Joe Biden has a solid constituency. So does Bernie Sanders. As does Elizabeth Warren. We’ve known this for months. Somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the primary electorate would prefer another option though. If one candidate can control most of these voters, they have a very good path to the nomination. If support winds up fragmented, they’ll all fail.
In Iowa, Pete Buttigieg temporarily consolidated that fourth lane and knocked Kamala Harris out in the process. However, Amy Klobuchar is making progress. She reached 10% in a recent Emerson survey, and is at 7.5% in the FiveThirtyEight average. We’ll deal with a full Iowa forecast separately, but if Klobuchar gets well into double digits, it gets real hard for Mayor Pete to win.
New Hampshire is a bit of an exception. No candidate is currently averaging even 20%, so it might be possible for Buttigieg to win if five candidates are in double digits, but his present lead is based on only four candidates averaging over 5%. Candidates like Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, and Tom Steyer are running ahead of their national averages here, so it has the effect of pulling some votes off the board. I’d consider them a separate fifth lane. They don’t have the same or often even similar supporters, but share the commonality of voters being willing to consider an extreme underdog.
Klobuchar is running at about 3%, so she’s not the same threat as in Iowa. Mike Bloomberg is also around 3%, just over half his national support. In any state where they’re both in this range, and voters are disproportionately older and white, Mayor Pete has a favorable outlook.
Next up is Nevada. There are no polls including Bloomberg yet, and even without him, and with Klobuchar at 2.3%, Buttigieg is still in single digits. Absent momentum from wins in Iowa and/or New Hampshire, this might be a three lane state. Both Biden and Sanders are pretty strong here.
Unless something drastically changes, Biden is extremely safe in South Carolina. The only place lanes matter is to see who can snag a decent second. Where a legit fourth lane makes all the difference is on Super Tuesday. Let’s look at California as an example:
Biden and Sanders are effectively tied at around 20%. That makes this both competitive and surmountable. Delegates go to candidates who can clear 15% in an individual congressional district, so unless most candidates are out way sooner than we think it’s guaranteed that nobody is getting a majority of them.
But, winning California is a big psychological and media boost to a campaign. I’ve already argued that if Buttigieg wants a legit shot at the nomination, in addition to taking Iowa and New Hampshire, he’ll need at least a few Super Tuesday victories, and this one would have the biggest impact, as it would prove he can succeed in a very diverse state.
If you combine his numbers with Bloomberg and Klobuchar, it gets you to 16% and change, equal to Warren and in striking distance. It’s a very tough state for Klobuchar, even if she were to win Iowa. She does best with older, white voters, and will not have the financial resources to compete with the leaders in the major media markets.
Bloomberg is already at 5%, and his money advantage is most useful here. Given that he’s already planning to effectively skip the first four states to concentrate on Super Tuesday, his results in the first contests won’t impact his decision to compete here. Either multiple candidates win early, in which case Bloomberg is all in, or the same candidate (most likely Biden) sweeps the early states, and game over. In that scenario, we don’t care about a fourth lane anyway.
Glancing at the rest of the map, Biden holds a clear advantage in Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Sanders did very well in Maine in 2016, and will definitely win Vermont. If Warren doesn’t win her home state of Massachusetts, she’s done. Oklahoma is interesting. Sanders won in 2016, Warren was born there. Biden leads. It’s not a great fit for a fourth lane candidate.
What does that leave? Texas. Biden is ahead by double digits. Some expensive big advertising markets. Not a great fit for a fourth lane, though Bloomberg could theoretically compete here if Mayor Pete underperforms in Iowa and New Hampshire and is effectively or officially done before Super Tuesday.
There’s Utah. Not enough polling to know how that one stands. Also, not important enough of a victory to propel a fourth lane candidate. If Klobuchar is the surviving fourth lane option, she’d win her home state of Minnesota. If she’s gone, it’s a good target for Buttigieg or Bloomberg, but again, tough for them to both do well in.
The remaining interesting states are Colorado and Virginia. If a fourth lane candidate can command the majority of available support and win these two, plus California, it would mark them a contender for at least the next several weeks. Neither are easy. Biden is strong in Virginia, Sanders in Colorado.
After reviewing, the most striking thing is how well situated Biden, and to a lesser extent Sanders are. Even in a world where there are just four viable candidates, there are only a few states where a Buttigieg, Bloomberg, or miraculously surviving Klobuchar could realistically expect to win.
Should Warren somehow get eliminated early, which isn’t impossible if she finishes fourth in each of the first four states, Sanders is the most common second choice among her supporters. She does have a lean toward women voters who would prefer a female nominee, but with Harris gone, and Gabbard appealing to a fringe, the remaining option, Klobuchar, is way too moderate for many Warren supporters.
Among the fourth lane options, Buttigieg would probably benefit the most from her demise. They are frequently second choice options for each other. But again, that might be necessary just to reach parity with Sanders. Biden has the most states that look safe. Sanders is the most able to push forward without a ton of wins by the end of Super Tuesday, due to his ability to raise money and protect his base.
Buttigieg was going to have a tough road no matter what. Thirty-seven-year-old openly gay mayors aren’t frequently nominated. For governor, never mind president. Bloomberg is at least as big of a roadblock to his hopes as I could have figured. As long as Biden is even slightly ambulatory, there’s only room for one of them.