Editor’s Note: Daniel Guild is lawyer, project manager and Democratic activist in New Hampshire. He writes for Bleeding Heartland, a progressive political blog. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The first canvasser, for Elizabeth Warren, knocked on my door last June. It was far earlier than in prior years, but like other New Hampshire voters I have been answering the door (or not, depending on my mood), throwing candidate mailers away (Tom Steyer sends at least one a week) and having my Pandora playlist interrupted by Pete Buttigieg for months.
But many of my fellow citizens – myself included – are having trouble choosing a Democratic presidential candidate. According to a CNN/UNH poll, as many as 69% of voters have said they might still change their minds before primary day. This suggests that we may see a significant swing in candidate fortunes as the campaign in New Hampshire unfolds over the next several days.
Here’s a look at some of the key factors that could shape the result:
The impact of Iowa
Iowa results have always mattered in New Hampshire, though some in New Hampshire might not admit it.
It’s worth remembering 1984 Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart’s surprising second place finish in Iowa allowed him to overcome a 25-point deficit and beat Walter Mondale by 12 points in New Hampshire in 1984. Or how John Kerry’s come-from-behind win in Iowa propelled him to victory in New Hampshire in 2004.
Iowa’s real power is in the focus it gives to the winners. In conversation with Dante Scala, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who has also studied Iowa and New Hampshire, we both agreed that Iowa may create a two-candidate race in New Hampshire between former Mayor Peter Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – or a three-way race between Buttigieg, Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In either scenario, former Vice President Joe Biden would not be included – and the risk that he descends into irrelevancy is quite real unless he can pull off strong victories in Nevada and South Carolina.
But will Iowa matter in New Hampshire this time given how long it has taken to get a complete set of results?
The state of play in New Hampshire
Since polling post-caucus is limited, it makes sense to ask what the state of the race was before Iowa.
New Hampshire voters want to ensure President Donald Trump does not win reelection. Most Democrats, in fact, say that beating Trump is more important than any other issue, though they differ in how best to accomplish this.
Moreover, different candidates appeal to the different reasons Democratic voters want to stop Trump. Buttigieg appeals to those appalled by the President’s ignorance (the Kansas City Chiefs play in Missouri, Mr. President). Former Vice President Joe Biden appeals to those scared of the chaos Trump creates – and hopeful he can reunify the country once again. And Sanders and Warren supporters view Trump as a tool for the rich and think winning requires a bolder politics.
There is little doubt Sanders is ahead – and Iowa will likely only help him. Many campaigns noticed that some of Sanders’ 2016 supporters began to move back to him in December and early January. Some of this may be connected to the Warren polling decline that began in the fall, possibly a result of the concern for her Medicare for All plan.
Still, it is clear from the most recent CNN/UNH poll that Warren and Sanders are fighting for the same voters. That poll found 45% of Warren current supporters identified Sanders as their second choice, and 46% of Sanders supporters said their second choice was Warren.
To understand Sanders’ strength, you must understand that the Democratic Party is really two parties: one for young people and another for the old. Yes, age, along with race, defines differences within the Democratic Party – as much as ideology does. And this is not new. In 2008, Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton with those under 30 by a margin of 51-28, and Sanders beat Clinton in 2016 among those same voters by a margin of 83-16 here.
In the most recent UNH/CNN poll, Sanders received 47% support from those under 35, and only 11% from those over 65. Conversely, Biden received 28% from those over 65, and a mere 7% of the vote from those under 35.
A two- or three-way race
So, can anyone beat Sanders? The answer is surely yes. But it will very much depend on whether a two- or three-way race develops.
What of Biden? From the beginning I have not sensed excitement for him (this was also true in Iowa). Talk to his supporters, and they will tell you he can beat Trump, but how can you be the most electable candidate when you appear to be finishing fourth in Iowa? His supporters are older and certainly more moderate, but he is struggling for a message that would make people enthusiastic about him.
The first time I took Buttigieg seriously was in last March when a city councilor in Concord told me how impressed the councilors were with him. Though he is the youngest candidate, he does well with older voters. A common reaction from his supporters is that “He is just so smart.” In Iowa, we learned that some Biden and Klobuchar supporters moved to Buttigieg when their candidate was not viable. That may be an indication that Buttigieg can emerge as the moderate consensus candidate.
In the many candidate events I have attended, one question has been asked over and over: “How can you bring us together?” In the last days of Iowa, Warren suggested an answer: herself. In some ways, Warren is the most likely candidate to beat Sanders. She is from a neighboring state, her organization is equal to Sanders and she is perhaps the only candidate who can appeal to both wings of the party, though her support tends to be better educated and more female than Sanders.
The Friday night debate
The next big event in New Hampshire is the debate. And in the Granite State, debates can make or break a campaign.
In 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan came in second to George H.W. Bush in Iowa, and was still trailing Bush the night of the New Hampshire debate. Up until that point, Reagan’s performance had been so lackluster many sensed his time had passed him by. But before the debate began, a debate Reagan was notably paying for because the FEC had ruled the Nashua Telegraph could not sponsor the debate and comply with election regulations, there was a dispute whether he could bring other candidates on stage. When the debate moderator tried to stop Reagan from including them, Reagan shouted “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”
That single moment, which aired repeatedly on national television, seemed to put an end to all of the doubts that Reagan’s Iowa defeat had created. In contrast, Bush’s subsequent silence made him look weak and indecisive. Politico noted Reagan would later say, “I may have won the debate, the primary – and the nomination – right there.”
New Hampshire is the end of the road for many candidates, and the debate may be their last chance. As each of those candidates step onto the stage, they will be looking for their own “I am paying for this microphone” moment.