Opinion - Politics

Here are 6 lessons from the New Hampshire primary

John Ellis, editor of online publication News Items
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, U.S. February 10, 2020.
Brian Snyder | REUTERS

So what did we learn?

1. New Hampshire confirmed that Sen. Bernie Sanders isn't the candidate he was in 2016.

With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Sanders received 76,324 votes. In 2016, running against Hillary Clinton, he received 152,193 votes.

Throw Liz Warren voters (all 27,387 of them) into his column and his 2020 total would still be roughly 50,000 votes shy of his 2016 performance. Another way to look at the results: Three-quarters of the New Hampshire primary electorate voted for someone other than Bernie Sanders.

Travel back in time and this is what you find: Sanders won in 2016 with 60% of the vote. Hillary Clinton won in 2008 with 39% of the vote. John Kerry won in 2004 with 38% of the vote. Al Gore won in 2000 with 50% of the vote (Bill Bradley lost with 46%!).

Winning with 26% of the vote is unimpressive. Especially when you take into account that Sanders is a neighboring state US Senator. New Hampshire Democrats know him. They've known him for a long time. This time around, they gave him the most tepid endorsement possible, short of defeat.

2. Michael Bloomberg was hoping that Sanders would do very well in New Hampshire; 10% clear of his closest competitor would have been ideal. But of course Sanders "underperformed," as the TV chatterboxes say. Sanders barely beat Mayor Pete and Senator Amy's late surge was on prominent display in the day-after press coverage.

I've written at some length about Bloomberg's campaign strategy (here and here). The short version is this: Bernie wins early, becomes a bona fide front-runner, Democratic primary voters freak out, thinking Sanders can't beat Trump and move, decisively, to Bloomberg. An important piece of the strategy is that Bloomberg's fellow "moderates" (Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar) lose decisively in the early going and quickly run out of money. That clears the field for a Bernie-Bloomberg cage match, which, in the opinion of the Bloomberg brain trust, Bloomberg would almost certainly win. That was the thinking anyway.

I don't think the Bloomberg campaign is all that distressed by the rise of Amy Klobuchar. She won't be able to compete on Super Tuesday in the expensive media markets of California, Texas, and Virginia. And if she performs well in some of the smaller Super Tuesday states (like her home state of Minnesota, for instance), that's fine. From the Bloomberg campaign's point of view, Klobuchar's "job" on Super Tuesday is to damage (if not defeat) Sanders in the smaller states; prevent him from running up the score. If she does that, it would amplify a media narrative that Sanders is not the candidate he was in 2016 and that a Bloomberg-Klobuchar ticket is a winner.

Make no mistake about it, the "mainstream media" (MSM) do not want Sanders to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Like the majority of Democratic primary voters, they want someone who can beat Trump. The MSM are certain Sanders is incapable of beating Trump.

The problem with Tuesday night for the Bloomberg campaign was Mayor Pete Buttigieg almost beating Sanders and withstanding the Klobuchar surge. That meant he would not be going broke any time soon. Which meant he would still be competing in Super Tuesday states, thus depleting the pool of "Just-Beat-Trump" voters, thus making it more difficult for Bloomberg to defeat Sanders in the Big Three (California, Texas and Virginia).

Bloomberg has to win one of the Big Three. If he wins two, he's fully competitive with Sanders going forward and perhaps the favorite to win the nomination. If he wins all three, he's the nominee. Or at least he would be in a commanding position to win Florida two weeks later and be accurately described as the presumptive nominee.

A Florida win, on the back of a strong Super Tuesday performance would earn Bloomberg the (more-or-less) immediate endorsement of former President Obama, which would be the end of any remaining "moderate" candidates and would put enormous pressure on Sanders to get on board the Just-Beat-Trump Express. (Sanders won't ever really get on board, of course, but bit by bit his supporters would).

The former president's disdain for President Trump is intergalactic. He believes that the country's future rides on Trump's defeat. He has zero interest in ideological litmus tests or pie-in-sky policy proposals. He just wants to win.

And like a number of other people, he almost certainly thinks Bloomberg is the one to get the job done. Bloomberg has the right political profile for a general election. The things that would normally make him uninspiring seem reassuring in the Age of The Crazed Tweet. And best of all, just because it's so delicious, Bloomberg would bury Trump under an avalanche of money.

The Obama endorsement — proffered or not — will be a major post-Super Tuesday/post-Florida story. The Bloomberg campaign is counting on it (assuming they can win some primaries in important states). It essentially makes its candidate….The One.

3. Imagine that you are a bundler for Joe Biden. A bundler is someone who is rich, who has a lot of friends, associates, colleagues, clients and relatives who are also rich. The bundler's job is to hoover up their money, put it into a big envelope and Fedex it to the candidate's bank account; $250,000 is okay. $500,000 is good. $1,000,000 and you might be the US Ambassador to...Portugal, maybe, if things work out.)

Anyway, imagine that you are a bundler for Joe Biden and you woke up yesterday morning and scanned your phone and saw that the former vice president had finished fifth in New Hampshire, with 8.4% of the vote. You then checked your messages and found an "urgent" text from Biden HQ saying that the "fund-raising team" would be holding a conference call at 10 a.m. (or whatever).

So you're standing in your bathrobe in front of the coffee machine, trying to imagine how to approach your second circle of potential donors. "I know he finished fifth, OK, I get it, but South Carolina will right the ship, trust me" isn't a bundler's dream script.

That's the Biden problem in a nutshell. He's performed so poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire that there is little reason to think he'll run the table in Nevada and South Carolina, which means he will lose, in state after state after state, on Super Tuesday. No one, no matter how fond they are of the candidate, wants to contribute to something that is so obviously a lost cause.

Biden's only chance of reviving his campaign is convincing wins in Nevada and South Carolina. Not wins. Convincing wins. Twenty-point wins. Otherwise he's out of money and therefore out of the race. He may already be out of money.

4. Liz Warren had the classic newcomer's strategy: do well in Iowa, win New Hampshire, go national, fueled by front-runner money. In her case, beating Sanders early would also enable her to inherit a large piece of his "army," thus making her an even more formidable contender. That was the general idea.

Alas, it didn't work out. There are a lot of reasons why it did not. I wrote about two of them here. We could talk about other reasons why she fared so poorly, but why bother. Her campaign is over. All that's left for her to do is endorse Amy Klobuchar (which would be the smart move, and Warren is whip smart).

5. The turnout (296,622 total votes) was higher than it was in 2008 (287,527 total votes). And 2008 was, until the day before yesterday, the record high turnout for a New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary.

Democrats have to be pleased with that, since one of their persistent claims these past few years has been that the Democratic base is fired up as never before.

The Iowa Caucuses, annoyingly, produced an average turnout, which led some people (like me) to suggest that maybe the whole turnout-frenzy thing wasn't true. The New Hampshire turnout allowed Democrats to retort: turnout-frenzy is back!

6. What about Trump? The White House is exhibiting all the classic signs of overconfidence. The Trump campaign operation is, if anything, even more grandiose about its prospects and capabilities. Excessive self-regard is often fatal.

The Trump campaign would be well-advised to believe that every word in this press release is exactly right. Not because it is exactly right, necessarily, but because it's best to start with the assumption that if you don't execute well and hit your marks when you need to, you'll lose.

The Trump campaign is more than capable of losing the 2020 election.

John Ellis is the Editor of News Items and a former columnist for The Boston Globe. You can reach him at jellis41@protonmail.com. You can sign up for the News Items newsletter here.