent, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, in the GOP primary.)
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After last week’s disaster in Iowa, New Hampshire is an opportunity for Democrats to bring some much-needed clarity to the race. The collapse of Joe Biden has made Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) the sudden presumptive nominee, as a more fractured field proves less adept at shutting him out than 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton.
The real drama of New Hampshire won’t be in who wins—Sanders is the clear favorite. Rather, those watching Tuesday night should be looking to see who takes second, and if he or she can do so definitively enough to consolidate the “moderate” wing of the party after Biden’s collapse. Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) both have a chance to break through and block Bernie; the fates of Biden, and particularly Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), meanwhile, turn on their rivals not getting too far ahead.
Sanders has everything working in his favor Tuesday evening: a dispositive lead in the polls, the predominantly white demographics of the state, and his not-quite-home-field advantage. He won New Hampshire by more than 20 percentage points in the 2016 primary. While he is unlikely to repeat that feat in a larger field, field size may play to his advantage, helping to keep others below the 15 percent threshold to share in delegate allocation.
A Sanders victory in New Hampshire was expected before his near-win in Iowa (the final results of which remain unclear as of Tuesday morning). As such, the bigger deal is whether Sanders fails to take the plurality of votes. After Biden’s collapse in Iowa, Sanders is the national frontrunner, a status bolstered by polls released Monday and Tuesday that showed him leading the national vote for the first time. If he somehow fails to win a soft-pitch state like New Hampshire, he is unlikely to fare well in other states that play less to his strengths.
The more interesting question for election watchers Tuesday night, however, is if anyone can consolidate the “anyone but Bernie” vote still in search of a champion. The man to beat is former mayor Pete Buttigieg, who may have bested Bernie in Iowa and who came in second in two New Hampshire polls over the weekend.
In both surveys, Buttigieg is the only other candidate to clear the 15 percent threshold, meaning he would split delegates with Sanders. The underlying data indicate that the former mayor is likely to perform best in southern New Hampshire, especially around Manchester, and could outcompete Sanders among voters over 65. That could make Pete the favorite of “moderate” voters going forward—although, given his platform, “moderate” may just mean “slightly to the right of the socialist.”
At the same time, Buttigieg almost certainly benefits from demographics in the same way that Sanders does. His support is largely composed of college-educated whites, while he persistently struggles with the party’s African-American base. A Buttigieg second-place in New Hampshire could only go so far toward consolidation, given that he is projected to do poorly in more-diverse Nevada and South Carolina.
That means that other “moderate” Democrats stand to gain from a strong second or third-place finish. Klobuchar, whose candidacy up until this point has been backed by the New York Times and almost no one else, appears to have received a bump from her performance in Friday night’s debate. Both of this weekend’s polls show her up to 14 percent—shy of the threshold to win delegates, but enough to beat out Biden and Warren.
Klobuchar also took the lead among the 27 New Hampshire voters in the three tiny northern towns that traditionally vote just after midnight. Those early votes rarely predict the winner, but maybe New Hampshire will finally prove the breakthrough for a campaign that has struggled to get nearly as much traction as that of the mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana.
While Klobuchar could call a third-place finish a win, both Warren and Biden are likely to face another blow to their expectations. Polling suggests neither will clear the 15-percent hurdle, meaning their delegate totals will stay at eight for Warren and six for Biden. That would put them well behind Sanders and Buttigieg, and possibly tied with Klobuchar if she outperforms and goes over the delegate threshold.
That bodes poorly for both contenders. Warren has the same regional advantage as Sanders, but her campaign lost all momentum after a disastrous Medicare for All plan rollout, leaving the primary’s progressive wing almost entirely to the Vermont senator. Biden—who was expected to walk Jeb-Bush-like into the nomination—is faltering, and has laid all of his chips on the African-American stronghold of South Carolina. Even there, however, one recent poll shows Sanders closing the gap.
One other specter looms over Tuesday’s competition for the moderate lane—former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who isn’t even on the ballot. He technically won the tiny town of Dixville’s Notch, N.H., just after midnight, with three of its five eligible voters writing him in. The more than $2 million in ad spending that he dropped on the Granite State may help him deny other contenders votes through similar write-ins. That would indicate he is a serious contender come Super Tuesday, where he has already spent seven-figure sums in several states.
What all of this means is that while the real action in New Hampshire will be for second place, it is unlikely to shake out a consensus moderate. Buttigieg can claim victory, while Klobuchar claims momentum. Biden will likely hold on at least through South Carolina, while Bloomberg has not even gotten started.
The scalp Sanders may be hoping for most is Warren, whose supporters would flock to him if she dropped out. In fact, the continued disarray to his right means that Sanders might now be strolling to the nomination. That raises another question, which only November can answer: Are Democrats ready to vote for America’s foremost socialist?