Takeaways From New Hampshire

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Here are six thoughts on Tuesday night’s Democratic primary in New Hampshire:

1. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ceiling might be real.

Sanders received the most votes in Iowa and won New Hampshire. He should be considered the front-runner for now. Yet there are causes for concern within the Sanders camp. In both states, his performance lagged his polls somewhat. 

More importantly, undecideds almost entirely broke toward other candidates. The knock on Sanders has been that there is a ceiling to his poll numbers; he gets about 25% of the vote everywhere but can’t expand beyond that. I was somewhat dismissive of that criticism -- given that he won over 40% of the vote in 2016 in the Democratic primaries -- but it seems like these two early-state results are consistent with the ceiling theory.

Of course, in a crowded race, 25% of the vote will win a lot of primaries.

2. The Klobucharge

For months, pundits have waited for Democrats to warm to Sen. Amy Klobuchar. It  appears that her moment might be now, which is the perfect time for her to get a hard look from the electorate. But we shouldn’t get carried away. Finishing fifth in Iowa and third in New Hampshire is much different than winning those two races. She has some momentum, however; that seems undeniable. Whether she can carry it forward into states like Nevada and South Carolina, where she hasn’t yet competed, remains to be seen.

3. Turnout

Overall New Hampshire turnout looks likely to exceed voter participation for the 2008 Democratic primary, which is superficially good for Democrats, to the extent that primary turnout can measure excitement. On the other hand, there are more Democratic candidates trying to get out the vote, the population of New Hampshire has grown in the past 12 years, and more importantly, there isn’t a Republican primary to draw away independent voters. To steal a line from the HBO series “Chernobyl,” this is “not great, not terrible.”

4. The race is about to change in ways we cannot predict.

So far, Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg have had surprisingly good runs in Iowa and New Hampshire. The problem is that the race is about to change dramatically. They are heading to Nevada and South Carolina, where the electorates are more diverse than those that have voted so far. Nevada is also a union-heavy state, where endorsements and pressure from party leaders can play an outsized role.

What will happen? The powerful culinary union in Nevada is warning against Sanders’ stance on health care, which suggests that Democratic interest groups might try to derail him in the caucuses (caucuses have traditionally been a strength for Sanders). In South Carolina, Joe Biden has earned the support of African American voters (who will make up a majority of the Democratic electorate); his supporters have referred to the state as his firewall. But we haven’t seen much polling out of South Carolina recently, so we don’t know whether his free-fall in Iowa and New Hampshire will be replicated there. And if he is collapsing among black voters in the Palmetto State,  we don’t yet know where those votes are going.

5. Voting is already happening in “Super Tuesday” elections.

We typically think of races in terms of momentum  – a candidate wins Iowa, which propels her into New Hampshire, which thrusts her toward the nomination. But the advent of early voting – where ballots can be cast before Election Day – scrambles that calculus. People have been voting in Super Tuesday states such as  California for days, and in Minnesota, Vermont, and Michigan for weeks. Early voting in Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas and Texas opens this week. And so on.

There are a few takeaways here. First, if the field were to winnow, thousands – perhaps millions – of votes will be cast for candidates no longer running. In other words, with every passing day it becomes more difficult for the race to winnow meaningfully. We may only have three or four candidates by Super Tuesday, but nine  will be receiving votes.

For that reason, the 15% threshold becomes crucial. To receive delegates, a candidate must receive 15% of the votes in a given jurisdiction. When the number of candidates exceeds three or four, it becomes difficult to hit that number. Bernie Sanders’ 25% of the vote could turn into 100% of the delegates if he is the only candidate in the race reaching the 15% threshold. Moreover, if he receives delegates in every state, but the other candidates hit the threshold in varying states, he can build up a delegate lead by default.

In addition, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been running ads in Super Tuesday states – and did so during the Super Bowl, no less -- while his opponents were tearing at each other’s hair. Sooner or later, Bloomberg will be subjected to scrutiny and negative ads, but by that point millions of voters in Super Tuesday states will have cast ballots in a universe where they have only seen positive Bloomberg spots. This has the potential to upend the race completely.

6. A brokered convention looms large.

What this adds up to is a situation where no candidate has a majority of delegates by the time voting has wrapped up. The field simply isn’t winnowing fast enough, and most of the delegates will be awarded in the next six weeks; by the time March ends, only about a third of them will be up for grabs.

With four or five serious candidates in the race winning delegates in different states (possibly even after they have dropped out) and fairly little separation between the survivors (incentivizing them to stay in), and with multiple Derby horses but no Secretariat, the first real contested convention in decades is a very real possibility. It is possible that such an outcome produces a consensus nominee and strengthens the Democratic Party. It is also possible that such an outcome smashes the Democratic coalition to splinters.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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