Win Early or Go Home

Only twice in nine elections has the eventual Democratic nominee not won one of Iowa or New Hampshire. Iowa remains fairly wide open, but Bernie Sanders may have the inside route in New Hampshire.

The pace of attrition is swift in Presidential primaries. Usually only a few candidates remain standing after March 1st, so a victory in Iowa or New Hampshire can put a candidate far ahead of his or her rivals.  In fact the eventual Democratic nominee won one or both of these states in seven of the past nine contested Presidential nominations.

We can see a few different patterns over these campaigns. In 2000 and 2004 the “establishment” candidates, Al Gore and John Kerry, began strong and finished strong. Hillary Clinton’s campaigns resemble Walter Mondale’s effort in 1984.  Both Clinton and Mondale were establishment choices but faced strong opposition from outsiders Gary Hart, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders.

2020 has no establishment Democratic candidate, so might it follow one of the other patterns?

Regional Appeals in Iowa and New Hampshire

In the two outlier elections, 1972 and 1992, the strong regional appeal of a few candidates masked the underlying strength of the eventual nominee.

Maine Senator Edmund Muskie came second in Iowa in 1972 by just 0.3% of the vote behind “uncommitted.” When he arrived in neighboring New Hampshire, Muskie was expected to build on his Iowa win with a strong victory among his fellow New Englanders. Sadly for Muskie, he soon found himself the target of an infamous smear campaign involving confederates of Richard Nixon and the then virulently right-wing newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. Confronted with a barrage of falsehoods, Muskie delivered an emotional speech, dubbed the “crying speech” in some quarters, outside the offices of the Union Leader.  Muskie did win New Hampshire and the Illinois primary a few weeks later, but it was the second-place finisher in the Granite State, George McGovern, who went on to win the 1972 Presidential Nomination.

In 1992 Iowa’s senior Senator, Tom Harkin, tossed his hat into the ring and promptly collected 77% of the Iowa caucus vote. After Super Tuesday he never contended again. New Hampshire that year was won by the junior Senator from neighboring Massachusetts, Paul Tsongas, but it was the strong second-place performance of Arkansas governor Bill Clinton that caught the eye of political observers. Tsongas beat Clinton by only 33% to 25%. The “Comeback Kid,” as Clinton billed himself, went on to win a number of primaries on Super Tuesday and eventually consolidated his hold on the nomination.

Regional Appeals in 2020?

In an earlier article I discussed Iowa‘s apparent preference for Midwestern candidates.  Sherrod Brown’s decision not to run for President leaves only Amy Klobuchar, the senior Senator from Minnesota, and South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg as candidates who can lay claim to Midwestern roots.  So far, though, neither candidate has caught on in the early Iowa polling.  Klobuchar polls in the single digits, and Buttigieg has yet to break onto the list.

Averaging the current Iowa polls gives former Vice President Joe Biden the lead at 27.3%, followed by Sanders at 15.4%, and California Senator Kamala Harris, former Texas Congressman “Beto” O’Rourke, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren all with about ten percent. Name recognition obviously has a substantial influence on these figures, and the race could change substantially should Biden decide not to run.

At the moment, though, Iowa seems fairly open.  That is less true for New Hampshire.

Bernie Sanders won a dramatic upset victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 New Hampshire primary by a margin of 60-38%.  There is no reason to expect him not to do well again in 2020.  His current polling average in the Granite State is about 21%, not far behind Joe Biden’s 25%.  Harris and Warren come in around 9-10%.

New Hampshire has certainly preferred fellow New Englanders over the years. Candidates from neighboring states have won five of the eight competitive New Hampshire primaries held starting in 1972. Despite his travails, Muskie did win the 1972 primary, as did Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas in 1992. New Hampshire voters in 2004 spread their votes across three candidates from New England including eventual nominee Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

Yet with the exception of Sanders impressive victory in 2016, candidates from neighboring states have not won New Hampshire by overwhelming margins. And both Muskie’s and Sanders’s victories came in largely two-person races, which will certainly not be true next year.

Sanders’s strength in New Hampshire comes at the expense of Elizabeth Warren.  Together Sanders and Warren poll in the low to mid thirties, or about the total vote won by Dukakis and Tsongas. However Sanders outpolls Warren 21-9 on average. If Warren hopes to follow in the steps of Howard Dean in 2004 she’ll need to up her game.

All told, though, the chances look good that Bernie Sanders could win the New Hampshire primary again and secure one of those two valuable slots in the early states.