BOSTON (CN) — While tens of millions of Democrats across the country anxiously await some clarity in a remarkably muddled race, a scant 250,000 voters — roughly the population of Glendale, Arizona — will go to the polls in tiny New Hampshire on Tuesday.
The New Hampshire primary takes on outsized importance this year because of the uncertain result in Iowa — a virtual tie with disputed results that dribbled out over days.
“We usually finish what Iowa started,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “This year there’s a bit of a vacuum. We’re on our own without a lot of context.”
Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, pointed meanwhile to recent polls showing that Iowa voters have been sorting themselves into progressive and moderate lanes.
On the progressive side, Senator Bernie Sanders has largely consolidated the field, leading most polls in the state outright and pulling roughly double or triple the support given to Senator Elizabeth Warren. A bad result for Warren in New Hampshire could pose a serious blow to her candidacy since she, like Sanders, hails from a neighboring state.
Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton here in a landslide back in 2016, edging her among Democrats and winning nearly 3:1 among independents. Some 42% of the state voters don’t belong to either party but are allowed to vote in the Democratic primary.
No one expects Sanders to get the same kind of stratospheric numbers this time, in part because there are so many other candidates. Also, New Hampshire voters in 2016 “didn’t vote for Sanders so much as against Clinton,” said Smith.
Still, a victory here would make Sanders the nominal front-runner in the race and put pressure on the moderate faction to try to settle on a candidate who can consolidate support.
And that’s where New Hampshire might provide some clarity. For instance, a win by Pete Buttigieg, on top of the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s surprisingly strong showing in Iowa, could make him the leading moderate.
Polls in the state show Buttigieg gaining ground, and one Boston Globe/Suffolk University survey released Friday gave him a one-point lead — although that result is an outlier. Buttigieg has put money, staff and organization into New Hampshire and could take advantage of whatever bounce made it out of Iowa, said Smith.
Experts have observed that the Granite State in some ways plays to his strengths since it is more than 90% white and more than a third of voters have college degrees. Also, polls show that Buttigieg is many voters’ second choice, so they could migrate to him if they sense that their favored candidate no longer has a real chance, Smith said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden on the other hand recently reduced his staff here and has been trying to lower expectations for a while, Smith noted.
“I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here,” Biden admitted in his first comments during Friday’s nationally televised debate.
Scala pointed to senior citizens as the only segment of Biden’s New Hampshire supporters committed to him. And Smith said Biden is “nobody’s second choice” in New Hampshire and has “nothing to fall back on” if his electability argument looks to be in doubt after the early states.
“Electability takes on new meaning when you have actual results,” Scala said.
Senator Amy Klobuchar is also angling to be the moderates’ champion, but Smith said she hasn’t invested much money, organization or staff in New Hampshire.
If New Hampshire doesn’t clearly anoint Biden or Buttigieg as the moderate favorite, it could presage a protracted fight in which former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg begins to pick up establishment backing as the more traditional faction struggles for a way to stop Sanders. Many in the establishment wing of the party fear that Sanders could not only lose to President Trump but cost seats in Congress as well.
Sanders, who felt that Democratic officials treated him unfairly four years ago, has seemed eager in New Hampshire to exploit the idea that the party regulars are once again out to get him.
On Thursday, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez called for a recanvassing of Iowa votes just as Sanders was closing in on Buttigieg’s delegate totals. At a press conference an hour later, Sanders criticized the recanvassing idea and called the Iowa process “extremely unfair.”
Sanders also lambasted the party’s decision to change its longstanding debate rules to permit Bloomberg to participate in the next one. “I guess if you’re worth $55 billion you can get the rules changed for a debate,” Sanders said. “I think that is an absolute outrage.”
Sensing an opportunity to divide Democrats, President Trump’s team has also been fueling suspicions that the Iowa results were rigged and that the party is trying to undermine Sanders, according to Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.
This perception could help Sanders with New Hampshire independents, since it reinforces Sanders’ “outsider brand,” Levesque said.
It’s worth remembering that New Hampshire Democrats have often delivered a surprise verdict, including a stunning rebuke of President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 that led to his withdrawal from the race. New Hampshire voters picked the obscure Jimmy Carter in 1976 and chose Gary Hart over Walter Mondale in 1984. And they revived Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and Hillary Clinton’s in 2008.
One reason for this history is that New Hampshire voters are difficult to poll, Smith said. They often make their minds up very late, and often in response to the Iowa results a week earlier. And there is demographic churn as well: Some 20% of New Hampshire voters in 2020 weren’t on the rolls in 2016, Smith noted.
Another reason is that the primary is the nation’s first secret ballot, Levesque said. The Iowa caucuses require participants to declare their preferences in front of their neighbors; turnout there is low – the all-time record is 16% – and many people who show up are activists and ideologues. By contrast, Levesque said, “in New Hampshire you can vote your conscience and then lie to your friends about what you did.”
In terms of what to look for on Tuesday, Scala said a key question is whether one of the candidates can show signs of building bridges outside of his or her traditional areas of support. “It would be one thing if Sanders wins among young voters and those who live on the Vermont border,” he explained, “but another thing if suburban voters are part of his coalition.”
Scala added: “It’s great to have a lane, but after New Hampshire, you have to be able to reach across lanes.”