Post NH takeaways

1) Sure, Iowa and NH are really white, but if Joe Biden wants to be president, he needs more white people to vote for him, too.  I’ve seen the following point made in a few places, and Ben Matthis-Lilley makes it as well as anyone:

As writer Jedediah Purdy noted, Biden’s campaign was always about confidence: the confidence that he would be an “electable” candidate because everyone else had confidence in him too. But his campaign rallies failed to generate the enthusiasm or attendance that his rivals’ did, his debate performances ranged from adequate to totally incoherent, and he didn’t even raise that much money. There’s not much for him to fall back on now that the confidence in his collective appeal is beginning to collapse.

Yup.  Hard to be the “electability” candidate when nobody seems to want to vote for you.

2) Jordan Weissman on Warren’s hard times:

But above all, Warren seemed to get bogged down in the politics of health care. Instead of creating her own proposal from scratch, Warren attempted to win over the left wing of the party by wholeheartedly embracing Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan. But while Sanders freely admitted during debates that he would raise middle-class taxes in order to pay for his legislation, Warren awkwardly danced around the question of how to finance it. As a result, the issue dogged her. There was that cringey Stephen Colbert interview and a wince-inducing debate performance in which she would only say that overall costs for families would go down. Eventually, Warren released a detailed plan for how to pay for single payer without any middle-class tax hikes, but few experts or pundits found it particularly realistic. By mid-November, she backpedaled entirely and released a new plan, dropping single payer in favor of an ambitious public-option bill that she claimed would help “transition” the country to Medicare for All. Amid all the waffling, her poll numbers sank and sank.

Why was Medicare for All such a quagmire for Warren? The simple, obvious answer is that it shredded her core pitch to voters. Warren was supposed to be the candidate with a plan to fix America. Her catchphrase was actually “I have a plan for that.” Except on health care—the single most important policy issue for most Democrats—she evidently did not. It was a glaring oversight that disillusioned some Democrats and sent her campaign’s early momentum to a screeching halt.

The slightly more complicated answer is that Warren was trying to piece together a delicate coalition and managed to alienate both parts of it over health care. On the one hand, she was attempting to court progressives who might otherwise vote for Sanders. Many of them were always skeptical of her commitment to single payer and had their doubts confirmed when she backed away from it. On the other hand, she was also pitching college-educated professionals who may have been cold on single payer to begin with but liked the idea of putting a hypercompetent wonk in the White House. As she floundered on Medicare for All, many of these voters seemed to switch to Pete Buttigieg, another outwardly brainy candidate with professional-class appeal, who subtly reversed himself on single payer early enough in the race for nobody to notice.

I’ve been thinking her mistake was trying to hard to win over Sanders voters who were too much into the cult of Bernie.  I know so many center-left people who really like her (myself included), that I wonder if she shouldn’t have somehow tried to build more off of this than the left part where Bernie is a seemingly immovable object.

3) Speaking of Bernie, David Hopkins makes a good case that this pattern of results is great for him:

Unsurprisingly, a New York Times reporter proclaimed the 2nd- and 3rd-place finishes of Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to be the top two stories of the night, rather than Sanders’s nominal victory.

But those two results are themselves very good news for Sanders’s ultimate chances of winning the nomination. Had it been Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren who received 24 and 20 percent of the vote in New Hampshire to Sanders’s 26 percent, Sanders would be facing two rejuvenated opponents who would have the name recognition and resources to compete with him once the race opens out into a quasi-national contest on Super Tuesday, and Biden in particular would be back in position to enter Super Tuesday with a campaign-stabilizing victory three days earlier in the South Carolina primary.

Instead, Biden and Warren have been seriously damaged by their descent into the high single digits in New Hampshire, and the media death watch over both campaigns that will probably ensue won’t make it easy for them to rebound. Buttigieg and Klobuchar can expect a short-term publicity boost after their overperformances on Tuesday, but they will need to quickly build Super Tuesday-caliber campaign operations around themselves over the next three weeks in order to avoid being drowned out by Sanders’s financial and organizational advantages in expensive, delegate-rich states like California and Texas. And the fact that each of them is competing against the other as well as against Sanders (Buttigieg, in particular, was a repeated target of critical remarks from Klobuchar in last Friday’s debate) makes their tasks even more challenging…

So it’s probably wise to discount media talk that Sanders has had trouble growing his coalition. No other single candidate has done any better at winning votes so far, and there are good reasons to believe that his major advantages have not yet been activated. Of course, there’s a long way to go in the delegate race, and strange things can and do happen in nomination politics. But the two candidates who once loomed as Sanders’s strongest rivals are starting to look like they won’t be the ones to stop him—if anyone does.

4) And the always-worth-listening-to-on-elections, Sean Trende, who is more bearish on Bernie:

1. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ceiling might be real.

Sanders received the most votes in Iowa and won New Hampshire. He should be considered the front-runner for now. Yet there are causes for concern within the Sanders camp. In both states, his performance lagged his polls somewhat.

More importantly, undecideds almost entirely broke toward other candidates. The knock on Sanders has been that there is a ceiling to his poll numbers; he gets about 25% of the vote everywhere but can’t expand beyond that. I was somewhat dismissive of that criticism — given that he won over 40% of the vote in 2016 in the Democratic primaries — but it seems like these two early-state results are consistent with the ceiling theory.

Of course, in a crowded race, 25% of the vote will win a lot of primaries…

4. The race is about to change in ways we cannot predict.

So far, Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg have had surprisingly good runs in Iowa and New Hampshire. The problem is that the race is about to change dramatically. They are heading to Nevada and South Carolina, where the electorates are more diverse than those that have voted so far. Nevada is also a union-heavy state, where endorsements and pressure from party leaders can play an outsized role.

What will happen? The powerful culinary union in Nevada is warning against Sanders’ stance on health care, which suggests that Democratic interest groups might try to derail him in the caucuses (caucuses have traditionally been a strength for Sanders). In South Carolina, Joe Biden has earned the support of African American voters (who will make up a majority of the Democratic electorate); his supporters have referred to the state as his firewall. But we haven’t seen much polling out of South Carolina recently, so we don’t know whether his free-fall in Iowa and New Hampshire will be replicated there. And if he is collapsing among black voters in the Palmetto State,  we don’t yet know where those votes are going.

I definitely appreciate his emphasis of the dynamism and uncertainty of this race.  Buckle up.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to Post NH takeaways

  1. itchy says:

    2) Agree that Warren went head-to-head with Sanders too much. I kept waiting for her to ignore the other Democrats and keep reminding voters how she’ll fight Trump and the Wall Street crooks who are gaming the system. Maybe she did that, but she seemed to get pulled into intra-party bickering too much for my tastes. The difference between public option and Medicare for All is irrelevant if Trump wins.

    However, I think the biggest problem, which is sad, is that she actually produced plans. Because plans can be scrutinized. They allows columnists like Weissman to say that she “backpedaled entirely” or that “few experts or pundits found it particularly realistic.”

    You know who else makes claims that pundits do not find particularly realistic? Bernie. But since he doesn’t accompany his claims with plans, he just waves his hands and says, “I’m right, they’re wrong. I can do it.”

    Or maybe … she didn’t do anything wrong. Voters just don’t like her as much as they do Bernie.

  2. itchy says:

    4) It’s hard for me to forget that four years ago, people were dismissing Trump because of his “ceiling.” I was, too. I’m much more cautious about that now. If Trump won despite his ceiling, Bernie can, too.

  3. R. Jenrette says:

    I don’t get Buttigieg at all. Aren’t we seeing the results of amateur hour governing right before our eyes with our current President? A new President will not only have the usual huge problems to solve but will have to know how to rebuild a decimated executive branch besides. The experience of being a small town mayor just doesn’t cut it. A really, really big town mayor should have a much better claim than Mayor Pete if we’re going in that direction.
    Elizabeth Warren remains the most likely candidate to unite the party. Granted she must bring big ideas in simple but strong terms, her energy and her readiness for the fight to the public to win big
    March 3, 2020.

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