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The Democratic Primary Is Dramatic and Suspenseful . . . but Maybe Not for Long

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren during the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westerville, Ohio, October 15, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

If you hate predictability and don’t have a dog in the fight, then this Democratic primary is pretty fun and exciting. Any of the big four of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, or Elizabeth Warren could win Iowa, and all four still have a shot at New Hampshire, although Warren and Buttigieg appear to be sliding back.

But . . . this means there’s a chance Biden ends up on top of a cluster of close-finishing candidates in Iowa, and then does the same thing the following week in New Hampshire, and his current leads in Nevada and South Carolina remain stable. This means there’s a not-so-crazy chance that Biden goes four-for-four in the early states and a lot of people conclude this primary is effectively over by the end of February.

The race wouldn’t really be over; Mike Bloomberg and his 1,000 staffers and bazillion dollars of television advertising are waiting to ambush the front runner on Super Tuesday. But in the primaries, momentum counts for a lot, and campaigns can only survive so many fourth-place finishes. Campaigns can spin lousy polling numbers but not lousy finishes in actual contests. Four years ago, New Hampshire knocked out Chris Christie, South Carolina knocked out Jeb Bush, and Super Tuesday knocked out Ben Carson. The following week, “Super Tuesday two,” featured Trump beating Marco Rubio in his home state, which drove Rubio to quit the race.

After a while, the primary finishes start to turn into the incentive structure from Glengarry Glenn Ross: “First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

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