vision 2020

Can Biden Really Lose Iowa and New Hampshire But Still Win the Democratic Nomination?

Biden may be tempted to deemphasize the two table-setting states. Photo: Michael Dwyer/AP/Shutterstock

Let’s face it: If you’re running for president, having to spend months and months in Iowa and New Hampshire can be a pain in the butt. These states, with their privileged position in the nominating contests of both parties, harbor countless citizens who don’t believe a candidate has earned their votes until and unless they’ve asked for them in person. The locals have no compunction whatsoever about shaking down said candidates for all sorts of things, ranging from support for their provincial obsessions (e.g., the anti-tax pledges extorted by New Hampshire Republicans or the bipartisan Iowa demands on behalf of the Great Corn Idol of ethanol subsidies) to some fundraising help for state legislative candidates. And when actual voting grows nigh, the weather in these two states can turn as icy as the glare of voters if you challenge their political duopoly. I mean, there’s a reason campaign staffers sometimes refer to the largest city in New Hampshire as “Mancharctica” (as I discovered when visiting the place during a blizzard in December of 2003).

So if you are, say, Joe Biden, the front-running former vice-president with a broad path to the presidential nomination, you might be tempted to deny that total victory in Iowa and New Hampshire is essential. And in fact, his staff is testing out that theory on the political commentariat this very week, as Politico reports:

Biden advisers have said they’ve laid the groundwork in early voting states but “are now ramping up for Super Tuesday and beyond,” and they have no expectation other top-tier candidates will leave the race after the first contests.

“We feel we are going to be in a very dominant spot,” after the first four early states, another adviser said.

Still, the campaign downplayed expectations in first-in-the-nation Iowa as well as in the first primary state, New Hampshire, which borders the home states of Warren and Sanders.

“As you all know, historically, there’s an incredible home field advantage for a Massachusetts candidate or a New Englander,” an adviser said.

The heretical idea that Biden doesn’t have to win either of the traditional table-setters seems to becoming a staple talking point of Uncle Joe’s people, right along with his alleged superior “electability” against Donald Trump. As many observers instantly pointed out, though, only one major-party candidate has ever won the ultimate prize without winning either state since the modern voter-controlled nomination process emerged in the 1970s, and that candidate didn’t actually lose Iowa (in 1992, Bill Clinton safely skipped Iowa since the state’s own beloved Senator Tom Harkin was running, which basically took it off the table). Candidates who tried to skip (e.g., Al Gore in 1988) or shirk (e.g., Rudy Giuliani in 2008) Iowa and New Hampshire have most definitely come to grief.

As Jonathan Bernstein points out, this history represents a pretty small and illogical sample when you think it through:

Remember, we’ve only had a handful of competitive nomination contests, and even fewer that lacked an overwhelming favorite. That means we’ve seen only a small number of the scenarios that could plausibly play out. It’s easy to imagine a strong candidate with broad support finishing behind a factional candidate in Iowa and New Hampshire (or two different factional candidates) and then gaining in other states. Or two weak candidates with particular appeal in Iowa and New Hampshire could win early but fail to catch on elsewhere. Hey, if it hadn’t been for his debate “glitch” in 2016, Marco Rubio conceivably could’ve finished second in New Hampshire after taking third in Iowa, and then won South Carolina. 

Perhaps the strongest argument against the Essential Duopoly Premise is that since 2008, Iowa and New Hampshire have been joined in the charmed circle of protected early states by Nevada and South Carolina, mostly because (a) both parties, and particularly Democrats, were embarrassed by the unrepresentative nature of the first two lily-white states, and (b) pols in Iowa and New Hampshire decided their protected status would be tougher to breech if they had more allies. So it certainly makes sense for Biden, whose best early-state bet is South Carolina, to treat the four opening acts as a unit.

And indeed, Biden’s not looking so hot in the first two states at this point. In the RealClearPolitics polling averages, he’s at 26 percent in Iowa, just eight points ahead of Elizabeth Warren, who has a king-hell organization in the state and a lot of enthusiasm. In New Hampshire, he’s in even more trouble: at 21 percent, he’s less than two points ahead of Bernie Sanders (who trounced Hillary Clinton in the Granite State in 2016) and less than seven points ahead of Warren. But in Nevada, he’s at 30 percent, which is nearly double the level of support for Warren and Sanders (who are tied at 15.3). And in South Carolina, Biden is at 38 percent, with Sanders, Warren, and Harris bunched together in the low teens.

Beyond the “early states,” it’s understandable that Team Biden is talking about Super Tuesday (March 3), because that day features a large number of states awarding tons of delegates (notably California and Texas). Unless Biden has already dropped out by then, he’s going to get a lot of them.

Looking at it all objectively, there are actually two reasons why Iowa and New Hampshire could benefit Biden in the long run, even if he loses both states. First of all, it would be extremely helpful to him if both Sanders and Warren stay in the race as long as possible and neither is able to consolidate a progressive and/or anti-Biden bloc. One plausible scenario is that Warren wins Iowa and Sanders wins New Hampshire. If that happens, both candidates should have the juice to keep going at least until Super Tuesday and perhaps well beyond it. Second of all, the first two states could knock out potential rivals of Biden for the votes of moderate Democrats and of African-Americans. On the latter front, nothing could help Biden more in the overall delegate chase than for Kamala Harris and Cory Booker to crash and burn early on.

Conversely, of course, the enormous media and voter attention paid to Iowa in particular could give the winner, or even a trailing candidate who massively beats expectations, a serious bump in money and support that could overwhelm the rest of the field quite rapidly.

To answer the question in the headline of this piece, yes, Joe Biden can lose Iowa and New Hampshire and still win the Democratic presidential nomination. If he does so, of course, he will get his revenge on the Duopoly by weakening its grip of the nominating process.

Can Biden Lose the First Two States and Still Be Nominated?