We are now halfway through the privileged “early states” on the 2020 Democratic presidential nominating calendar, and less than three weeks from Super Tuesday, when 14 states (plus American Samoa and Democratic Abroad) will award 1,357 pledged delegates (over one-third of the total for the year) in one fell swoop. And in fact, this understates the proximity of Super Tuesday: California started sending out vote-by-mail ballots on February 3, the day of the Iowa caucuses; in-person early voting began today in Tennessee, and will begin next week in Texas.
In many respects the early states are designed to winnow the field before Super Tuesday. But to a remarkable extent, we really don’t know which candidates will survive in any sort of viable condition by then. Yes, three low-polling candidates (Andrew Yang, Michael Bennet, and Deval Patrick) dropped out once it was obvious they were doing poorly in New Hampshire. Three candidates had big, successful nights (Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar). And two other very major candidates — each of whom looked like a front-runner at some point in the cycle — did poorly for the second contest in a row. That would be Joe Biden (fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire) and Elizabeth Warren (third in Iowa, fourth in New Hampshire).
It’s the nature of the remaining early states that makes prognostication so difficult. Polling for the Nevada caucuses on February 22 and the South Carolina primary on February 29 has been sparse. Before New Hampshire’s returns came in, the real contenders in Nevada appeared to be Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Tom Steyer (who’s spent a bundle on TV there). Bernie’s in fine shape, to be sure, after at least winning a tie in Iowa and an outright victory in New Hampshire. But Biden and Warren head toward Nevada in some serious trouble, and perhaps beginning to run short on money. You have to figure the former veep will concentrate on South Carolina, where he has led every poll and has a reasonably solid base of African-American support.
Meanwhile Buttigieg appears to have made some investments in Nevada that may now pay off, as the Nevada Independent reports:
Six months ago, his Nevada team was just starting to find its footing while other campaigns had been on the ground for months. He had barely visited the state. Voters were somewhat skeptical of this midwestern mayor they knew little about.
But with time, his team grew into the second largest in the Silver State. As of this week, they now have nearly 100 staffers on the ground, with 12 offices open statewide including often-forgotten corners of the state such as Pahrump and Fallon.
Amy Klobuchar, though, who hasn’t had anything like Mayor Pete’s kind of money, is definitely playing catch-up in Nevada. In the RealClearPolitics averages of very limited polling in Nevada (none of it reporting preferences in the last month), she’s in seventh place with just 3 percent.
Latinos are a key factor in Nevada, accounting for about a third of the population, which is another reason for Sanders’s strength (he is the acknowledged leader among Latinos, mostly as a byproduct of his overwhelming youth support). Biden has done well among older Latinos, as has Warren to a lesser extent, though again, it’s unclear how much damage the two candidates sustained from their poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. The best you can say for Buttigieg’s Latino support is that it’s stronger than his black support, and Klobuchar is not noted for a diverse following either.
A wild card in Nevada is the Culinary Workers Union, a big dog in the state’s Democratic politics, which has been warning its members that the Medicare for All plan that Sanders (and to a lesser extent Warren) is promoting would replace the generous plan the union negotiated with employers. The Culinary Union has not endorsed a candidate, and probably won’t before the caucuses, but if it’s perceived as working hand-in-glove with a campaign, that could have a real impact.
Another thing to watch is the February 19 candidate debate in Las Vegas. Sanders, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Warren, and Biden have all qualified. Steyer hasn’t; he didn’t win any delegates in Iowa or New Hampshire (the simplest way to qualify) and there hasn’t been any new polling of his two best states, Nevada and South Carolina. It could be a real problem for him down the stretch in Nevada. A complication for everyone is that someone who isn’t competing in Nevada or South Carolina, Michael Bloomberg, may be on the stage, since the Democratic National Committee eliminated the grassroots-fundraising threshold for qualifying even as he began posting big numbers in national polls (he has three of the four necessary to get into the debate).
South Carolina is even more of a crapshoot since there’s no obvious order of finish, particularly if Biden’s apparent meltdown is communicable to the sizable constituency he’s built in the Palmetto State. You also have to figure that what happens in Nevada could give candidates who did well a bounce a week later. While polling is sparse, it’s a bit more recent than the data from Nevada. But it’s also from surveys taken before the longtime local favorite, Joe Biden, began his descent toward Palookaville in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Before Iowa, the hot recent challenger to Biden in the Palmetto State was Tom Steyer, who had vaulted into second place in a survey from East Carolina University (Sanders, the only other candidate in double digits, was third). As I noted at the time, the billionaire was making a real play to melt down Biden’s South Carolina “firewall”:
As of late January, Steyer had spent $14 million on broadcast-TV ads in the state and was putting an estimated $200,000 a week into Facebook ads targeting South Carolinians, along with millions of dollars worth of direct mail. The billionaire has also held more events in the state than Biden or anyone else still in the race.
That ECU poll showed Steyer with support from one-fourth of the state’s African-American voters, who are expected to account for well over half the primary vote. Biden had 44 percent of the black vote, but clearly he was losing some ground even before the deeply disappointing finishes in the first two states. Steyer, of course, did far worse than Biden in the first two states, but wasn’t facing much in the way of expectations.
You’d assume Buttigieg and Klobuchar would benefit in South Carolina from their performances in the earlier states (including, possibly, Nevada), but they are coming from far behind. The ECU survey had Buttigieg, who has spent a goodly amount of time there, at 4 percent and Klobuchar at 2 percent. As has been the case in earlier polls and other states, neither of them has shown any support to speak of among African-Americans.
So who knows which candidates will survive all four early states and head into Super Tuesday raring to go? Biden and Warren could fade even more (the former in particular cannot afford to do badly in Nevada and South Carolina) or could find a lifeline and raise some money. Buttigieg and Klobuchar could fall apart in the face of all those nonwhite voters in the next two contests, or could do well enough to move on. If Steyer can do as well as some polls have shown him doing in Nevada and South Carolina, he can then make a stand in his native California, where he has a huge field organization.
There are, then, many possible configurations of the field heading into Super Tuesday, though at present the only candidates positioned to harvest many delegates in multiple states are Sanders and, of course, Michael Bloomberg, whose insane levels of investment in ads and staff on the ground will kick in with the states voting in March. Keep in mind that candidates who struggle on with few resources almost certainly won’t win delegates with less than 15 percent of the vote in any given district or state. More candidates might suggest a greater scattering of delegates and a higher likelihood no one can win a majority by the end of the primaries. But more candidates could also reduce the number hitting the thresholds. And in the event of a protracted and divisive Sanders/Bloomberg battle, someone (in theory Elizabeth Warren, who has been auditioning for the Unity Candidate role for a while) might gain new traction — if they have enough support to keep them in play until then. Maybe FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver has simulations for all the possibilities. But we need more results — or at the very least a lot more polls — to bet any acreage on where it all goes.