OK, the voting is about to begin, and just maybe a little bit of order will soon emerge from the chaos. Or maybe not.
There is a way in which it is helpful to envision Iowa and New Hampshire as a unit, i.e., a one-two punch that serves to winnow the field to a pair (or trio) of viable candidates. And there’s no reason to think that dynamic won’t continue – i.e., the number of warm bodies seeking a spot on future debate stages should be significantly reduced within about two weeks.
But despite these two primarily rural enclaves ranking as two of the four whitest states in the country, they do have other important demographic differences (e.g., education, religion, etc.) and voting habits. And despite both being very unpredictable, they actually have very different records in terms of how predictive they have been over the years.
To put it simply, Iowa has almost always been right. In the eleven democratic caucuses since 1976, they have chosen the candidate who eventually earned the party’s nomination a stunning nine times, and the only two exceptions were when Iowa senator Tom Harkin ran essentially uncontested in 1992, and when two border-state neighbors (Dick Gephardt and Paul Simon) split the majority in 1988, i.e., two anomalous years when favorite sons had a clear advantage. And so, while Iowa may not produce many delegates, it may continue to serve as an effective divination block.
New Hampshire has proven to be a far more quirky place, as it has sometimes sealed the deal for the Iowa victor, sometimes stanched his or her momentum, sometimes coalesced around a single progressive challenger, sometimes voted predictability for the local candidate, and sometimes rejected the local candidate. It has also been totally hit-or-miss in terms of predicting the nominee. In non-incumbent years, they got it wrong in 1972 (Ed Muskie), right in 1976 (Carter), wrong in 1984 (Gary Hart), right in 1988 (Dukakis), wrong in 1992 (Paul Tsongas), right in 2000 (Gore), right in 2004 (Kerry), wrong in 2008 (Hillary Clinton), and wrong in 2016 (Bernie Sanders). For the non-mathematicians among you, that’s just about a coin toss. And of the years they got it right, only one of those nominees was actually elected president. Perhaps it’s time for the press (and the pols) to realize that New Hampshire may not be so important after all, at least on the democratic side.
In any event, Iowa is this Monday, and New Hampshire is eight days after that, the polls are pretty tight (and fluid), and there are three (maybe) four stories to watch. The narrative will change considerably, depending on how these play out.
Biden His Time: Given that Biden owes much of his presumptive frontrunner status to his standing with African-Americans and the redder areas of the country, Biden doesn’t have any particular advantage going into IA and NH, but there’s also really no a priori reason why he couldn’t do well in them, especially Iowa. If he can somehow win both states, which is a distinct possibility, that basically ends the race. And if he can win even one, that probably turns him into the frontrunner in a two-person (maybe three-person) race. But if he loses both, things remain interesting. And if he loses both by more than expected, then all bets are off. At least until the next Toteboard.
Progressives’ Progress: It’s usually pretty clear after New Hampshire (and maybe even after Iowa) who will be the consensus candidate of the party’s liberal wing. The classic example is 1984, when George McGovern, Alan Cranston, and Jesse Jackson were all challenging Walter Mondale from the left, but Gary Hart managed an interesting (if hardly inspiring) second place finish in Iowa, which transformed him overnight into the Great Progressive Hope. To some extent, the same thing happened, with better results, for Obama in 2008, leapfrogging other credentialed liberals like Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Dennis Kucinich. With Warren and Sanders both laying claim to this lane, conventional wisdom might dictate that whichever one does better in Iowa will be poised to cement that status in New Hampshire (where, ironically, both are next-door neighbors), and facilitate the graceful withdrawal of the other shortly thereafter. But both candidates are on a mission, and their respective followers comprise a pair of stubborn lots, often with tribal, sometimes pheromonal, differences between them, so there’s a distinct possibility that this subplot may not follow historical precedent and both will soldier on no matter what. At the moment, the Toteboard is at something of a loss to explain why Warren seems to have faded in this lane, as she seems to have all the right chops for uniting this particular coalition. Perhaps it was a bad decision to transform her public persona from professorial wonk and policy advocate into caffeinated populist posing for selfies with groupies. Or perhaps as the NYT points out, Bernie may finally be making inroads with young African Americans. Or perhaps it’s just all the old gender stuff surfacing again. In any event, it’s not like Bernie has left her in a cloud of dust, and once the second- and third-choice realignment occurs as the caucus wears on, just about anything can still happen. And to be quite candid (for a change), the Toteboard is of the mind that democrats would prove themselves to be borderline delusional if they were actually to hand Bernie the nomination. But then again, in this truth-bending era of photoshop, deepfake, and the republican party, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between delusion and reality.
All Things In Moderation: Mayor Pete and (especially) Amy Klobuchar have been playing the long game, hoping that their (comparatively) centrist ideas and Middle America images will play well in Peoria (yeah, the Toteboard knows that’s actually in Illinois) and cast them as the moderate un-Biden. But they’re both running out of time, and if they can’t get into the top tier in the state which been historically hospitable to its next-door neighbors, the Toteboard doesn’t really see any way forward for either of them. While they could try to pull a Joe Lieberman, i.e., pathetically spinning a sixth place finish into “tied for third,” both are more likely to fade quietly if they can’t hit that 15% magic number. The Buttigieg bubble has probably already burst, but Klobuchar is possibly having something of a late surge (which, alas, could end up scuttled by an NYT piece questioning her role as the prosecutor in a controversial case against an African American man), and so there’s still something to watch here. But it is really now or never for the middle-of-the-roaders from middle America.
Fan-Mail From Some Flounder: Though things normally settle into a two- or three-person race after NH, there’s still a little bit of noise on the margins, and so there’s still the possibility that Bloomberg (and maybe someone else?) will defy the odds and jump into contention by skipping the first rounds and targeting Super Tuesday and beyond. No one has yet been able to pull off a late large-strategy successfully in either party (e.g., Gore in 1988, Giuliani in 2008), and the Toteboard remains highly skeptical. But when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro, and Bloomberg is indeed a weird pro.
Biden: Even (previously 3-2)
Sanders: 4-1 (previously 10-1)
Warren: 5-1 (previously 2-1)
Klobuchar: 10-1 (previously 20-1)
Bloomberg: 50-1 (previously 100-1)
Buttigieg: 50-1 (previously 10-1)
* This includes 1976, when Carter actually lost to an “uncommitted slate” but defeated every other actual person in the race.