I know campaigns are whirlwind things, but it wasn’t some distant fever-dream in which Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren were unquestionably the top two candidates in the Democratic field.
Sure, the narrative for the entirety of the 2020 Democratic race has taken a simple form: Biden + [insert latest candidate here]. Autumn was Warren’s season, and she was even the betting favorite to take the whole thing as late as November. Was she peaking early? Well, as long as she kept the momentum going for a few more months, she’d be in good shape.
As for the former vice president, as recently as Jan. 6, NBC News’ Alex Seitz-Wald could file a piece with the (mostly) straight-faced title “The unsinkable Joe Biden? Many months and many gaffes later, Biden is still ahead.”
“Joe Biden is beginning 2020 the same way he began 2019: a front-runner in a presidential primary race in which many expected him to flame out early,” Seitz-Wald wrote. “The former vice president has been attacked more by rivals and President Donald Trump than any other candidate in the race, and he’s arguably made more unforced errors than any other Democrat, but his position in the polls has not budged: He was averaging 29 percent in polls the day before he entered the race, and he’s at 28 percent now.”
Estimated delegate count after Iowa and New Hampshire based on current results:
Buttigieg — 23
Sanders — 21
Warren — 8
Klobuchar — 7
Biden — 6
— Matt McDermott (@mattmfm) February 12, 2020
The state has a 15 percent voter threshold to award delegates. That shouldn’t have been difficult to hit for at least one of these two candidates.
According to the RealClearPolitics average, it’s a state where Warren led in the polls as recently as October. She’s a senator from the bordering state of Massachusetts.
Biden was ahead of the polling average, meanwhile, as recently as Jan. 15 and had been above 15 percent as late as Feb. 5. Even after his “gut punch” in Iowa, there was a big, flashing sign following him around, floating above his head: “ELECTABILITY.”
It wasn’t flashing after Tuesday. Biden finished fifth, bringing home only 8.4 percent of the vote. Warren did slightly better, with 9.3 percent of the vote and a fourth-place finish.
Put those together and you would have 17.7 percent of the vote and a candidate who finished above the delegate threshold — barely. On their own, both were well short of taking home anything from the state. (For those of you who are curious, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won the primary, and second-place Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, will take home nine delegates each. Third-place finisher Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, is taking home six, according to The New York Times.)
So, what do you blame after a performance like that? Klobuchar was expected to have a good night in New Hampshire, but her 19.7 percent finish was nothing short of a breakthrough, 8 percentage points above her polling average. She also got plenty of votes from college-educated white women, according to CNN, one of Warren’s main strengths. And then there was the fact she was a “moderate” (by current Democratic standards) who wasn’t named Joe Biden, a fact which necessarily ate into his support.
Campaigns go in waves, too. After all, Warren was on top just yesterday, right? Well, that only works one way. As previously noted, everyone else has pretty much defined themselves as an alternative to Biden precisely because the former vice president’s campaign hasn’t oscillated in the polls, even through gaffes that would have sunk lesser ships. (Remember “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids?” The Democrats sure don’t.)
As for Warren, while campaigns go in waves, no other candidacy save for Sanders’ has re-crested after losing momentum. California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke didn’t even come close to making it to Iowa and New Hampshire, and while you can blame various demographic and structural factors for those failures, the fact remains both went gently into that good electoral night.
Furthermore, the equation is no longer Biden + [whoever]. To the extent there even is still an equation, it’s Bernie + [whoever]. It usually helps if that candidate is a contrast. Warren isn’t.
So, what do you say after a performance like that?
For Biden, at least, the issue was one of highlighting that minority-heavy states are still yet to vote.
“It is important that Iowa and Nevada [sic] have spoken, but, look, we need to hear from Nevada and South Carolina and Super Tuesday and beyond,” Biden said Tuesday night from South Carolina, according to The Hill.
Biden told the audience that “99.9 percent” of black voters “have not yet had a chance to vote” in the primaries; with Latino voters, he said 99.8 percent hadn’t voted.
“I’ve said many times: You can’t be the nominee, you can’t win the general election as a Democrat unless you have the overwhelming support of black and brown voters,” he said.
For Warren, who doesn’t have that to fall back on, the message was that she’s … really, really nice, I guess?
“Our campaign is best positioned to beat Donald Trump in November because we can unite our party,” she said after the loss, according to Fox News.
“The fight between factions in our party has taken a sharp turn in recent weeks with ads mocking other candidates and with supporters of some candidates shouting curses at other Democratic candidates,” she said. “These harsh tactics might work if you are willing to burn down the rest of the party in order to be the last man standing.”
Yes, well, welcome to politics. It’s worth here noting an acrimonious primary didn’t hurt Donald Trump in 2016. Meanwhile, I’d argue there was a lot less nastiness in the 2016 Democrat contest than we like to remember there being — certainly less than the Republicans experienced — and that relative comity doesn’t seem to have helped on Election Day.
Neither explication could wave away these very stark numbers: Two contests. Fourteen delegates. Zero in New Hampshire.
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