Just more than a week after the unmitigated disaster that was the Iowa Caucus, New Hampshire will hold the nation’s first primary on Tuesday night — an event that will decidedly not feature any gatherings in high-school gyms or glitchy apps. Whether the results in the Granite State will do much to resolve the wide-open Democratic field is an open question. Still, New Hampshire is undoubtedly a moment of truth for some campaigns that have failed to gain much traction (Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard), and some that were expected to have achieved liftoff by now (erstwhile front-runner Joe Biden, neighboring senator Elizabeth Warren). How much might the race change by Wednesday morning? I asked national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti my most pressing questions about what the race might look like on Wednesday morning.
Bernie Sanders has led every recent poll of New Hampshire. Assuming he wins, how much does his margin of victory matter?
Probably not a ton, unless it’s a surprisingly tight finish, or if he wins by something like 10+. Obviously there’s a delegate question based on his margin, but since it’s basically conventional wisdom now that Sanders will win New Hampshire, it will really be about setting the expectations and tone for the rest of the race. Even people in his orbit have had little interest in talking margin, recently, even to lower expectations. They know most of the focus is on the scramble between places two and five.
According to polling, Joe Biden is on track to finish in third or worse. If he slips to fourth or fifth, will his campaign be mortally wounded?
People around Biden were largely aghast that he predicted defeat in New Hampshire on the debate stage the other night, but it did successfully set his expectations pretty low. His team has been working overtime to make sure folks remember his strength in Nevada and — especially — South Carolina as a way of minimizing the New Hampshire result preemptively. The idea, basically, is to stop this question from being asked. But we’re already seeing his “electability” rating take a pretty big hit in polling, and his campaign has added to its fundraising schedule recently, signaling money concerns. If he finishes behind not just Sanders and Buttigieg and Warren, but also Klobuchar, it’d likely be hard for him to rejuvenate either of those two measures in the short run, which he needs to do.
Elizabeth Warren finished a disappointing third in Iowa. Given that New Hampshire is a neighboring state for her, what does she need to do to keep her campaign viable?
Warren has been signaling that she intends to stay in this race for the long haul no matter what. She hasn’t defined the parameters of that long haul, though, and given that she was, for a time, expected to do very well in New Hampshire, her team is feeling pressure to outline what her path forward looks like, even if she comes in third again. So far, part of the answer appears to be: go even harder on the notion that she is the unity candidate able to bring together a party that’s increasingly worried about fracturing in a long, messy primary. Her problem is that she’ll need money to make that case, and to over-perform in Nevada and South Carolina to get that cash.
If Pete Buttigieg manages to win or come in a strong second, would he begin to garner any of the kind of Establishment backing that has mostly gone to Biden so far?
Ask me this question after Nevada votes. A lot of elected-official support has gone to Biden, and in recent weeks a lot has also gone to another moderate candidate. But that’s Michael Bloomberg, not Buttigieg. Obviously another strong showing from Buttigieg would likely increase his support significantly among power brokers, but many that I’ve talked with in recent days are still waiting to see how he can do in more diverse states before fully signing on. That said, one of the underlying assumptions of your question leads down an interesting path: Much of Biden’s institutional support could indeed soon start to erode — it will be interesting to see how Buttigieg tries capturing it, either explicitly or behind the scenes. Two of his congressional endorsers have been trying to persuade members of the Congressional Black Caucus to sign on for months. That kind of outreach might go into overdrive.
Amy Klobuchar has seen a surge in polling and donations since Friday night’s debate. If she manages to vault into third place or better, could she seriously contend for the nomination?
Sure, if Klobuchar becomes the national story, she’ll have a shot. But she has a few pretty big obstacles right now: First, perhaps the biggest obstacle, is her very stark lack of support in nonwhite communities. This has been the knock on Buttigieg for a while, obviously, and it hasn’t been as prominent a point about Klobuchar because she hasn’t been front and center, but she’d need to dramatically improve her standing there in order to seriously compete. Second is that because she’s only starting to raise a lot of money now, she doesn’t have a massive operation in the Super Tuesday states, where she is very little known, or even Nevada and South Carolina, which go next in the process. Any momentum she gets out of Iowa and New Hampshire could be blunted by poor performances there, especially if she can’t start picking up big delegate hauls by March. (Let’s not forget … in the end, you win by earning delegates, not by being the “momentum” candidate.) These are pretty big hills to climb, but if Klobuchar does come in third in New Hampshire — especially if she finishes ahead of Biden — this will be a big question.
Also-rans Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, Michael Bennet, and Deval Patrick are polling in the single digits. Barring an unforeseen surge from any of them, which of these candidates do you think will call it quits soon after Tuesday night?
First off, “single digits” is a generous way to describe some of their polling. Patrick has made it clear that he’s taking South Carolina seriously, too, and that he sees a glimmer of hope there with Biden appearing to fade. The rest, though, have sent pretty clear signals that they’re all-in on New Hampshire these days. I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least two of them exit the race in the coming days, assuming they don’t get that surge. Which, for the record, wouldn’t just be unforeseen, but fairly shocking.
What is the absolute worst-case scenario for a Democratic National Committee that wants a quick end to the primary, and to avoid a contested convention this summer?
I’m not sure the DNC is the right institution to be thinking about here — that organization’s animating fear isn’t a long contest, it’s developments that give large parts of the party reason to doubt its credibility, like in 2016. The party Establishment overall, though, would be deathly afraid of a drawn-out contest if it turns especially contentious and rips factions apart such that it would be hard to glue them together in the general election. So it’s probably most worried about what would happen if Sanders looks ascendant and then Bloomberg turns his campaign into a $2 billion (or whatever) stream of negative ads against the front-runner. Still, there’s no indication he’d do that … for now.
Being on the ground there, have you detected any last-minute momentum among particular candidates that might not have been picked up by polls?
You mean other than Vermin Supreme? Because the field is still so large — we could see five candidates hit double digits on Tuesday night — it’s very hard to gauge “momentum” in the final days. But I think the Klobuchar moment is clearly happening, and that’s visible on the ground: She’s suddenly hosting the largest events of her entire campaign.