Decision 2020: The New Hampshire Democratic Primary

(Note: updated at 10PM 2/12)

With the Iowa caucuses behind us, primary season has finally begun with the “first in the nation” New Hampshire primary, and we can finally start to see the Democratic race take shape:

Record turnout: In Iowa, Democratic turnout was the second highest ever, but it could be argued that a caucus lasting several hours on a Monday night was not conducive to a robust voter turnout. In New Hampshire, however, the primary setting was much more conducive to “user friendly” voting, and with all of the vote counted, turnout was a record 301K (the previous record was set in 2008 at 285K). Republican turnout was similarly strong, even considering President Trump has minor primary opposition – the 155K who voted is nearly triple was it was in 2004 (the last time an incumbent Republican President was on the ballot);

Handicapping the “Top Five” Democrats – JMC noted in the previous article that five viable Democratic candidates (Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar) came out of the Iowa caucuses. And just like in Iowa, Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire balloting finished first with 26%, followed (again) by Pete Buttigieg with 24%. Unlike Iowa, however, Amy Klobuchar moved from 5th to 3rd place (thanks to a strong debate performance last Friday night) and received 20% of the vote. Elizabeth Warren slipped from 3rd to 4th place and only received 9% of the vote. Joe Biden did even worse than that, slipping from 4th to 5th place and also getting 9% of the vote.

Given the New Hampshire results, which of the five contenders were “winners” or “losers” ? JMC sees two “winners”: Amy Klobuchar maintained her viability (and arguably increased her stature) with her third place showing, but the reality remains that she HAS to make a strong showing in Nevada and/or South Carolina if she wants to be considered a credible contender for the Super Tuesday contests. Similarly, Pete Buttigieg’s second place showing in New Hampshire allows him to stay in the “winners bracket” in terms of viability.

So why wasn’t Bernie Sanders classified as a “winner” ? Given that he won New Hampshire with 60% of the vote in 2016, a 26% showing/4,400 vote victory in a state that is in his backyard (he is from Vermont) is hardly a demonstration of strength, especially since his 26% showing was identical to the 25% he received in Iowa a week before. In other words, it looks like he has a static voter base that will earn him plurality wins for now, but will not enable him to dominate the Democratic field. Furthermore, his “wins” appear to be contingent on the “moderate” swim lane of the Democratic Party remaining fragmented. Still, his winning the first two contests means he won’t face viability questions in the short term like Elizabeth Warren is right now. In Elizabeth’s case, her weak 9% showing in New Hampshire is not favorable to her future viability because she is from next door Massachusetts, and most of New Hampshire is in the Boston media market. In other words, there is no favorable way that her vote share dropping from 20% in Iowa to 9% in (next door) New Hampshire could be spun.

Joe Biden has even bigger problems than Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders: as the supposed front-runner, his weak showings both in Iowa and New Hampshire cast doubt on his future viability (after all, in his unsuccessful 1988 and 2008 runs, he never WON a single contest). Which means he HAS to show strength among non-white voters in Nevada and/or South Carolina if he wants to be considered a viable candidate for the Super Tuesday (and beyond) contests. And whether that can happen with both the perception of weakness AND heavy targeted spending from the “money men” of Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer (whose presence is about to be felt) is an open question.

The two halves of the Democratic Party – There are really two electoral “swim lanes” in the Democratic Party contest right now. The “liberal swim lane” (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Tom Steyer) in the aggregate got 39% of that vote (down from 43% in Iowa). The “moderate swim lane” (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar) received 53% (up from 49% in Iowa), and the remaining 8% went to other candidates. In the short term, this party split benefits Bernie Sanders, since he only has one competitor in his “swim lane” (and that competitor faces viability issues now), while the moderate vote is – until someone drops out – being partitioned three ways.

What’s next ? Remaining contests will generally have more diverse primary electorates, which will add a new dimension to the Democratic contest going forward. And without the perception of strength, it’s now permissible to say that the minority vote that was thought to be only Joe Biden’s is “up for grabs.” And the heavy spending of both Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer can’t be discounted with the field in flux, especially on the “moderate” side. In the near future, candidates will be tested with the Nevada caucuses/South Carolina primary on February 22 and 29. And 14 states have contests on “Super Tuesday” of March 3.