Iowa happened, and what a clusterfuck it was. We already knew that new caucus rules would make a mess out of any post-caucus clarity, and final results didn’t disappoint. CONFIRMED: The Iowa caucuses suck and this should mark the end of their unearned first-in-the-nation status. Also CONFIRMED: There was no winner. Just hand the prize to Pete Buttigieg, or maybe Bernie Sanders.
But seriously, who cares? Iowa allocates less than 1% of national delegates, so whether Buttigieg got 11 or 12 or 13 delegates, and whether Sanders got 10 or 12, the tally needed for victory is 1,990. Iowa was about one thing and one thing only: media narrative. And despite that mess, Buttigieg got the bump he needed, now catapulting into second place in myriad polling in Bernie-friendly New Hampshire.
Still, in this fragmented field, no one showed dominance, with Buttigieg and Sanders around one-quarter of the vote, Elizabeth Warren at about one-fifth, and Joe Biden really just impatiently waiting for South Carolina to vote. Remember, Sanders got around half the Iowa vote in 2016, so he lost support in the four years of nonstop campaigning since. And given turnout was just as poor as it was in 2016, no one is reshaping the electorate. Sanders isn’t spurring a new wave of youth turnout. We don’t have a Barack Obama in the race.
Anyway, let’s dive in to the rankings.
1. Bernie Sanders ⬆️ (Last week: 2)
At a New Hampshire town hall, Anderson Cooper asked Sanders if he saw himself as the front-runner, and his answer was a hard “NO!” But too bad: That moment has arrived—not because of his own strength—he’s barely cracked 20% in the national polling aggregate, but because of continued weakness and fragmentation of the field. Of course Bernie doesn’t want to be tagged as the front-runner. That means being the target of the kind of incoming fire that he’s never had to face. For now, he's kinda lucked out—Elizabeth Warren shows no interest in taking him directly on. And in Friday’s debate, most of the fireworks were directed at Pete Buttigieg, as a surprising fight for the “moderate” lane has shaped up.
But the honeymoon won’t last, and how he responds to it will inform much of the rest of the race. Warren and Kamala Harris and even Joe Biden wilted under their respective assaults. Buttigieg has his turn in the firing lane. It’s not easy being the target of the combined rest of the field.
Still, it might not matter. It’s not as if Bernie has any “soft support” in his coalition. He’s easily the most polarizing candidate, and people either love him or hate him. His supporters’ actions have further alienated potential second-choice voters. You don’t sit and call Warren a snake and then expect her supporters to come to you as a plan B. No other candidate has this problem. No one else’s supporters are as consistently nasty and toxic as his. And Bernie supporters can get mad at me and hurl insults for saying so, but truly national candidates work to broaden the tent and bring new supporters into their coalition. That’s why I don’t see Sanders winning in the end: He still can’t push beyond his core base. (And to be clear, no one else can, this isn’t picking on just Sanders). But what’s most damning is that he’s not even trying to broaden his coalition.
So what’s ahead? Sanders should do well in New Hampshire. He won it decisively in 2016. He’ll hit a brick wall called “black voters” in South Carolina, but he should do fine in the Nevada caucuses and head into Super Tuesday with a bit of momentum. His problem isn’t competing in a fragmented field. His problem will be the inevitable rise of the anti-Bernie candidate once the field becomes further consolidated. It’s inevitable. If that candidate happens to be Joe Biden or Michael Bloomberg, then life will truly suck. I’m suddenly hoping its Amy Klobuchar, just so that Plan B isn’t as soul-sucking depressing.
I do wish the left could consolidate around Warren, a far less-polarizing candidate. But that’s a pipe dream now.
2. Biden ⬇️ (Last week: 1)
Biden wasn’t expected to do well in Iowa: His job was just to minimize the damage. And while he wasn’t entirely successful with that, it’s enough to limp through to New Hampshire, one step closer to South Carolina, where he can power up (in video game parlance).
Biden’s entire game at this point is older black voters. As long as he holds them, he can scoop up big chunks of delegates in the South. Did his poor performance in Iowa damage that support? We don’t see it in the public data, but private data suggests that he definitely took on water. (What “private” data? My polling firm Civiqs. And look how we outperformed almost the entire polling industry in Iowa.), and Buttigieg and Bloomberg are the beneficiaries. Still, his firewall of Black support remains mostly intact, and as long as that holds, he should be en route for a win in South Carolina.
Biden’s big problem right now isn’t electoral, it’s financial. “In one troublesome sign for the financially strapped campaign, it canceled nearly $150,000 in television ads in South Carolina, which votes Feb. 29, and moved the spending to Nevada, whose Feb. 22 contest follows New Hampshire’s. The move seemed to acknowledge that Biden’s campaign cannot sustain a continued run of bad news.” Kamala Harris didn’t drop out because of poll numbers, she dropped out because she ran out of money. Bloomberg greedily eyeing Biden’s ideological lane, Buttigieg has already made inroads into it, and Amy Klobuchar is desperately trying to muscle her way in. That’s a lot of threats from a lane that was supposed to be his alone.
We’ve long talked about the Left being split two-way between Sanders and Warren. Few if any saw the center line stacking up four-way. What this means is less pressure to consolidate the Left flank, and a greater chance for a contested convention this summer.
3. Elizabeth Warren ⬇️ (last week: 3)
Once upon a time, the media gave three candidates a pass out of Iowa, but that only was until a woman was the third, so she’s been all but ignored this past week. She overperformed the polling (the Iowa aggregate had her around 15%) to get to around 20% of the vote. While it was nice to outperform those expectations, it’s hard to forget that at one time she was actually leading in those Iowa polls. She still hasn’t fully recovered from her Medicare for All plan rollout, a debacle that might have ended up costing her the nomination.
But she’s not out of this, not by a long shot. Obviously, she won’t win anything hovering at around 15% in the national polling, but it’s not as if anyone else is consolidating support. A first-place showing in New Hampshire would dramatically reshape the race, but a second place would be a boost. Third place, despite representing next-door Massachusetts, would be a disappointment, and that’s but that’s what the polls currently suggest. Fourth place would be brutal.
Warren, like every candidate not named Joe, is having a hard time attracting black voters. South Carolina will be rough. But Nevada could very well end up a battle between her and Bernie. A victory somewhere this month would provide a strong boost heading into delegate-rich March, but as of now, no place seems obviously ready to give her that victory.
Like every other candidate, her problem is, where does she grow support? The Bernie Left is locked in. They’re not going anywhere. More moderate to centrist Dems are spooked by Medicare for All, and now see her as too liberal. She’s wooed black voters heavily with little success, but might that accelerate if Biden falters? And is Buttigieg really going to survive into Super Tuesday, particularly given the renewed attacks he’s facing?
At this point, Warren’s best chance for victory is, ironically, to become the anti-Bernie candidate. Biden needs to be gone and Pete needs to stall. Klobuchar needs to stay in the back of the pack. Wall Street Dems can rally around Bloomberg, but there's not enough of them to matter electorally. A coalition of part of the Left plus the party mainstream would give Warren the nomination. Probable? Heck no. It’s almost an impossible scenario, actually. But nothing in this crazy race is “probable.” No one can win, but someone has to, eventually.
4. Pete Buttigieg ⬆️ (Last week: unranked)
Small-liberal-college-town mayor Pete Buttigieg co-“won” Iowa with Sanders (helped by impeachment keeping his Senate rivals in Washington), and that has given him new life as a potential Biden replacement, at least for the moment. He claimed a surge in big-dollar donations after Iowa (at the same time that Biden saw his fundraising hit a wall), so it seems like the Wall Street crowd, already in love with Buttigieg, could be going all-in on him.
Now Sanders is getting young people of color, and Warren is doing okay with younger educated women of color—nowhere near Biden’s dominance with black voters, but you know, it adds up to 10-15% support each among black voters. Shitty, to be sure, but it’s something. Buttigieg? He’s at zero. Any genuine rise in Buttigieg’s overall support would be a clear signal to black America that white liberals really don’t give a shit about justice issues. (Which is probably already true, but still ...) You want the gory backstory on how he fired his city’s Black police chief for exposing racist beat cops on his force? It’s here (and the story goes far beyond the police chief). It’s enough to generate enough distrust and hostility with perhaps the most important voting group in our party to last a generation.
It’s not just a primary problem. We don’t win November without strong black turnout in Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Jacksonville. If we don’t have a nominee that can talk the language of black America and can motivate those voters to turn out, we’re toast.
Now I know Buttigieg supporters will say I’m just taking shots at their guy, but here’s the thing: This issue matters in the primary. It matters to black voters, who will chose hundreds of delegates to the conventions, and it matters to some white allies eager to show solidarity. It’s akin to Bernie’s refusal to expand his coalition, except Sanders refuses by choice. Buttigieg can’t because of his past history.
More immediately, however, polls have Buttigieg moving up to second place in New Hampshire. Can he hold it despite the attacks during the New Hampshire debate and a serious barrage of negative attention like this?
Former Mayor Pete doesnÃ¢Â�Â�t think very highly of the Obama-Biden record. LetÃ¢Â�Â�s compare. pic.twitter.com/132TB7MHaq— Joe Biden (Text Join to 30330) (@JoeBiden) February 8, 2020
Simply brutal. And effective. Buttigieg’s “experience” truly is a joke, and the arrogance inherent in him thinking he deserves a promotion to the White House from a small liberal college town mayorship is breathtaking. He’s never received more than 11,000 votes in an election, and in his small-town reelection bid, that number went down to 8,500.
Now he needs to weather those attacks and notch that top New Hampshire finish, because South Carolina and Nevada don’t look to be hospitable territory.
The wildcards at this point are Amy Klobuchar, who seemed to be well received after Friday’s New Hampshire debate, and Michael Bloomberg, who seems to be trying to buy himself a pass to the nomination at a brokered convention. But just think of all those voters in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Georgia that we could’ve registered with the half-a-billion spent so far by Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. It’s sickening seeing all that money spent on the altar of egoism.