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Nothing is set in stone in the Granite State

This week will be a welcome relief for Democrats, who want to escape caucus chaos in Iowa and embrace primary supremacy in New Hampshire.

But nothing is set in stone for Tuesday’s primary in the Granite State. Polls of New Hampshire primary voters conducted last week indicated that almost half had not made a firm decision about their primary choice only a few days before the primary. That’s in sync with the experience in Iowa, where the entrance poll indicated that a third of the caucus participants made up their minds in the last few days before the caucus.

There was a split decision in the Hawkeye State between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The same thing might happen in New Hampshire. A day before the primary, the Real Clear Politics polling average had Sanders (28.7 percent) and Buttigieg (21.3 percent) on top of the leader board. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was at 11.7 percent, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Vice President Joe Biden each had 11 percent.

Buttigieg got the biggest bounce out of Iowa into New Hampshire. A Suffolk University survey on the day of the caucuses had the former mayor with 11 percent of the vote. Five days later, he was all the way up to 22 percent in the university’s tracking poll. Did his surge continue over the weekend? Is he poised for an upset victory in the first-in-the-nation primary? We’ll find out Tuesday night.

There are really two races to watch Tuesday. Down the stretch, the Democratic campaign will boil down to a two-horse race.

One of the candidates will represent the aggressive progressive wing of the party, and the other contender will champion the moderate pragmatists. In Iowa, the progressives went with Sanders over Warren and the pragmatists chose Buttigieg over Biden. The same thing might happen in New Hampshire.

In Iowa, three out of every five Democrats (61 percent) responding to the media entrance poll prioritized a nominee who could beat Donald Trump, while a third (37 percent) wanted a candidate who agreed with them on the issues.

Buttigieg came out of Iowa as the champion of the pragmatists, and he no doubt hopes to hold that advantage in New Hampshire.

The concern about electability should have been a godsend to Biden, but Mayor Pete got in the way. Biden has championed his ability to beat Trump, but the pragmatists in Iowa were just as likely to support the ex-mayor (24 percent) as they were the former vice president (23 percent).

Buttigieg has risen out of the dust to claim the throne of electability because he is the anti-Trump. He is everything Donald Trump isn’t. Buttigieg is young. He was a Rhodes Scholar and a veteran who served with distinction in a war zone. Many Democrats long for a fresh face like they did in 2008, and he fits the bill.

Biden recognized the threat and attacked the young upstart during the Democratic debate Friday and in a new TV ad. The thrust of the Biden attack against Buttigieg was, “I worked with Barack Obama and you’re no Barack Obama.” But experience is a double-edged sword in this age of discontent with D.C., so the contrast could backfire against the 48-year veteran of Washington.

New Hampshire will be Round 2 in the battle between Sanders and Warren to be the progressive standard-bearer this spring.

While Biden and Buttigieg split the pragmatic vote in Iowa, Sanders had a significant edge with issue-oriented Democrats. In Iowa, the Democrats who wanted an ideological soulmate supported Sanders with 36 percent of the vote followed by Buttigieg (24 percent) and Warren (17 percent). Concern about health care was acute among Iowa Democrats, and Warren’s soft support for “Medicare for All” cost her progressive support.

New Hampshire is also a regional battle for dominance in New England. Both senators represent states that border New Hampshire. But the Boston TV market dominates the Granite State, so Warren has a natural advantage there that she can’t afford to squander.

If Warren loses to Sanders in the Granite State, she will need to beat him somewhere soon to remain a viable candidate to represent the progressive wing of the party down the stretch.

Biden hasn’t spent much time or money in New Hampshire, so he may finish fourth or even fifth there. He is banking on doing better in South Carolina and in Dixie on Super Tuesday. But back to back strong showings by Buttigieg in the North may undermine Biden’s strength in the South with moderate and conservative primary voters.

Don’t go to bed Tuesday night right after the networks announce the winner. Knowing the identity of the runner-up is almost as important. One is the winner, number two shows enough to fight another day. Tuesday night might be the right night for number three and everybody else to go away.

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is also the host of a radio podcast “Deadline D.C. With Brad Bannon” that airs on the Progressive Voices Network. Follow him on Twitter @BradBannon.

Tags 2020 presidential campaign Amy Klobuchar Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden New Hampshire primary New Hampshire primary Pete Buttigieg Pete Buttigieg 2020 presidential campaign Progressivism in the United States

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