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What we should or should not infer from Iowa and New Hampshire

It is not clear that one can really extrapolate from less than 2% of the delegate count to infer much of anything. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking to supporters and the press at his New Hampshire primary night rally in Manchester.
REUTERS/Rick Wilking

There are 3,979 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. To win the nomination one needs 1,990 delegate votes. After Iowa and New Hampshire only 65 or 1.6% of all the delegates have been awarded. The primary season has barely started. Yet many pundits, political experts, and the media want to reach broad conclusions about what is happening.

On one level any inferences from Iowa and New Hampshire should be premature, yet already we have declared winners and losers, with some candidates having already dropped out and others seen as front-runners — or not.

The popular vote goes to Sanders

On many counts, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. While he is only one delegate vote behind former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (22 to 21 out of the 1,990 needed to win the nomination), he has won the popular vote in Iowa and New Hampshire and he is ahead in the fundraising battle. 

Moreover, with the campaign of the other liberal, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, seeming to be floundering (she came in third in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire), it suggests Sanders may be on the cusp of consolidating the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. At the same time, the moderate wing, represented by former Vice President Joe Biden, Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is more divided, even though they control a larger percentage of the votes so far compared to Sanders and Warren. Sanders’ challenge is enlarging his base, and that does not yet seem to be happening.

Moderates, worried at the prospects of a Sanders nomination, are touting Buttigieg and even Klobuchar post-New Hampshire as winners, with the latter, despite a fifth- and third-place finish in Iowa and New Hampshire, now the latest alternative to a fallen Joe Biden.

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Biden’s chances don’t look good, but don’t rule him out

Based on two states, it looks like Biden’s chances for the nomination are not good. He has had two dismal showings (fourth and fifth in Iowa and New Hampshire respectively), and he appears to be behind Buttigieg and Klobuchar for the moderate vote, and behind the front-runner liberal Sanders and even Warren.

Why has Biden done so badly? Several reasons: One, the center of the Democratic Party has moved left from where President Barack Obama and Biden were when they left office. Two, Biden has run a lackluster campaign and his debate performances have been weak. Three, like Hillary Clinton in 2008 and 2016, he is running as though he deserves the nomination.

photo of article author
David Schultz
Yet to rule Biden out would be a mistake for several reasons.

Yes, the results in Iowa and New Hampshire will create momentum, media attention, and money for its winners, Yet Iowa and New Hampshire are very different from the next two states, and even the rest of the country. The U.S. overall is 60% Caucasian, with Iowa and New Hampshire respectively 86% and 90%. They are racially not representative of the country, let alone of the Democratic Party. According to 2016 presidential exit polls, 71% of the electorate was white, but 74% of the votes for Clinton were from people of color.

The next two states, Nevada and South Carolina, are 49% and 64% white, with high percentages of the Democratic voters being people of color. These next two states are very different from Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden enjoys significant support among people of color, especially African-Americans, whereas none of the other candidates do well with minorities. This may change the race for the nomination in many ways because candidates such as Buttigieg and Klobuchar will be challenged to reach out to a different racial demographic.

So far their appeal has been to run as Midwesterners with Midwest values, failing to realize that such designations are code words for “white” among people of color. White may work in Iowa and New Hampshire, but it is less clear it will work in Nevada and South Carolina. And even if they get the nomination for president, there is a calculus here. How many white Trump votes can they move (when the evidence suggests Trump has 90%+ support of his base) versus how many people of color do they turn off? The argument for the moderate Democratic candidate relies upon a net positive sum for this tradeoff, especially in critical swing states.

The Bloomberg factor

Michael Bloomberg now will be an increasing factor as he will appear in debates and in the primaries. He has already spent more than $400 million in advertising, giving him a fourth if not better place in some national polls. He appears to poll as well as any candidate in a head-to-head with President Donald Trump. Bloomberg’s money will be a factor for all of the candidates going forward, not just for the moderates but also for Sanders, who will have to basically run against him. This divide will be a major problem for the Democrats going forward.

Conclusion: More than 98% of the Democratic delegates have yet to be awarded. The size of Super Tuesday and especially the frontloading of the California primary change the value of Iowa and New Hampshire. It is not clear that one can really extrapolate from less than 2% of the delegate count to infer much of anything. 

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” 


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