Democrats in New Hampshire go to the polls tonight in the first presidential primary of the year. Although Iowa now goes first, its caucus system lends it an air of strangeness – more so than ever this year, when the reporting system collapsed and candidates were left in the dark for days concerning the results.
New Hampshire is much more like a normal election. And its record for predictive power is much better: no candidate since 1968, from either party, has won the nomination without coming first or second in New Hampshire.
A month or so ago, the New Hampshire polling was fairly straightforward. Bernie Sanders – independent senator from the neighboring state of Vermont, who won convincingly four years ago – and former vice-president Joe Biden were fighting it out for first place. Behind them but still in contention were Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, whose most senior position has been mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
By late January, Sanders had opened up a substantial lead, with the other three close together. Then came the fiasco in Iowa, where Sanders and Buttigieg virtually tied (Sanders leading narrowly in votes and Buttigieg in delegates) and Biden underperformed badly, falling to fourth behind Warren – closely followed by Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar.
Not surprisingly, that severely impacted Biden’s support in New Hampshire. While Buttigieg has shot to second place, a few points behind Sanders, Biden is now fighting it out for third with Warren and Klobuchar.
What are we to make of all this? Sanders is now clearly the front-runner, but he represents a minority current of opinion within the party. The problem is that the opposition to him is so far having great difficulty in settling on a single alternative. While I don’t suggest that Sanders represents the same threat to democracy that Donald Trump did, it’s basically the same problem that Trump’s opponents in the Republican Party had four years ago.
The betting market now has Sanders as a strong favorite at about 6-4 against. But its next most favored runner, at about 3-1, is not even competing in New Hampshire – Michael Bloomberg, onetime Republican and former mayor of New York, whose strategy is based on sitting out the early primaries and pouring money into advertising for the states voting next month, particularly on Super Tuesday (3 March).
Buttigieg is quoted at about 7-1, followed by Biden at 13-1 and Warren at 25-1. Klobuchar is the value bet of the field at about 45-1. To stay viable, one or more of them has to outperform expectations tonight. If none of them impress, Bloomberg will be waiting to pounce.