The New Hampshire Democratic primary could be more significant for its losers than for its winners.
Candidates who come in fourth or fifth in Tuesday’s primary will struggle to credibly claim they have a real shot at becoming the party's nominee.
Even if they do not drop out right away in such a scenario, it’s conceivable that a bad result in New Hampshire will send their campaigns into a death spiral.
Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPelosi sets Thursday vote on bipartisan infrastructure bill Pressure grows to cut diplomatic red tape for Afghans left behind President Biden is making the world a more dangerous place MORE faces peril after a disappointing fourth-place finish in last week’s Iowa caucuses — a result that Biden himself likened to a “gut punch.”
The former vice president was asked by “NBC Nightly News” on Monday whether he could survive a fourth-place finish in the Granite State. He insisted, “Sure I could.”
But the mere fact that the question is being asked is not a good sign for Biden.
Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky argued that Biden can keep going for a while, whatever happens in New Hampshire — but that a poor result there could doom him down the line.
“Joe Biden can survive coming in fifth. But I don’t know if he can survive coming in fifth — and then come in first in South Carolina,” she said.
Biden is not the only one facing danger.
Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenIn defense of share buybacks Democrats urge Biden to go all in with agenda in limbo In Washington, the road almost never taken MORE (D-Mass.) posted a solid third-place finish in Iowa. But she may be on her way to being definitively eclipsed by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders Texas House Republican tests positive for coronavirus in latest breakthrough case In defense of share buybacks Progressives seething over Biden's migrant policies MORE (I-Vt.) in the battle for progressive support.
Sanders and Warren both represent states abutting New Hampshire, which would make a poor result there even more difficult to explain. In three recent state polls, Sanders consistently led the field, but Warren was fourth in one, tied for fourth in another and fifth in the third.
Something of a wild card in New Hampshire is Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Officials want action on cyberattacks Senate panel advances antitrust bill that eyes Google, Facebook This week: Democrats face mounting headaches MORE (D-Minn.). She came fifth in Iowa but performed strongly in a debate held in Manchester, N.H., on Friday.
In two of the recent New Hampshire polls — from Suffolk University and Emerson College — Klobuchar was in third place.
Such a result, if replicated on Tuesday, would be a big boost for her, and would spell trouble for the candidates who finish below her. On the other hand, another fifth-place finish for Klobuchar would likely cement perceptions that she is unable to break into the highest tier of 2020 candidates.
Complicating the picture further, former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergBudget impasses mark a critical turning point in Biden's presidency Democrats face bleak outlook in Florida Without drastic changes, Democrats are on track to lose big in 2022 MORE is waiting in the wings. Bloomberg is not competing in any of the first four states but is spending abundantly in advance of Super Tuesday, March 3.
Bloomberg has spent around $300 million since entering the race in late November. He now sits in fourth place in the RealClearPolitics national polling average, with about 13 percent support.
Bloomberg is clearly much more of a centrist than a progressive, which means he poses a particular threat to any moderates — Biden, Klobuchar and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegDOJ sues to block JetBlue-American Airlines partnership On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Blumenthal calls on Buttigieg to investigate American Airlines-JetBlue partnership MORE — who do poorly in New Hampshire.
Buttigieg has been polling in second place in New Hampshire following his strong performance in Iowa, but there is always the possibility that he could fall short of expectations.
For all the top contenders, the stakes are huge on Tuesday.
The result will affect “momentum and perceptions of momentum,” said Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. “The general phenomenon is one where primary voters are wanting to make decisions among the candidates that are the viable ones. They want to be choosing among those who have a chance.”
The same pattern affects fundraising. Those who perform badly face the risk of being starved of resources.
This may not bring about the outright extinction of their hopes before Nevada Democrats caucus on Feb. 22 or South Carolina holds its primary on Feb. 29. But it is problematic for Super Tuesday, when huge and expensive states, including California and Texas, go to the polls.
Jonathan Tasini, a Democratic strategist who supports Sanders but is not affiliated with his campaign, said the danger for low-performing candidates in New Hampshire was “only really a question about money.”
He suggested the dramatic growth in online fundraising meant candidates would not be obligated to get out as soon as would have been the case in a previous era, when a poor finish in New Hampshire meant “you were done because nobody — principally a large donor — was going to write you a check.”
But, even though that scenario has changed, Tasini noted that fundraising still matters because “the difference on Super Tuesday is that you need a huge amount of money just to be seen in those states.”
Some strategists argue against placing too much emphasis on the earliest states, which account for a very small share of the total delegates who will determine the nominee.
“We sometimes have an outsized sense of what Iowa and New Hampshire portend,” warned Roginsky.
But the fact remains that no Democrat in modern times has won the nomination without placing first or second in Iowa or New Hampshire.
That history will loom large on Tuesday. It may be the writing on the wall for some big names.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE’s presidency.