MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE
ON THE EVE of the primary, Joe Biden, the former vice-president and erstwhile front-runner, was in a church gymnasium in Manchester. He walked out to the assembled crowd of a few hundred as Carrie Underwood’s song, “The Champion”, blared from speakers. It had been specially selected by Mr Biden’s wife, Jill. “I am invincible, unbreakable / unstoppable, unshakeable / They knock me down, I get up again / I am the champion,” the lyrics ran as Mr Biden basked in applause, including a particularly enthusiastic delegation from a firefighters’ union clad in neon yellow. Yet, as disappointing results came out on Tuesday evening—showing him placing fifth with a dismal 8.4% of the vote, with 87% of the votes counted—Mr Biden was not in New Hampshire to face the music. Instead, he cancelled his election-night appearance and bolted for South Carolina, which has now become the last stand for his faltering campaign.
The purported point of one of the oddest quirks of America’s presidential primary process, the early-state contests, is to whittle the field of candidates down to a manageable size and bring some clarity to the race. The disaster of last week’s Iowa caucus, caused by a malfunctioning app for tabulation and questionable management, failed to do that. The primary in New Hampshire—where the counting of votes is more straightforward—managed to rehabilitate the purpose of America’s early-state system. It clearly established a two-person struggle, for now, between Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, who finished first with 25.7% of the vote, and Pete Buttigieg, whose highest office was the mayorship of a mid-sized city in Indiana, and who finished close behind with 24.4% of the vote. “A campaign that some said shouldn’t be here at all has shown that we are here to stay,” Mr Buttigieg exulted in his election-night speech. No Democratic candidate in the modern era has won the nomination without placing first or second in either Iowa or New Hampshire.
Mr Sanders now looks to be the front-runner to win the nomination. Bettors have punched his odds of victory up to 48%. He leads in published polls in Nevada, which will next conduct a caucus (without the disastrous Iowa app) on February 22nd, and has narrowed the gap with Mr Biden in South Carolina, which holds a primary on February 29th. Black primary voters, who make up roughly half of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina, have overwhelmingly supported Mr Biden thus far. It is why the state has become his campaign’s redoubt if it hopes to resuscitate his chances at capturing the nomination.
The former vice-president’s miserable finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire—fourth and fifth, respectively—would have spelled doom for an ordinary candidate in an ordinary election. But his insurmountable advantage among black voters is starting to crack. Polls conducted by YouGov on behalf of The Economist, released on February 12th, show that his support among black primary voters has fallen from 51% to 38% in just one month*. It does not need to fall much further for Mr Biden to drop into losing territory in South Carolina.
Should Mr Sanders win three or even all four of the early primary states ahead of Super Tuesday—the delegate-rich state primaries held on March 3rd—he will be in an enviable position to get an unshakeable hold on the nomination. It will be of great help to him if Democrats are unable to coalesce around a single, moderate alternative. Right now, Mr Buttigieg seems to have the strongest claim to that title. But Mr Biden will probably limp on for a few more weeks. Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota scored an impressive third-place finish in New Hampshire with 19.8% of the vote. She will continue onwards, meaning that her campaign will have to rapidly expand into states in which it had a minimal footprint.
But the looming entry of Michael Bloomberg into the race mucks up efforts at prognostication. Mr Bloomberg, the billionaire who was formerly mayor of New York City, has opted to skip the early quartet of states altogether and spend jaw-dropping sums of money on advertising in the Super Tuesday states. That money has appeared to buy him friends: his standing in the national polls has shot up from zero to 15%—eclipsing Elizabeth Warren, the progressive Massachusetts senator who briefly flirted with front-runner status in October. His brand of politics is similarly moderate and technocratic, meaning that he could either deliver a coup de grâce for a struggling Mr Biden or further fracture the field to Mr Sanders’s benefit.
The New Hampshire result also clarified whose fortunes had fallen. Some minor candidates, like Andrew Yang, a businessman pushing a universal basic income, and Michael Bennet, a talented senator from Colorado, dropped their bids after disappointing results. Ms Warren, who mustered just 9.3% of the vote despite representing neighbouring Massachusetts, also appears to have long odds of victory. Her new strategy to pivot and identify herself as a unity candidate, as opposed to her original form as progressive firebrand, will be tricky to pull off. Roger Lau, Ms Warren’s campaign manager, released a memo on election day outlining a long path to victory, the latest entry in a long history of faltering candidates predicting magnificent recoveries.
President Donald Trump may also be quite pleased with the outcome. Mr Trump was once so concerned about a challenge from Mr Biden that he pressured the government of Ukraine to investigate him and his family, triggering impeachment by Congress. Now Mr Biden hardly looks threatening. The candidate who sells himself on electability and experience has been handily beaten in the first two contests by the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Mr Trump’s campaign would apparently most like to face Mr Sanders in the general election. With such a fragmented field, the Democrats may struggle to produce an undisputed champion. But after New Hampshire, Mr Sanders’s chances are improving.
*This figure has been updated to reflect the latest poll from YouGov
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