Finishing third isn’t normally exciting. Candidates talk about there being three tickets out of Iowa or New Hampshire, but those saying that are usually deluding themselves or hoping to chisel some final donations before it’s too late. John Kasich finished second in the 2016 New Hampshire GOP contest and managed to parlay that into Dead Candidate Running all the way until May. He wound up winning his home state of Ohio and nothing else.
Four years prior, it was Jon Huntsman’s turn to pretend finishing third with 17% of the vote was worthy of continuing. South Carolina soon cured him of that misapprehension. Both “ticket holders” were relative moderates, who relied on the independent voters of New Hampshire to nudge them ahead of enough other candidates to claim moral victory.
It’s tempting to throw Amy Klobuchar in with these two afterthoughts. Like them, she’s at or near the bottom of national surveys. With Andrew Yang and Michael Bennet dropping out, Deval Patrick likely to pull the chute in a few hours, and Tulsi Gabbard not viable, only Tom Steyer is keeping her from running last. There are five candidates in double digits. She’s at 4%. If Kasich and Huntsman didn’t get a solid New Hampshire bounce, why should Klobuchar?
A few reasons. Let’s start with margin. Klobuchar is going to finish approximately 6 points behind Bernie Sanders, closer to first than fourth. The gap is between Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, not her and Pete Buttigieg or Sanders. She finished first, second, or third in every county, and almost every township. Kasich trailed Donald Trump by 20 points, while the second through sixth place spots were only separated by 8. Huntsman finished 22 points behind Mitt Romney. He too was closer to last than first. There’s a big difference between a strong third (Klobuchar) and a weak second or third (Kasich/Huntsman.)
Then there’s effort. Both Kasich and Huntsman could have filed for New Hampshire residency. Both ostentatiously skipped Iowa, focusing on the Granite State as a place where they had a shot. Klobuchar spent more time in Iowa, and was stuck in the impeachment hearings for a couple weeks. While Kasich and Huntsman took months to slowly, painstakingly win over their audience, Klobuchar’s New Hampshire support doubled in a week. She did well enough in Iowa to make voters think, crushed the debate, and racked up almost 20% support.
Finally, there’s who she bested. A few months ago, Warren and Joe Biden were regularly combining for 40% support in New Hampshire. Klobuchar struggled to approach 4%. On primary day, she got more votes than they did. Combined. In doing so, she seems to have combined their voting groups. From Biden, she took some older moderates. My guess is she took half of the voters who would have chosen him a couple weeks ago.
From Warren, she took older, educated voters, of multiple ideological persuasions, usually somewhat liberal. After having equal, or even more male support in pre-primary polls, exit polls indicate Klobuchar surged with women voters, garnering up to 25% support, while still doing well with men. That’s a legit constituency going forward if she can hold it.
This was a true surprise. Both her over-performance and the Warren/Biden face plants. Her own campaign was only willing to predict she’d finish in the top four. We haven’t read months of articles about her uphill battle to have a strong New Hampshire performance launch her forward. This will help too. The media loves a new story, and after months in the shadows it’s Amy Time.
What now? What should we expect from her? No clue. At least not until Nevada caucuses. Klobuchar won’t have the money to contest Super Tuesday the way some of her opponents (cough, Mike Bloomberg, cough) can and are. Buttigieg has more money, more organization, and a head start. There’s an outside chance of a Biden resurrection. Newt Gingrich was similarly buried after IA/NH in 2012 and then won easily in South Carolina. Though Biden would need to sound more like he did with Stephen Colbert 4+ years ago than he does now.
Sanders is the favorite. If not better than 50/50 to have enough delegates before the convention, by far the most likely candidate to achieve that. He’s also the most likely to have a plurality of delegates. After winning the popular vote in the first two states and looking at good odds in Nevada, he’s in the driver’s seat. But it’s not over yet. Buttigieg actually has a couple more delegates so far.
The moderate (Buttigieg/Klobuchar/Biden) candidates finished almost 20 points ahead of the progressives (Sanders/Warren) in New Hampshire. The original Big Three (Sanders/Warren/Biden) received fewer votes than Buttigieg and Klobuchar combined for. Bloomberg’s recent polling shows voters are itching for other options. If Biden places well in South Carolina and continues forward, there’s only room for one of Buttigieg and Klobuchar to join Bloomberg as an outside option. If he’s completely cooked and out, it’s still questionable there’s room for more than two Sanders alternatives at most.
Warren appears done. Massachusetts senators and governors usually win New Hampshire primaries. When they don’t, they finish second. A strong second. They don’t wind up in single digits. Iowa was one of her best opportunities, and she didn’t get all that close to winning. I get why she’s going to stay in. Klobuchar was in a 4th/5th clump with Biden just last week. Now she’s our topic of conversation. To those who think she should withdraw and endorse Bernie to make sure a moderate doesn’t get the nomination, the same was suggested of Sanders as he was recovering from his heart attack in October.
It’s not the same. Bernie got the crucial AOC endorsement at the perfect time. Klobuchar is just getting her hearing now. Warren’s rise and fall, while longer-lasting and more substantial, is starting to feel a bit like Kamala Harris, just with a bit higher floor. But Warren has money to stay in a bit longer, and she’ll do so. Barring a sudden reversal in how the recent debates have gone, it’s just a matter of time though.
Nevada will tell us whether Buttigieg or Klobuchar will have the easier time putting together a coalition that can consistently get them at least 20% in most states (i.e. places with diversity.) If one of them can challenge Sanders, then it’s on. If both of them get close like in New Hampshire, we’re potentially headed for a mess. If neither can regularly reach viability (Nevada requires 15% per caucus precinct like Iowa, except when the floor is even higher–separate piece on this nightmare coming soon), then Bloomberg will seize the baton for Super Tuesday.
We just don’t know. And I’m thinking I like it this way. At least for now.