The Corner


Mapping Out the Expectations Game for Iowa and New Hampshire

Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Calif., December 19, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

We’re just a few weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, and a week after that, the New Hampshire primary. There’s still time for things to change, but right now, there’s a good chance that one or two of the Big Four candidates — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg will be in really rough shape after the first two contests, even though the margins of victory are likely to be small.

The first thing that stands out is how those four are all clustered pretty close together in most of the recent polls of Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden, Sanders, and Buttigieg are all in the mid to low 20s, and Warren is still close, in the mid to high teens. Remember, candidates need to win 15 percent to get any delegates. Fairly or not, finishing with 14 percent or less will be perceived as a major defeat.

It is easy to envision a scenario where some candidate wins Iowa with say, 25 percent of the vote, and the third-place finisher gets about 20, and that third-place finish is seen as some sort of massive disappointment.

Also note that the expectations will be different for different candidates, fairly or not. To keep going, Buttigieg really needs finish either first or a close second in Iowa and/or New Hampshire. He’s really counting on his finishes in those places boosting his numbers in the subsequent contests; right now, he looks like a non-factor in Nevada and South Carolina. Similarly, right now Warren is ranking fourth in both of those states — and two fourth-place finishes would probably lead to her getting written off as a serious contender.

Meanwhile, if Joe Biden finishes a close enough third place in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will probably remain in okay shape. And unless Sanders has two terrible finishes, he’s probably in this for the long haul.

The candidates who come in third and fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire will probably complain that the “expectations game” is unfair, that only a small percentage and number of votes separate them from the winners, and that they’re being written off too early. Similarly, candidates who fall short of that 15 percent threshold — hello, Amy Klobuchar — are also likely to complain that standard is unfair. Welcome to politics, everyone. Make sure you read the rules before you get started.

If Warren or Buttigieg don’t have good finishes in the first two states, a lot of people are likely to believe that the race has come down to two septuagenarians: Biden and Sanders.

Except that the week after South Carolina is Super Tuesday, and Bloomberg is spending a fortune in both advertising and organizing in those states. So maybe by early March, the Democratic presidential primary will be a battle of three septuagenarians.


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