'Gloves are coming off' as Democrats get personal ahead of New Hampshire primary
Here’s a guess for you: Things have now aligned to make the “winner” of the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday … whichever candidate finishes third. And that’s not entirely crazy.
Yes, primaries can be weird, especially the early ones. Media reaction matters, and the media doesn’t always give the biggest stories to the candidate who gets the most votes. In fact, Pete Buttigieg basically “won” the Iowa caucuses in terms of media coverage despite at best finishing in a muddled tie with Bernie Sanders. Why? Mostly because Buttigieg beat expectations.
So now we’re on to New Hampshire. The polling right now suggests that Sanders is likely to get the most votes, with Buttigieg benefiting from a post-Iowa bounce to wind up second. If that’s in fact how it plays out, it’s quite possible that neither will get much out of it. For Sanders, the problem isn’t just polling expectations; it’s that he’s from Vermont, and he won the 2016 New Hampshire primary with a whopping 60 per cent of the vote (to Hillary Clinton’s 38 per cent), so if he winds up around 30 per cent this time and with a relatively narrow margin, there’s a good argument that it’s at least a bit disappointing. As for Buttigieg, an outright win would certainly be impressive, but a solid second — what the polls currently say — might not seem particularly newsworthy.
Ah, but then there’s third place.
Polling right now is muddled, but I think at this point whoever of the three contenders — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar — finishes third would seem to be a good story to many journalists. It can’t quite be true that whichever of them finishes third would be a surprise … but it sort of feels like that right now.
For what it’s worth, the FiveThirtyEight estimate right now based on all the polls has Warren edging out Biden with Klobuchar a few percentage points behind. However, Klobuchar narrowly leads both Warren and Biden in the two polls taken entirely after Friday’s debate.
Biden has set expectations for himself pretty low at this point, and the polling has him sinking fairly rapidly over the last week and received plenty of dismal press coverage for it (see my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson’s weekend report). If he winds up recovering to finish third? Political scientist Seth Masket makes a good comparison: “Biden has the combination of low expectations and strong party support that Bill Clinton did right before The #NHprimary.” Clinton actually finished second in New Hampshire, but declared victory by calling himself the “comeback kid.” Biden would be able with some justification to call himself something similar.
What if it’s Warren in third? She’s been mostly missing from a lot of media coverage after her respectable third in Iowa — the botched count, Buttigieg’s surprising strength, and Biden’s miserable results left little room for much else. Her debate performance didn’t generate a lot of attention, either. It was enough to get some people talking about how she was being “erased.” And perhaps enough that a third-place showing in a neighboring state might now seem notable, and not embarrassing.
And then there’s Klobuchar. After a fifth-place finish in her neighboring state, it appeared that New Hampshire would be the end of the road for her. If she winds up beating Biden and Warren in New Hampshire, it would certainly be a significant surprise based on where she was before the Friday debate. She’s also had relatively little national media hype so far through this cycle, and it’s possible that a solid New Hampshire result could produce a “discovery” effect in which the national media focuses new, and largely positive, attention on her.
I should add: Ramp all of this up even higher if any of these three candidates somehow finishes second. (Or more if one of them actually gets the most votes — but that seems highly unlikely).
I should also add that a “win” of this type wouldn’t has equal results for Biden, Warren, and Klobuchar. If Biden gets a positive bounce out of New Hampshire, he’ll probably wind up back as the national frontrunner after surviving two states that didn’t appear to be his best. Warren wouldn’t have that going for her, but she has a significant campaign on the ground in the upcoming states, and if she’s judged to have done well in New Hampshire she’ll have the resources to keep that going. Klobuchar would have the toughest challenge going forward, given that she has less of a start elsewhere.
To be sure: I’m not flat-out predicting that the third-place finisher will be the real winner. Just call it a guess based on the way the media goes about its job and how things have developed so far. And I’m not saying that it’s how things should be (although I could defend it, I suppose), or that it’s exactly fair. It’s just how the process probably works.
Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.