Pete

So, Now What?

AWalter Head
February 7, 2020

CONCORD, N.H. — Although controversy continues to swirl around the Iowa caucuses, folks here in New Hampshire seemed to have already moved on. They don’t need an official recanvass or final party certified winner to tell them what happened on Monday night. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg were the winners. Joe Biden was the big loser. And for now, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar have been relegated to the back burner.

New Hampshire is an ideal environment for both Sanders and Buttigieg. Sanders’ anti-establishment, blue-collar and libertarian constituency is well-represented in the “Live Free or Die State.” Meanwhile, Buttigieg’s suburban appeal (which he displayed in Iowa by winning in the suburban enclaves around Des Moines), is well-suited for  the populous (and prosperous) southern part of the state, essentially an exurb of Boston. It’s also clear that Buttigieg’s success in Iowa has gotten him second looks up here. An event on Thursday at an American Legion hall in Merrimack was at capacity, and Buttigieg organizers had to shoo away those of us shivering in the gloomy, wet weather who were waiting to get in.

Buttigieg, however, is unlikely to win this ‘moderate’ or non-Bernie lane without a fight. 

In New Hampshire on Wednesday, Biden told a campaign crowd: “I have great respect for Mayor Pete and his service to this nation. But I do believe it’s a risk, to be just straight up with you, for this party to nominate someone who has never held an office higher than mayor of a town of 100,000 people in Indiana. I do believe it’s a risk.” As I write this on Thursday afternoon, it remains to be seen if he or the other two candidates vying to win over that non-Bernie lane like Warren and Klobuchar will challenge Buttigieg directly on stage at Friday night’s Democratic debate in Manchester. 

New Hampshire has also been friendly to underdog candidates in the past. Think John McCain in 2008. Or Bill Clinton in 1992. But, can the former Vice President have his own “comeback kid,” moment in the Granite State? “I don’t think so,” Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, told me on Thursday. “New Hampshire voters aren’t riding and dying with him [Biden].”

Biden’s struggles to generate on-the-ground energy make it a challenge for him to pick up that “ride or die” momentum. To be sure, there are plenty of candidates who won their party’s nomination despite their struggles with generating buzz or big, energetic crowds; think Mitt Romney, John Kerry and Al Gore. Of course, all three also went lost in the Electoral College come fall. But, those candidates had an advantage in their primaries that Biden doesn’t: money. On Thursday, Sanders announced that the campaign had hauled in $25 million in January — $2 million more than what Biden had raised in the entire fourth quarter of 2019. 

The stronger Buttigieg looks in New Hampshire, the better things look for Sanders. After all, the other big challenge for Buttigieg is to prove that he can appeal to more than just white voters once we get to more diverse states like Nevada and South Carolina. There hasn’t been any recent polling out of the Silver State (which holds its caucuses on February 22). Still, early January polling put Buttigieg in the single digits, compared to Sanders’ 17-18 percent. Biden was narrowly ahead of Sanders with 21 percent. 

This scenario sets up well for another candidate not on the ballot here in New Hampshire but who is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on TV, digital and campaign infrastructure in the Super Tuesday states and beyond. Whether former New York City Mayor can get traction (and delegates) in the March 3rd states remains a big question mark. But, if Biden limps out of New Hampshire, the pressure (and focus) will be on Bloomberg to be the one to unite the anti-Bernie constituency. While I was waiting in line (unsuccessfully) for the Buttigieg event, I chatted up voters in line. One man, David from Manchester, New Hampshire, said he was there to give the South Bend Mayor a look. He was trying to find a moderate alternative to Sanders and was choosing between Buttigieg, Klobuchar and…Mike Bloomberg. Another woman we met in Manchester told us that she liked Buttigieg, but was also taking the Bloomberg candidacy very seriously. I understand that two anecdotal interviews do not make a trend, especially coming from two, white voters in an overwhelmingly white state. Bloomberg may be the preferred candidate of the suburban elite, but can he win over skeptical African-American voters who may not be satisfied with his recent apologies about police tactics while he was mayor? And, can he convince older, blue-collar voters who have a history with Biden, that he’s an acceptable alternative?

So, when will we know who’s going to win the nomination? Here’s my advice. Accept that this is the most unpredictable and unconventional primary campaign that we’ve seen in years (if not in memory). That means we need to stop trying to make it fit into a traditional box. 

Image: Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg arrives to an overflowing American Legion Post 98, and addresses his supporters in Merrimack. (Photo by Preston Ehrler / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)