After New Hampshire, A Work In Progress

Rightly or wrongly, Iowa and New Hampshire have traditionally winnowed the field of candidates and given structure to presidential contests. Not this year. In this most unconventional of cycles, when Democratic voters are desperate to find a candidate who can defeat Donald Trump and no one has yet emerged as the clear choice to do it, the Democratic presidential race departs the Granite State without a clear direction and with each of the major contenders fighting on. If you believe that the populations of two tiny, unrepresentative states should not shape the options available to the rest of the country, this is without question a good thing. If you’re looking for certainty and direction going into the most important presidential election of your lifetime, well, there are always Rolaids. 

If New Hampshire made one thing clear, it is that 2020 — unlike past contests — will not be decided by early momentum. Instead it will be a long slog to accumulate delegates. A weak former frontrunner in Joe Biden, multiple candidates with a base of support, the willingness of devoted followers to fund candidates even when they do not finish first (at least for now), and rules that award delegates proportionately add up to a rationale for candidates to stay in the contest until they regularly fall below the 15% viability threshold for accumulating delegates. Unless someone reaches a tipping point and pulls away from the pack, delegates more than momentum will be the standard by which this campaign is measured.

Because Iowa and New Hampshire did not winnow the field beyond third-tier contender Andrew Yang and twelfth-tier contenders Michael Bennet and Deval Patrick, the composition of the electorate in the upcoming contests takes on unusual significance. Candidates who performed well in the early homogenous states will have to prove themselves in the diverse electorates of Nevada, South Carolina and beyond, where the order of finish could well be different than what we saw last night. This complicates the momentum game and creates an opportunity for unexpected outcomes, so please hold tight and prepare for a primary season that already has no precedent.

Here’s what happened with each of the relevant candidates in New Hampshire on Tuesday: 

    • Joe Biden. Let’s be clear: Biden’s inability to fulfill the role of establishment frontrunner has created a gigantic vacuum in the field and is why the Democratic race is in flux. If Biden and not Buttigieg had finished first in Iowa and a close second in New Hampshire, he would be set up perfectly heading into South Carolina and Super Tuesday, and we would be talking about his inevitable march to the nomination. But Biden has been an uninspiring frontrunner from the start and his weaknesses have been on display for anyone who cared to look. Before he announced, I mused that the best day of his campaign was likely to be his first, and that’s pretty much how it is playing out, with Biden’s slow, steady polling decline foreshadowing a brutal fourth place finish in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. In a normal year, this would be the end of the line, but with the contest moving to more diverse states where Biden has deeper ties with voters of color than the unproven Buttigieg or Klobuchar, he remains relevant and could find a second act in the next two contests. However, it would take one of the greatest comebacks in political history for Biden to be the nominee at this point. With his support among African American voters crashing and his campaign facing significant financial problems, the race is on the verge of passing him by. Joe Biden has run for president three times. He has yet to win a single primary. This makes it hard to bet on a miracle. 
    • Bernie Sanders. If there is such a thing as a frontrunner in this evolving field it would have to be Bernie. He won New Hampshire after winning the raw vote and sharing the delegate lead with Mayor Pete in Iowa, and in a normal year would be well positioned to win the nomination. However, his New Hampshire win was narrow and selective, this is not a normal year, and — well — he’s Bernie. The standards are always higher for an outsider. To grow from being the plurality leader in a fragmented field to the uncontested favorite for the nomination, Bernie needs to address the places where he was weak yesterday — notably in the suburbs and with older voters — while demonstrating he has appeal to voters of color in more diverse constituencies. That said, Bernie should be taken very seriously because he has advantages that no other candidate can boast. He has a base of support that makes him competitive for delegates everywhere in the country. His small-dollar fundraising juggernaut gives him the fuel he needs to keep going if he hits a rough patch. And no one is generating more enthusiasm. It is way too early to say Bernie will win the nomination, but it is not too early to say that he can.
    • Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. At a time when Democrats are scrambling to find someone who can take on Donald Trump, Mayor Pete was the flavor of the week for Iowa and Amy Klobuchar was the flavor of the week for New Hampshire. Both were beneficiaries of an unsettled electorate that is still shopping for the strongest candidate to go up against Trump, and which has fallen into a pattern of rejecting candidates whose flaws have been exposed in favor of fresh faces they hope will turn out to be that sure thing. This explains Pete’s meteoric rise in Iowa and his modest fall in New Hampshire after a debate performance where he didn’t have an answer to questions about his record on race relations as South Bend mayor — paving the way for Klobuchar’s meteoric rise.  Klobuchar’s trajectory is particularly noteworthy because in a normal year she wouldn’t have been around to contest New Hampshire after a fifth-place finish in Iowa, but after her widely-praised debate performance mushroomed into glowing saturation coverage over the weekend, undecided voters moved to her in large enough numbers for her to secure a close third-place finish. She will now be subjected to the scrutiny we started to see with Buttigieg last week, and with it the potential to fall back to earth. She also faces the prospect of having to organize quickly in advance of Super Tuesday. Neither candidate leaves New Hampshire with a clear path forward, but both have an opportunity. To the extent that they are competing for the same voters, it is noteworthy that either might have won New Hampshire had the other faltered.
    • Elizabeth Warren. After claiming the third ticket out of Iowa, Warren was the invisible candidate in New Hampshire. Having arguably turned in as strong a debate performance as Klobuchar, she was overlooked in a press narrative that focused on the candidate who hadn’t had time in the spotlight, turning New Hampshire into a contest over whether Amy or Pete would fill the gap created by Biden. Warren was certainly not helped by this lack of attention. Her disappointing fourth-place finish — ten points back of Klobuchar — kept her out of the group of top contenders and denied her any delegates. In a normal year it would be a matter of time before she dropped out, but in this environment it makes sense for her to stay in as long as her vast donor base will underwrite her participation in the national delegate hunt. She will have to elevate her level of support to where it was in Iowa in order to win delegates, and doing that might require some retooling. The path forward rests with being strong enough to offer herself as a compromise candidate if no one else emerges victorious. It’s a long shot strategy, but in an open field it is not an irrational one. 
    • Michael Bloomberg. He wasn’t on the ballot in New Hampshire but you can’t get Bloomberg off your television screen as he spends fifteen fortunes to become the flavor of the week for Super Tuesday. Bloomberg is the wildest of cards in this unformulated contest. No one has ever been competitive after sitting out the first four events, but no one has ever sunk this much money into a primary campaign, and Bloomberg has been strategic. His advertising stops just short of claiming that Barack Obama endorses his candidacy, so it is not surprising that he has eaten into Biden’s base of support among African American voters. The press is already going crazy over him, but until he enters a debate hall we have no idea how he will play. While the other candidates beat up on each other out of necessity, Bloomberg shrewdly decided not to enter the arena just yet. Instead he has used his money to build his own arena where his only opponent is Donald Trump, presenting himself to Democratic voters as the gladiator of their dreams. But these preliminaries will end in a few weeks, and it will soon become evident that Bloomberg is an unnatural fit to a Democratic contest that now boasts Bernie Sanders as its frontrunner, where his exposure on matters of race and gender is far greater than candidates who have fallen by the wayside or face obstacles ahead, where he will have to explain his loud support for the policies of George W. Bush, and where his economic ideas will be a hard sell in the party’s energized left lane. He is counting on a marriage of convenience with voters who will take his bottomless wallet in exchange for overlooking his past. Some, perhaps many, will take that deal, but not everyone will, and if Bernie continues to win 25% of the vote or more, a Bloomberg nomination risks irrevocably splitting the party. 
    • Tom Steyer. Since we’re talking about billionaires competing in an open field, Steyer has been investing significantly in South Carolina and there are indications his polling numbers are rising. Just something to file away. 
    • William Weld. While we were all watching the Democrats, something noteworthy happened in the Republican primary: 13,787 people turned out to cast a ballot for Bill Weld, the former Massachusetts governor who is running a protest campaign against Donald Trump. This is a matter of some historical significance, in that with the exception of Richard Nixon, all incumbent presidents of the past century who have drawn primary opponents have gone down to defeat, while successful incumbents have always run unopposed. The Republican Party is doing everything it can to make sure Trump is renominated by acclamation, going so far as to cancel primaries where it looked like an insurgent challenger could make trouble. But they could not cancel New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation contest, giving Weld a rare opportunity to make a statement in a neighboring state by urging disaffected Republicans to vote for him. Better than 9 percent of Republican voters did, even though it takes a lot to get people to turn out for a certain loser. Weld’s campaign will be a footnote in history, but his performance yesterday in a state that was one of the closest in the nation in 2016 suggests that Donald Trump may be a weaker general election candidate than some in Washington believe.