New Hampshire and the Expectations Game

For most candidates, it’s more important to avoid last place than to come in first.

If anyone is perfectly positioned for the New Hampshire primary, it’s Amy Klobuchar. As Ryan Lizza notes, “she benefits from very low expectations, so if she places ahead of any of the top four candidates — Buttigieg, Sanders, Biden and Warren—she will be able to claim a kind of victory.” Despite this, there’s a palpable buzz around her campaign and the press on the ground seems unanimous that she’s surging at just the right time. She got a further boost by winning the early reporting precincts of Millville and Hart’s Location. It’s just hard to envision her having a disappointing night. Lizza believes it’s possible that she could win, which would really shake up the race.

As for the rest, only Biden seems to be in a position to boast about something less than victory. As the other candidates were hosting last-minute rallies numbering in the thousands, Biden was holding a meeting in a Manchester church. The media coverage of his campaign reads more like a dirge than dispassionate analysis. His problem is that this negativity might cause the limited support he actually has to collapse and give him a truly embarrassing result. Yet, the flip side is that everyone is preparing to write his obituary tonight, and a second or third-place finish will exceed expectations and make him seem like The Comeback Kid. He’s stronger than people think going forward into the more diverse electorates to come, but Michael Bloomberg is eating into his black support now and Buttigieg and perhaps Klobuchar (after tonight) could eat into his moderate vote.

Most analysts believe that Bernie Sanders will get the most votes in New Hampshire, possibly by a comfortable margin. He was denied a clear and uncontested win in Iowa, so getting a first-place result is important to him. Anything less will produce negative press and suppress the narrative he wants to create that he’s an unstoppable juggernaut. Yet, in truth, his campaign will continue regardless of the result and maintain enough strength to win at least some delegates in nearly every contest. So, in that sense, nothing is life or death for him tonight.

I can’t say the same for Pete Buttigieg. He’s perceived as the winner of the Iowa caucuses where he most definitely exceeded expectations. He’s seen a boost in his polls as a result, so he has some real momentum. He’s been drawing large crowds in New Hampshire and he’s well-financed. He could weather a second-place finish in New Hampshire, which would probably make him and Sanders the top finishers in the first two contests. If he can go two-for-two in Iowa and New Hampshire, that’s the best he could have possibly done. But he’s currently getting virtually no support from black voters, and it’s not clear when he can win another primary or caucus. If he comes in third or worse, it really could spell the end of his campaign.

Elizabeth Warren is harder to gauge. She seems likely to come in in third or fourth place, with fifth not out of the question. None of these would be good news for her campaign. A second-place finish would give her a nice narrative, and third would leave her in about the same place she was after Iowa. A good night for her might be measured less on how she does than on how she can potentially benefit from the misfortune of others. If Sanders underperforms, perhaps more of the left will give her campaign a look. If Klobuchar flames out, she could wind up the last woman in the race. If Buttigieg disappoints, then maybe she can get more attention from the press. And if Biden bombs, perhaps she can take his place as the candidate most likely to unite the party. As long as she doesn’t trail the pack tonight, she should be able to spin a nice story about how she is strengthened by the result.

The one thing that seems clear is that fifth place is the thing to avoid. Buttigieg seems like the candidate who most needs to win. Klobuchar is the one who most needs to break into the top three. There’s less at stake for the others, but fifth-place would badly weaken all of them and possibly finish Warren off.

So, tonight I’ll be less interested in who wins than in the order in which people finish.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com