Scrambling expectations in NH

Muddled message from fractured primary vote

THE NEW HAMPSHIRE primary always plays out on two levels: The horse race to grab bragging rights by finishing first and the expectations game that judges whether candidates overperformed or took a surprising dive, which can have a powerful effect on the race going forward, regardless of where they place in the contest.

On the first level, it was another win for Bernie Sanders, who is now 2 for 2 in the first primary season competitions after narrowly capturing the most votes in the Iowa caucuses (even while narrowly losing the delegate competition). It gives the Vermont democratic socialist a big tailwind and makes him the presumed front-runner for the nomination. His support is rock-solid and fervent, but it’s not very wide and he has no broad mandate from the Democratic electorate.

Indeed, with just under 26 percent of the vote as of this morning’s tally, Sanders is on track to capture the lowest vote-share ever for a New Hampshire primary winner, a fact that underlines just how fractured the Democratic field remains.

On the expectations front, Amy Klobuchar was the big winner, rocketing from a blip on the New Hampshire radar a couple of weeks ago to a strong third-place finish, only a few points behind second-place finisher Pete Buttigieg. The big losers were Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, who finished fourth and fifth. Perhaps there’s still hope for an early primary season win for Biden in South Carolina at the end of the month, but after getting trounced in neighboring New Hampshire, the senior senator from Massachusetts has no obvious path to winning an upcoming state primary.

Analysts and pundits have been quick in recent days to use poll numbers and the Iowa results to try to paint a picture of which way Democratic voters lean, calling the combined totals for Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Joe Biden the left-center or moderate bloc, while combining support for Sanders with that of Elizabeth Warren to describe the share of voters leaning firmly left.

By those measures, the electorate leans more to the center than the left (the New Hampshire vote would divide roughly 53-35 in favor of moderates among those top five finishers). Even ascribing that full 35 percent share to the left may be generous, however, as Warren moved in recent days (perhaps to her detriment) to position herself as a “unity” candidate who straddled the left and center.

It’s easy to make a case that those calculations point toward a more moderate winner under a system of ranked-choice voting — the kind of electoral reform that many Sanders backers likely support. A few later primaries in small states plan to use ranked-choice voting this year, but most states are not. Meanwhile, the first-past-the-post focus in Iowa and New Hampshire has led to a battle to win the optics between Sanders and Buttigieg, who ran close to even by each  grabbing about a quarter of the vote in both states.

The fact that the putative front-runner in the race has landed there with support from only a quarter of primary voters underscores why the race seems so unsettled. It’s why someone like Michael Bloomberg thinks he can still parachute into the race — along with a few hundred million dollars — without even vying in Iowa or New Hampshire and have a shot at the nomination.

There will be plenty of carping about the fact that Bloomberg was once a Republican. Of course, the guy who just won the New Hampshire Democratic primary (after also winning it four years ago) isn’t a Democrat. Meanwhile, the wild Democratic scramble is all for the right to take on a  president who was once a registered Democrat but has completely taken over the Republican Party with a set of positions on everything from trade to foreign policy to deficits that only a few years ago would have had someone laughed out of any GOP county convention.

All of which helps explain why the smartest pundits right now are the ones saying they have no idea where it will all land.