Where Things Stand Heading into Tonight’s New Hampshire Debate

Oh, you don’t think PPFA can write 2,500 words on one of the weirdest weeks in political history? You must be new here. Buckle up.


What. A. Week.

  • On Sunday, a saucy Superbowl halftime show gave us a predictable reversal of positions from conservatives and liberals, with triggered snowflake conservatives clutching their pearls and demanding decency while liberals didn’t seem to care who was offended.
  • On Monday, the highly anticipated Iowa caucuses arrived, and the Iowa Democratic Party responded with a Des Moines-sized defecation.
  • On Tuesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi continued the destruction of institutional norms by ripping President Trump’s State of the Union speech in half, a decent a representation as any of what’s happening to our country. This act was later lauded by the same left-leaning partisans that once chided Congressman Joe Wilson for screaming “You lie!” at President Obama during one of his addresses to Congress. Perhaps worse, Wilson’s indecorum led to increased fundraising, and we can expect the same for Pelosi’s.
  • On Wednesday, in one of the most predictable results of political history, one of our long national nightmares ended when the Senate acquitted President Trump of the House’s impeachment charge. Republican Mitt Romney was the only senator to not vote along party lines, giving rise to absolutely gushing coverage from a liberal media that once tried to convince America that he dismissed 47% of the country. His vote to convict seemed to be covered more than the majority’s vote to acquit, the latter of which is presumably more relevant.
  • For each of the above, President Trump was totally in his element, a pig absolutely rolling in the slop he helped create. No one more happily gobbled up the Iowa disaster. His day-after-acquittal gloating showed no contrition whatsoever, even after some Republican senators acknowledged his impropriety despite their vote. Seeing Pelosi stoop down to his level? How delicious. Oh, and Romney wants to break ranks? How about I make fun of his so-called faith at a prayer breakfast, because that’s what Jesus would do!
  • Then, yesterday, three days after the Iowa caucuses, we finally approached 100% of their results reported when DNC Chair Tom Perez called for a “recanvassing” of Iowa, which seems to just mean double-checking Iowa’s work but conspiracy theorists seem to interpret it’s the DNC’s latest attempt to deny Sanders the nomination. (I’m not going to get into it today, but every single conspiracy theory I’ve seen on Iowa, Sanders, and the DNC is stupid. Worse, they’ve become a ploy to invalidate the process moving forward, allowing Sanders supporters to justify not supporting another nominee. It’s also obvious conservatives are helping fester these conspiracies, either because they’re rooting for him to become the nominee or in the hope of getting a chunk of Sanders voters to again vote for Trump. But I’m not getting into it.)
  • And tonight is our next Democratic debate.

It’s on these last two points I’ll ruminate for the rest of this post. Because of Iowa’s weirdness and other unique factors about this primary field, a contested convention has never been more likely in my lifetime. It’s not likely likely, but, for the first time I can remember, I wouldn’t be surprised.

More on that later.


Before I get into analyses of the top candidates, let’s first recap the Iowa results. Considering the vote totals, I had a decent but flawed prediction:

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With the exception of Biden falling to fourth — and Buttigieg and Warren both sliding up one spot as a result — I had the rest correct. In retrospect, I wish I trusted my gut from the prior Wednesday post, when I felt that Buttigieg’s excellent organization would send him past Biden’s bad organization, more than the late polls that had Biden more competitive heading into the caucuses. Bad job by me.

Of course, alongside the vote count is the result that actually matters when determining a nominee — state delegate equivalents. In this count, Buttigieg emerged with the narrowest of victories:

Iowa
I cut off Steyer at the forehead because I DON’T LIKE THE WAY HE LOOKS AT ME.

It seems like Tuesday’s PPFAWTF post correctly perceived how the night went. Buttigieg was by far the most successful realignment candidate, particularly in rural areas, which have enough disproportionate weight that, as considered in my prediction, helped Buttigieg edge into second in votes and perhaps first in delegate equivalents. (We’re still not sure how discrepancies in some precincts, like the satellite caucuses, will be resolved.) He gained the most from the first to second vote — about 6,000 votes — while Sanders only gained about 2,000, which is a surprising dichotomy if one considers Sanders was the vote leader and should have been the most consistently viable in precincts.


Now let’s consider Iowa’s implications on the candidates. It’s notable — and to my mind unprecedented — that no candidates dropped out as a result of Iowa. The reason for this is simple. With the exception of perhaps Klobuchar, no remaining candidate was depending on Iowa’s results. The worst performing candidates are either totally invested in New Hampshire (Patrick, Bennet, and Gabbard), have a bazillion dollars focused on later states (Steyer with his Nevada/South Carolina strategy and Bloomberg with his March/April/May strategy), or are quirky Andrew Yang (Andrew Yang). So while Iowa didn’t trim the field at all, I suspect Tuesday night’s New Hampshire Primary results will unload a minimum of three candidates (Iowa’s three bottom finishers), and perhaps more. I think we can lose one or two of the tonight’s debaters (Warren and Klobuchar come to mind).

Let’s get into those debaters now. I’ll go in reverse order of their Iowa finish.

7. Tom Steyer: Still polling well in Nevada and South Carolina, I don’t think it lasts after a bad New Hampshire. There are 11 days between New Hampshire and Nevada, an eternity for two or three candidates to assert themselves over Steyer in those states. In tonight’s debate, I think we all know what he’ll do: stare deep into our souls, learn our worst fears, then try to get Bernie Sanders to notice him.

6. Andrew Yang: See that, #YangGang? The polls weren’t missing you. Yang is now firing campaign staff like he can actually still win and it’s all their fault. Not cool. Pay them through New Hampshire then shut it down. Debate prediction: 95% of New Hampshire voters say, “He’s so likable!” Then they don’t vote for him.

5. Amy Klobuchar‘s fifth place in votes and delegates can be seen one of two ways. On the one hand, fifth place historically is never good enough. People who finish in fifth place drop out, particularly without prospects in other early states. On the other hand, she was riiiight on the heels of a former Vice President and the nominal favorite heading into the primary — hence her insistence that their campaign is “punching above our weight.” She also won five counties, which is four more than third place Elizabeth Warren. With top five polling in New Hampshire — including a couple that have her in double digits and basically tied for third or fourth — she can be forgiven for pressing on. Tonight’s debate is one last chance to shake some sense into the party.

With a fourth or fifth place in New Hampshire, though, she’s cooked. Her national numbers are just too weak, and it’s Buttigieg and Bloomberg set to inherit Biden’s supporters if he goes off the rails. I will say, however, that there’s an outside chance she pulls a Kasich, who, four years ago and in a quest for a contested convention, stayed in to win his home state of Ohio and beyond to deny Trump delegates. Klobuchar’s home state of Minnesota, where she’s incredibly popular, votes on Super Tuesday. If she wants to deny Sanders delegates there, she’d only have to stick around on a shoestring budget for three weeks after New Hampshire.

4. Joe Biden… yikes! Though he initially did his best to spin Iowa’s results, he finally did the right thing and showed some humility, noting the “gut punch” result. You can’t get off the mat until you’re on it, and New Hampshire has precedent for giving runners up “Comeback Kid” status.

Don’t forget that I factored a bad Iowa showing into Biden’s winning primary equation: “I think Biden loses tonight, finishing second, third, or even fourth. Then he’ll be top three in New Hampshire. Then top two in Nevada and top one in South Carolina, states with minorities that are sick of being told what to do by indefensibly earlier states that are neither demographically nor ideologically representative of the party.”

That’s still on the table. He needs a top three in New Hampshire, and then his speech’s theme is “We’re moving up!” That’s probably good enough for a top two in Nevada, where he currently leads polls but could reasonably fall behind Sanders. Then he’s on a 4-3-2 run heading into South Carolina, so it’s another week of momentum narratives. Then he wins South Carolina, his best early state, to complete the 4-3-2-1 heading into all-important Super Tuesday. (And don’t forget: John McCain, another “heir apparent” candidate, finished fourth in Iowa in 2008 before launching a comeback and clicking nationally.)

Potentially ruining those plans, however, is Pete Buttigieg, who dominated Iowa’s “Expectations Game.” That gives him momentum into New Hampshire, where he’s likely to ride the Iowa bounce into second place, ahead of Biden. Biden would much rather finish third to Sanders and Warren, because he really doesn’t want Mayor Pete to emerge as the moderate alternative. Knowing that, we’ve started to see Biden deploy new attacks against the Mayor’s inexperience. We can expect those will continue tonight.

3. Elizabeth Warren seems to be the unfairly forgotten candidate in all this. One could forgive ignoring Klobuchar’s competitive fifth, while much is being made out of the results of the Killer Bs. But what are we to make of the Warren Campaign?

At first glance, a third place finish in every category — initial vote, realignment vote, and delegates — doesn’t seem so bad, particularly since polling suggested she was a fourth place candidate in the month leading up the caucuses. She increased from 18.4% to 20.2% from first to second alignment, a 1.8% increase that matches popular vote winner Sanders, and both those numbers are well over her Iowa polling average of 15.5. Considering she beat expectations, and the old adage that there are “three tickets out of Iowa,” she should have qualified as having a good day.

So then why is she cancelling ads in Nevada and South Carolina? And why have the oddsmakers dropped her to the fifth most likely nominee, placing her around 14:1 and behind Buttigieg and Bloomberg?

It’s because it’s New Hampshire-or-bust for her, and she’s probably going to bust. Barring a second Buttigieg miracle, Sanders is going to win the state going away, which will make him the clear progressive choice. Meanwhile, Buttigieg is on the rise and Biden will throw everything he has into the race. (The New Hampshire result I’m most looking forward to is the third-place race between Biden and Warren. I think the other top five spots are locked in.) Warren’s New Hampshire polling has her closer to Klobuchar in fifth than Sanders and Buttigieg at the top.

She sees the writing on the wall. Though she’ll work hard for a surprise New Hampshire showing on Tuesday night, I wouldn’t be surprised if she moves out of Sanders’s way on Wednesday morning.

2/1. Pete Buttigieg came in second place in the popular vote before and after realignment, but in the category that matters, he’s still holding onto the narrowest of edges over Sanders. Though one could reasonably call Sanders Iowa’s winner, what’s undeniable is that Buttigieg is the unofficial winner of what candidates are hoping to get out of Iowa — earning momentum via winning the Expectations Game.

Look at how his Iowa performance affected Buttigieg’s New Hampshire polling:

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He’s on a rocket!

I’m fascinated by what happens next. I feel conventional wisdom — and the Buttigieg Campaign strategy — thinks that if he just finishes ahead of Biden again, he’ll either knock out Biden and inherit that support, or Biden will be so wobbly that his support deserts him. I wouldn’t be so sure.

Buttigieg was always strong in New Hampshire, even leading it for a stretch. Another lily white state, it’s good for him. Nationally, however, his numbers are way behind. Even if New Hampshire gives us Sanders 1, Buttigieg 2, Biden 3, I think my above Biden 4-3-2-1 scenario is more likely than a national Buttigieg surge. Remember, Buttigieg badly struggles with black voters. They’re likely to either stick with Biden or, if Biden does collapse, it’s actually Sanders that’s their clear second choice. South Carolina’s going to be a big problem. And even if Biden does fold up camp, Bloomberg waits in March ready to replace him as the establishment’s choice. If Buttigieg wants to win the nomination, I think he needs an outright win in New Hampshire to be competitive moving forward.

Amazingly, that’s possible. The Buttigieg narrative is rife with potential. A Mayor who started with a handful of staff and no name recognition and is gay finished 2,600 votes behind the well-funded 2016 runner up who has built a national movement for five years. It’s one reason why conspiracy theories coming out of the Iowa debacle made no sense. This week could have either been a clear “First gay primary (delegate) winner!” narrative for days. Even a clean and close second place would have won him the momentum game anyway. But all that was stepped on by the Iowa Democratic Party’s incompetence. Buttigieg won the most counties and rural areas, appealing to places the Democratic Party has lost — which, remember, is what Sanders claims he can do. He might win the most delegates out of the state. It was an incredible accomplishment.

Since his win, moreover, there’s been a newfound interest in his campaign. He raised a quick $2.7 million after Iowa, which he’ll convert into taking his brand national. Remember, he’s still not at Sanders and Biden’s name recognition. Morning Consult’s last national poll revealed 15% of Democrats haven’t heard of him, whereas Biden and Sanders are at just 1% there. Another 18% don’t know enough to have an opinion, while 6% say the same for Biden and Sanders. In other words, another third of the party might still weigh in favorably on Buttigieg, and winning early primaries usually leads to favorable impressions.

More high-profile than Morning Consult is PPFA’s data. Since Monday, I’ve seen a surge of interest in my initial Pete Buttigieg piece (the one where I misspell his name a few times). Check out the top google searches that led to PPFA in the last two days:

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First, we should all shudder at the googling skills of some of my fellow Americans. But the point stands: some people are just now learning about him. That can only help his numbers moving forward. He has a shot.

1/2. Bernie Sanders, though not a heavy favorite, looks like the strongest candidate in the Democratic field. He won the Iowa popular vote. He’s favored against the entire field to win New Hampshire. He’s already top two in all other states. Warren’s looking like she’ll drop out before too long, clearing the progressive lane for this runaway Sanders bus. It’s looking prettay, prettay good.

Here are reasons to temper expectations:

  1. My 4-3-2-1 Biden scenario.
  2. Sanders hasn’t taken much fire in debates or on the stump. That should change now that he’s the front-runner. When that happened to Warren, her front-runner status quickly evaporated.
  3. If Biden collapses, either Buttigieg or Bloomberg look well-primed to replace him as the moderate candidate of choice. The same kind of data that suggests Sanders loses if the field comes down to him and a moderate still applies.
  4. Similarly, Sanders still looks like a factional candidate. In Iowa, he wasn’t great at picking up support on re-alignment. There were even efforts from others to block him from winning or winning by too much. Anecdotal reports suggest many precincts organized “Anyone But Sanders” groups as best they could, surely a harbinger for the Democratic Primary moving forward. Nationally this could work against him.
  5. Though Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign benefited from the establishment taking too long to rally around an alternative, which allowed him to achieve escape velocity, he was able to succeed because Republican primaries quickly turned into winner-take-all contests, where Trump would win all of a state’s and district’s votes despite falling well short of winning all a state’s voters. (Trump only won 44.9% of primary voters but easily won the delegate race.) Democratic contests are proportional to the end. Though Biden and Buttigieg might run out of cash against Sanders’s incredible fundraising machine, Bloomberg never will. That means Sanders will be denied major delegate hauls, something Trump didn’t have to worry about.

I’ve therefore left Iowa thinking no candidate truly looks great to win, and therefore the odds of a contested convention have climbed considerably. Sanders could certainly be the convention’s nominee if he wins 40-something percent of delegates, which will compel the national convention to nominate him, but moderates won’t make it easy in the meantime.

So tonight’s debate should be a good one. Biden will go after Sanders and Buttigieg. Warren will go after Buttigieg and Biden. Sanders will go after the world, and the world might go after him. Sounds like fun!

6 thoughts on “Where Things Stand Heading into Tonight’s New Hampshire Debate

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