OK, Iowa is behind us, the votes are still not fully tabulated, New Hampshire is a couple of days away, and things are weird.
And that’s not only because Iowa experienced the polling equivalent of the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, when a single relay blew and triggered a chain reaction throughout numerous interconnected Borg-like electrical grids, plunging New England, New York, New Jersey, parts of Pennsylvania, and most of Ontario into darkness for half a day. It’s also weird because Iowa produced a few delicious ironies, starting with entrance polls showing that older voters went for the gay post-pubescent Howdy Doody lookalike, while millennials supported the grumpy Jewish near-octogenarian New Yorker who comes off as a cross between Frank Costanza and a character in John Sayles’s “The Anarchists Convention.”* The Toteboard also can’t help but find it amusing that one candidate is more than twice as old as another.
But perhaps the strangest irony – one that no one has yet called out – concerns how the press has been trashing the Iowa democratic organization, even to the point of suggesting that they’ve somehow ruined the nominating process, i.e., depriving some candidates of their deserved bump, messing up the anticipated rhythm of the primaries, and even giving the party a national black eye and handing the election to Trump. Yes, as Nate Silver notes, Iowa has historically exerted disproportionate influence over the direction of things to come, but let’s not forget that this has only been the result of the press paying disproportionate, even fetishistic, attention to the Iowa caucuses in the first place, thereby creating (or at least feeding) the very myth they so often criticize. The reality is that sometimes results are muddled, sometimes there are technical problems, and yes, sometimes there are bad decisions that cause those problems, and the vast majority of Americans probably couldn’t care less if the results came in late . . . until the press kept up the drumbeat that the whole thing was a monumental fuck-up and that everyone should be absolutely outraged. The political media indignation at the Iowa chaos seems oddly self-referential.
That said, it’s time to update the race, in terms of the three-and-a-half intertwined narratives identified in the last Toteboard:
Biden is Bitten: Biden’s 4th place finish in Iowa was truly a worst case scenario, especially for someone with his history and stature, and it clearly exposes just how vulnerable he is among certain constituencies. So what will happen to him in New Hampshire, which has a quirky history of sometimes rescuing wounded frontrunners, and sometimes burying them? Right now, the polls look pretty bad for him, and his team must surely be experiencing real anxiety about whether or not his African American firewall will hold three weeks down the road in South Carolina. It’s a sign of how wide-open this race may be becoming that in a very short time, Biden could either regain his frontrunner status or have to withdraw to avoid any further humiliation.
The Progressives Pro-gress’: Bernie won the first round of the internecine liberal skirmish, and he’s poised to deliver the second jab of the one-two punch in New Hampshire. But it’s not clear that this would be a knockout blow to Warren, as she managed an acceptable finish in Iowa and acquitted herself well in the most recent debate. Still, she’s going to have to start winning somewhere to remain viable. There’s also the question of whether Bernie has a ceiling, though so far – perhaps because Trump threw out the playbook – he seems to be defying CW that the party could never pick someone so contentious and overtly revolutionary. One possible bit of sobering news for the party’s progressive wing: while two thirds of the Iowa caucus-goers identified as some variant of liberal, Bernie and Liz couldn’t even combine for half the vote. Only time will tell if this foreshadows a more widespread pragmatic democratic mood.
The Center Holds (at least for now): Again, with a liberal electorate, it is noteworthy that the two midwestern moderates combined for almost as many votes as Sanders and Warren. Throw in Biden’s votes, and it actually begins to look like the state is pushing a centrist mandate. The Toteboard admittedly misread which of the two would catch fire, though it wants to see a few results past New Hampshire before concluding that Buttigieg’s victory wasn’t primarily due to midwestern hospitality. Klobuchar didn’t light any fires, but didn’t get totally drubbed either. Still, even more than Warren, her numbers are going to have to pick up for her to have any chance. Amy for veep?
The Margins Get Noisier: If Biden really does implode, and the dems balk at Bernie, the fact remains that someone has to get nominated sooner or later, and it’s not obvious that either Warren or Mayor Pete would be the consensus candidate among the disparate democratic coalitions. Add to that the new superdelegate rules, and suddenly there’s a real chance that this could go beyond the first ballot. So, enter Bloomberg? He’s actually passed Buttigieg in national polls, though the numbers may get volatile once a few more primary results come in. The Toteboard is glad it’s not a real bookie.
Biden: 2-1 (previously even)
Sanders: 7-3 (previously 4-1)
Warren: 6-1 (previously 5-1)
Buttigieg: 6-1 (previously 50-1))
Bloomberg: 25-1 (previously 50-1)
Klobuchar: 50-1 (previously 10-1)
Someone Else: 100-1 (previously unrated)
* Sharp-eyed readers with idiosyncratic tastes and long memories may note that this is not as strange a juxtaposition as it may appear. When “The Anarchists Convention” was featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts nearly 30 years ago, it was Jerry Stiller who read it. Perfectly, we might add.