Who Will Win (Third Place) in the New Hampshire Primary?

We’ve arrived at the New Hampshire Primary! Even as I publish this piece, some New Hampshirite “midnight voting” precincts have already reported their results.

And guess who has the lead…

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With a commanding total of 8 votes, Amy Klobuchar leads the pack. The PPFA bump is real!

Of course, we’ve got a long day of voting ahead of us. It’s nice to have just a regular primary, isn’t it? Flippin’ Iowa.

Before I get to today’s predictions, there are three general New Hampshire Primary rules to know:

  1. The New Hampshire Primary is only “semi”-closed, meaning voters can register or change party preference on election day in order to participate. That means independents and even Republicans can register as Democrats to participate in their primary. Without a competitive Republican Primary, like the one in 2016, many independents and Republicans will choose to participate on the Democratic side.
  2. New Hampshire has 24 pledged delegates up for grabs, one of the smallest delegations of any state. As you’ve heard me say before, the importance of these early states isn’t delegate-accumulation as much as how they shape narratives and momentum heading into Super Tuesday, which is now just three weeks away.
  3. Speaking of delegates, don’t forget about allocation thresholds. Candidates must hit 15% to be awarded statewide or district delegates. Of New Hampshire’s 24 delegates, 8 are awarded statewide, and 8 each for the two Congressional districts. If a candidate falls short of 15% in the state and both districts, they’ll get 0 delegates. That looks to be extra important this year, with perhaps three candidates falling in that 10 to 14% range. Any candidate that falls short of 15% in a state and/or district will see their support redistributed to those that surpassed it.

That last bit can help Sanders and Buttigieg widen their delegate separation from the pack. These are the projected delegate standings after Iowa:

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Note: That’s only 40 of Iowa’s 41 delegates. Some sources have given Buttigieg a 14th delegate.

Only 3,938 pledged delegates to go!

Now it’s time for New Hampshire to weigh in. Below are my predictions for how things shake out.


Tier 4: Totally Uncompetitive

11th place: Mike Bloomberg

He’s not even on the New Hampshire ballot. Still, I wonder if his number of write-ins can still get him into the top ten. All he’d have to do is pass the most embarrassing campaign of the 2020 election…

10th place: Deval Patrick

Typically, a former governor of Massachusetts should be a shoe-in top-five candidate in the neighboring New Hampshire Primary. Leave it to Deval Patrick to never surpass one percent in a New Hampshire poll. I’m guessing he’s dying to suspend this humiliating campaign, but he feels compelled to stick it out through New Hampshire. He’s gone by tomorrow unless he makes an annoying decision to remain through South Carolina as the last African American candidate in a realistic scenario where Joe Biden falls apart. It won’t work. I could not be prouder of my post on his campaign announcement.

9th place: Michael Bennet

I liked Bennet. He’s probably my third or fourth preferred candidate left in the race. Still, though he spent the last month in New Hampshire, it won’t matter. Ninth place and out of the race.

8th place: Tom Steyer

Money can’t buy votes in New Hampshire! Live free or die, buddy.

Tier 3: The Irrelevant Race for Sixth

This is a close yet inconsequential race between two candidates polling just north of three percent, each with devout followings that can be bolstered by independent and crossover support.

These two candidates are Andrew Yang (polling at 3.7) and Tulsi Gabbard (3.3). We’ve talked a lot about Yang lately, but Gabbard, most Republicans’ favorite Democrat — and most Democrats’ least favorite Democrat — has been generally forgotten since falling off the debate stage. Still, while Yang has tried to build a national movement around his UBI-centered platform, Gabbard has put her time and resources almost totally into New Hampshire, where its libertarian streak has been drawn to her non-interventionism. I remember traveling up to central New Hampshire in July, and she was already winning the billboard wars.

It’s a toss-up for who nabs sixth place, but even a sixth place showing won’t keep their candidacies alive. Despite Yang’s polling lead, I’ll give the edge to Gabbard’s Granite State-focused campaign.

7. Andrew Yang
6. Tulsi Gabbard

I expect Gabbard then withdraws from the race, and Yang might as well. With double-digit polling or delegates needed to debate in Nevada next week, even Yang has seen his last debate stage.

Tier 2: The Cage Match for Third

Here is tonight’s most relevant drama. Three candidates are in the cage: Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren. The one who emerges in third place “wins.”

  • Biden is the only one of the three we can confidently say will move forward no matter what. No Nevada and South Carolina polls have been done since Iowa, but Biden was on top of them at last check. Though we can be sure Sanders has overtaken him in many areas (since he has nationally), Biden should still be competitive in those two states. All it would take is a nice Nevada result to start getting him back on track. Still, if he drops to fifth in New Hampshire, that will make it difficult to have a strong Nevada campaign. His desperation has been evident, not only at the debate, but also by finally going negative at Pete Buttigieg. He wanted to run a campaign that was above the fray, saving his energy for President Trump. He can no longer afford that kind of patience. He’d settle for top four tonight, and he’ll throw a party if he hits third.
  • Klobuchar benefits from the lowest expectations of the top five candidates. A third place today would be seen a huge victory. A fourth or fifth, however, would not generate the buzz sufficient enough to lift her from the mid-single digits nationally. Nevada and South Carolina are not great states for her. She needs the shake-up a top-three could provide tonight. Still, she’s qualified for the Nevada debate by virtue of having won a delegate, so perhaps she’ll continue regardless. Both opening states liked her more and more as they got to know her. She’ll have ten days in Nevada to repeat that late-closing magic.
  • As I noted on Friday, Warren’s third place finish in Iowa wasn’t given much attention, but it should have been seen as a nice result for her. Perhaps another third place finish could be what she needs to survive as the compromise candidate between Lefty and establishment Democrats. But a fall to fourth or fifth? As a high-profile Senator from Massachusetts? She might call it a campaign, pack it in, and line up behind fellow progressive Bernie Sanders the rest of the way.

So yeah: big stakes in the race for third! But who will get it?

Let’s start by taking a look at the latest polls. Here are their rolling Real Clear Politics New Hampshire polling averages over the last month:

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Wow — just 0.7 percentage points separates third from fifth place. Super close.

Momentum is clearly with Klobuchar, which is not surprising considering PPFA’s endorsement of her, a post that became this website’s second most-read post of all time. (The PPFA Bump is real!) On the polling numbers alone, it stands to reason that Klobuchar has moved past the two falling candidates and nabs that crucial third-place result. Such a result would necessarily knock Biden or Warren down to fifth, an incredibly disappointing result for either.

On the other hand, I think an important factor will work against Klobuchar today. For her to rise, it’s probably necessary for Buttigieg and/or Biden to fall. The scuttlebutt says that New Hampshire moderates are thinking strategically with their vote. I think this could hurt Klobuchar, because strategic thinkers probably believe one or both of the following is true:

  • Buttigieg is the best chance for Sanders not to win New Hampshire in a runaway.
  • Biden is the best chance for Sanders not to win the nomination.

Frankly, both are accurate, together they like force Klobuchar to fight against a bit more gravity than she would like.

We also must weigh how polls actually correlate to the eventual result. Since we finally had a state vote in this cycle, we can use Iowa as a proxy. Here’s a chart of the final RCP average in Iowa next to Iowans initial choice in their caucuses. (Since today’s primary is a ballot of initial choice, it makes more sense to consider Iowans’ initial choice, not what their totals were as a result of realignment.)

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Yikes! Biden’s bad organization came back to haunt him (while Buttigieg’s vaunted organization was a huge boon). Meanwhile, look at Klobuchar doing great with late deciders, as she seems to be doing again. Warren outperformed her polling numbers nicely, too, probably thanks to her strong organization.

If we trust all of the above data, the question becomes whether a New Hampshire voter who likes Klobuchar as their preferred nominee and president will instead vote strategy over their heart. I think many will. Therefore, they’ll generally stick with Buttigieg (keeping him in the top tier) and Biden (keeping him from falling below ten percent).

Warren will comparatively benefit. Progressives who have stuck with her can safely reason that Sanders will win New Hampshire and remain in a strong position in the overall primary. They will therefore continue to stick with her, and her strong organization will get them to the polls. I suspect she again beats her polling. All considered, here’s my prediction for the Third Place Cage Match:

5. Joe Biden
4. Amy Klobuchar
3. Elizabeth Warren

A last note: whoever does end up finishing in third, we’ll want to keep an eye on their share of the vote. All three of these candidates currently average between 11 and 12 percent in the polls. It’s at fifteen percent where they’d get statewide delegates, and their statewide number will probably be similar to each of their two district-wide numbers. If none of them climb up to 15, Sanders and Buttigieg will laugh all the way to the delegate bank, sharing all 24 delegates proportionally to their performance against each other. This would mean the difference between something like Sanders 11, Buttigieg 9, Warren 4 and Sanders 13, Buttigieg 11, and everyone else 0. If we combine the latter with the standings coming out of Iowa, Sanders and Buttigieg open up even more daylight between them and the pack, further boosting their respective narratives.

Tier 1: The Top Two

There’s a reason today’s headline included that parenthetical after the word “Win.” Much like four years ago, there’s really no drama in who wins. In fact, the same two candidates who won last time will do so again: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

For this tier, the question is only how close Buttigieg can keep it. Here’s a list of recent New Hampshire polls:

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The Boston Globe/Suffolk poll seems to like Buttigieg, but it looks to be an outlier. In fact, it, too, settled into a solid Sanders win by its final tracking poll. It’s looking like Sanders by 7 or 8 points. A majority of these polls has him with such a lead.

Still, for the moment, we can entertain surprises and their implications. If Sanders underperforms, that probably means he didn’t beat his polling by all that much — just like in Iowa. It’s helpful to have a passionate base of support, but a campaign built around progressive purity, particularly when it challenges others’ lack of it, means undecided voters break toward other, less strict campaigns.

Such an underperformance would create a narrative that says he’s not turning out the voters his movement promises. If you can’t win a northeast semi-closed Democratic primary big, how do you expect to win general elections in Wisconsin and Arizona? Iowa was already a disappointment in that regard. If New Hampshire follows that track, that’ll give fodder to moderates. A narrow Sanders win also could keep Warren in the race.

A big Sanders win, however, could show Warren just how impossible her quest is, which might then knock her out and help Sanders consolidate a strong plurality moving forward. It would also put a lot of pressure on moderates to rally behind one candidate before it’s too late. It wouldn’t appear to be Buttigieg, who had his best two states come and go, and we already see Biden fading. It could make Bloomberg that candidate of last resort.

From the Buttigieg perspective, a close second (or surprise win) is absolutely crucial to his viability now that states gets more demographically challenging for him. If he’s closer to third place than first, that doesn’t bode well for Nevada and South Carolina, and we should see Biden chase him down in delegates by the end of the month and be the second place candidate heading into Super Tuesday.

So watch that margin tonight. I don’t think Sanders will be too threatened at the top. The semi-closed nature of it will help him, as it did in 2016. Sanders has always connected with independents — after all, he usually is one except in presidential election years — but Republicans are rooting for him, too. They would love to cross over just to help his candidacy. (Overconfident Republicans rooting for the unelectable Sanders, by the way, reminds me of overconfident Democrats rooting for the unelectable Donald Trump four years ago. Be careful what you wish for.)

2. Pete Buttigieg
1. Bernie Sanders


Enjoy the results! Hopefully we’ll finally be treated to a night of watching precincts report.

Flippin’ Iowa.

4 thoughts on “Who Will Win (Third Place) in the New Hampshire Primary?”

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