A big night for Bernie Sanders. A bad one for Joe Biden.
New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday night gave us what we were denied by the Iowa caucuses last week: a clear sense of which campaigns are in good shape — and which ones are in trouble.
The 2020 Iowa caucuses were incredibly anticlimactic. There were no official results on the night of the caucuses amid copious technical glitches, and Pete Buttigieg declared himself the victor with exactly zero percent of caucus sites reporting. Ultimately, the popular vote and delegate counts split, with Bernie Sanders taking the former and Buttigieg the latter (pending a Sanders-requested recanvass), as if the affair had been scripted to infuriate Sanders’s most fervent and conspiratorial supporters.
The New Hampshire primary was almost the opposite of that experience. The results came fast and furious, and the big story of the night was known even before the last polls closed at 8 pm: Amy Klobuchar had surged to a close third behind Sanders and Buttigieg, while Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden flamed out in dramatic fashion after having led the race for stints in the past year.
In a literal sense, Sanders was the winner of the primary. But in another, more metaphorical sense that enables journalists to write longer analyses like this one, the night had several winners and several losers. Here they are.
Winner: Bernie Sanders
It might seem kind of obvious to say that the winner of the New Hampshire primary is, in fact, a winner of the night. But his margin of victory was really narrow, and a lot of the commentary on election night has focused on Sanders underperforming his 2016 result. So it’s worth stating this clearly: Bernie Sanders’s victory does put him in a commanding position in the Democratic primary.
Sanders has now won New Hampshire and won the most votes in Iowa, the kind of results you expect from an eventual winner. In the past week, he moved into first place in both the FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics national poll averages. His fundraising totals last quarter were top of the field, and he boasts a campaign operation effective enough to get volunteers to more than 20 percent of all New Hampshire households in a single day.
His most significant rival for most of the race, Joe Biden, performed abysmally in both of the early contests. Elizabeth Warren, whose stubbornly high national polling numbers have prevented Sanders from fully consolidating the party’s progressive flank, appears to be flatlining. Pete Buttigieg, Bernie’s closest rival in both of the earliest contests, is having trouble improving his poll numbers with nonwhite voters heading into more diverse states — and moderate alternatives like Amy Klobuchar and Mike Bloomberg are currently preventing consolidation behind him.
Sanders’s win in New Hampshire, then, isn’t just an expected result. It establishes him as the favorite. The big question now is if anyone else in the field can stop him.
Loser: Former frontrunners
No one, not even Joe Biden himself, expected him to win Tuesday. At the last debate, Biden acknowledged as much, noting his defeat in the Iowa caucus before his likely loss in New Hampshire: “I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here.”
And take a hit he did. The former national frontrunner finished a dismal fifth — a far worse showing than most people expected. Biden not only failed to make the top three but, with 82 percent of precincts reporting, received less than 10 percent of the vote. If he had a shot in New Hampshire, it was the possibility that he’d grab more moderate and conservative voters in the party; instead, it seems Klobuchar and Buttigieg split most of those votes, leaving little room for Biden.
It’s a potential red flag for what’s to come, especially after his poor showing in Iowa. Biden’s campaign seemingly believes he still has a chance, largely because he’s polled well with black voters and in South Carolina — which will be the fourth state to vote and the first state with a lot of black voters, a crucial part of the Democratic base. The theory is Biden could ride a big win in South Carolina into Super Tuesday, when a bunch of states will vote, and win the nomination. After such a huge loss in New Hampshire, though, that’s going to be much harder to pull off.
Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) can consider herself lucky she didn’t have as bad a night as Biden — but it’s still not looking good for her prospects.
It wasn’t that long ago that Warren was leading national polls. On top of that, New Hampshire is supposed to be a gimme for politicians from neighboring states. John Kerry of Massachusetts edged out Vermonter Howard Dean in 2004, with the rest of the field far behind; Mitt Romney (then still a Massachusetts resident) won by a wide margin in 2012. The state gave then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis his first big win in 1988, and one reason for former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas’s failure in the 1992 primaries was not that he lost New Hampshire but that he won by too narrow a margin.
Indeed, Warren entered New Hampshire with a ton of built-in advantages. Much of New Hampshire consumes Boston-area media: Some of the state gets Boston TV and radio stations, many residents subscribe to the Boston Globe, and many more read Boston news online. They know Elizabeth Warren. Her failure in light of those advantages has to sting.
Warren is not entirely out, to be clear. Anticipating a dismal New Hampshire performance, her campaign manager Roger Lau sent out a memo explaining how the campaign expects to recover. In a nutshell, they expect to make up some ground in the delegate count in upcoming Super Tuesday states and at least force a brokered convention, or give her some leverage ahead of one. But the numbers will shift in light of a very weak New Hampshire performance, and not in a positive way for Warren.
If the election had been held in mid-October, when Warren was narrowly edging Biden in the state’s polls and Sanders was a distant third, we’d be telling a very different story. But Warren peaked at just the wrong time, and Klobuchar and Buttigieg peaked at exactly the right time. That’s partly sheer luck. But it’s devastating nonetheless.
—German Lopez and Dylan Matthews
Winner: Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg is the 38-year-old former mayor of a smallish Midwestern city. The last time he ran for a national Democratic Party position, a 2017 bid to chair the Democratic National Committee, he got so little support that he ended up dropping out before the votes were cast.
With this thin résumé, Buttigieg needed to do well in the first two primaries to prove that he was for real. Well, he’s now won the delegate total in Iowa (though the Sanders camp has called for a recanvass) and come in a very close second in New Hampshire — an impressive achievement that shows he is definitely for real. What’s more, the specifics of the results in New Hampshire give Team Buttigieg a lot of reasons for optimism.
Though Sanders was the heavy favorite in New Hampshire, Buttigieg got several points closer than the pre-election poll averages suggested. Beating the expectation game helps candidates build momentum even when they aren’t actually winning the primary. Buttigieg is poised to benefit from post-primary coverage — especially if the media fixates on Sanders somewhat underperforming the margins many thought his campaign could deliver.
Just as important, his biggest rival in the “moderate” lane, Biden, cratered in New Hampshire. This result, following Biden’s poor performance in Iowa, could well lead his supporters to abandon a seemingly sinking ship. Buttigieg could be the beneficiary, especially in upcoming states (Nevada and South Carolina) where he’s currently not polling that well. Klobuchar, who may plausibly have prevented an outright New Hampshire win for Buttigieg, is also well positioned to compete for Biden voters — but Buttigieg has to be considered the favorite in that lane.
There’s a lot of voting left. But the New Hampshire results put Buttigieg in an enviable position in the coming weeks.
In the two most recent heated Democratic presidential nomination contests, the field shrank quite quickly. In 2016, the race went down to just Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the night of the Iowa caucuses. In 2008, the race shrank to just three candidates shortly after New Hampshire’s primary, and John Edwards dropped out before Super Tuesday, leaving Clinton and Barack Obama to slug it out.
This year, things look to be … more complicated.
Sanders, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar are all clearly staying in due to their strong performances in New Hampshire. Biden, the former national frontrunner, says he’s not going anywhere either — he wants to contest South Carolina. Warren may face some tough choices about her campaign’s future in the coming days given her poor performance Tuesday, but hours beforehand, her campaign released a lengthy memo vowing she’d keep pushing onward.
There’s more. Billionaire Tom Steyer didn’t prove to be much of a factor in either Iowa or New Hampshire, but he has polled strongly in South Carolina and plans to stay in the race until then at least. And billionaire Mike Bloomberg isn’t contesting the first four states, but he’s paying for a huge ad campaign flooding the zone for the Super Tuesday contests.
So the field could still be rather sizable on Super Tuesday — and that could be a problem for Democrats. The party has a rule requiring proportional allocation of delegates. As a result, if the big delegate prizes in early March are split among several candidates, it could prove nearly impossible for any one of them to actually obtain a majority with the states remaining. A messy contested convention in July would be the result.
Winner: Amy Klobuchar
The Minnesota Democrat has positioned herself as a strong alternative to fellow moderates Biden and Buttigieg, and her slow and steady performance on the campaign trail and on the debate stage is starting to pay off. After coming in fifth place in the Iowa caucuses, Klobuchar surged into the top three in the Granite State, well ahead of Biden and Warren, both of whom have led Klobuchar in most national and state polls for the past year. The finish gives her campaign a boost as we head to Nevada, South Carolina, and Super Tuesday.
So what happened? As Vox’s Ella Nilsen wrote in January, Klobuchar has been courting Biden supporters in New Hampshire for a while:
Klobuchar’s case to voters: She has a record of handily winning elections (and Trump counties) in her home state of Minnesota, a state she likes to point out also has a history of electing to executive office controversial figures with a penchant for drama, like former Gov. Jesse Ventura.
Polls ahead of the primary indicated Klobuchar was gaining momentum, and her debate performance in Manchester on Friday was her strongest yet.
Klobuchar and Warren gave moving answers on abortion and reproductive rights. And Klobuchar delivered another memorable moment in a clash with Buttigieg, whom she appears to have little affinity for. She batted back Buttigieg’s attempts to cast political experience as a negative and put up a strong defense of her and her colleagues’ recent work in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.
“Pete, when you were campaigning through Iowa as three of us were jurors in that impeachment hearing, you said that it was exhausting to watch and that you wanted to turn the channel and watch cartoons,” she said. “It is easy to go after Washington, because that’s a popular thing to do.”
It’s not the first time Klobuchar has gone after the former mayor on the debate stage — she also took a swipe at him over the double standard for men and women in politics in November. “Of the women on the stage, do I think we would be standing on that stage if we had the experience he had? No, I don’t,” she said.
Amy is not a fan of Pete, and after Tuesday, she has qualified to be in the next debate in Nevada, where we can probably expect a third clash.
Imagine, if you can, the perfect primary night. The results come in rapidly, from all over the state. They come in at a reasonable time, like 8 pm ET, so that political observers learn the results rapidly but people in the state still have plenty of time to vote. They are precise enough that you can discern the relative performance of candidates finishing within a handful of points of each other.
That’s basically the night that New Hampshire produced on Tuesday, and it could not be more different from the debacle that was the 2020 Iowa caucus. The only reason to care about the early primaries is that they drive media narratives, perceptions of candidate viability, and thus later primaries in states that actually matter for delegate count. Iowa and New Hampshire just don’t award enough delegates to be important on their own (41 and 24, respectively) without that perception effect.
That’s why the Iowa debacle was so disastrous. Its failure to promptly and accurately report results didn’t just make caucus night a bust — it severely weakened the state’s ability to drive national narratives. At best, the state was able to give Buttigieg a slight boost. But, tellingly, the bigger New Hampshire surprise was the rise of Klobuchar, something the Iowa results didn’t even hint at and that was perhaps driven instead by her highly regarded debate performance between Iowa and New Hampshire.
Iowa’s incompetence consigned it to near-irrelevance — there’s much talk that 2020 could be the last first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses — whereas the competent execution of New Hampshire’s contest will help ensure its results reverberate into Nevada and South Carolina.