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Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigns at Keene State College, in Keene, New Hampshire, on February 9, 2020.
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Who needs to win the New Hampshire primary

The New Hampshire expectations game for (nearly) every candidate, explained.

SOMERSWORTH, New Hampshire — After chaos in Iowa, the next primary has become the crucial early decider in the 2020 Democratic race.

Despite Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg both declaring victory after the extended, messy caucuses, the Associated Press was unable to declare a winner there. Now, all eyes are on New Hampshire.

“Twenty-four hours later, they’re still trying to figure out what happened in Iowa,” former Vice President Joe Biden joked at a Somersworth town hall last week. “At this rate, New Hampshire will be the first in the country to get the vote.”

The primary on Tuesday, February 11, will be a decisive moment for five top-tier candidates. Sanders won New Hampshire in 2016 by a record number of votes, so he has big expectations to meet here. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) needs a win or a strong second-place finish after coming third in Iowa — particularly because she represents a neighboring state and is well-known here. Midwesterner Buttigieg is hoping to beat these two New England senators on their home turf and fend off a late rise from moderate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). And while Biden’s team has been downplaying expectations here for months, he can’t afford to come stumbling out of New Hampshire after suffering a self-described “gut punch” in Iowa.

Some of the presidential campaigns — most notably Biden’s — are already tempering expectations for Tuesday, instead looking ahead to the more diverse early states of Nevada and South Carolina as the real start of their campaigns’ momentum. But a loss in New Hampshire could hamper those plans.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg campaigns in Salem, New Hampshire.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“Money’s going to winnow the field, and money follows results,” said Tom Rath, a veteran Republican strategist in New Hampshire. “Your donors get less enthusiastic if you don’t have some results to show them.”

Polls show a good chance of Sanders reprising his 2016 win. Buttigieg is in second place, with Warren and Biden tied for third. Klobuchar is also a wild card; recent polls show she’s on an upward trajectory, with large crowds and fundraising in the past week.

The narrative coming out of Iowa was largely about what a disaster the caucuses themselves were. That allowed winners and losers alike to skate into New Hampshire; no one has dropped out yet.

New Hampshire may not be as forgiving. Here’s a rundown of the top candidates and how they need to perform on Tuesday.

New Hampshire is all-important for Bernie Sanders

Sure, Sanders has a bit of a cushion after performing well in Iowa. But New Hampshire has special — and crucial — significance for him. Put simply, he can’t afford to lose here.

It’s not just that Sanders is from right next door in Vermont; he won New Hampshire in 2016 by 152,000 votes, a historic number. He’s the only Democrat in the 2020 field with anything close to that record.

“I think he needs to win, and I think he will do that,” said New Hampshire state Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton, who endorsed Sanders in 2016 and 2020. “I didn’t say that in 2016, but I think we’re in a really different time. I think Bernie can beat Trump; other people may handicap it a different way.”

Sanders’s high-profile supporters in New Hampshire say they are not expecting him to replicate his 22-point win over Hillary Clinton in 2016; there are more than two choices this year.

Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters at Keene State College on February 9, 2020.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“I think whoever wins New Hampshire is going to win by 3 to 5 points, and I think that would be a great win,” said Andru Volinsky, a Democratic candidate for governor and Sanders surrogate. “But what happened in 2016, first of all, it was a two-person race, so it was a binary decision. You can’t expect a similar outcome.”

Sanders’s history and familiarity here aren’t the only reasons he needs to do well. The next contest is Latino-heavy Nevada on February 22, and Sanders is banking on support from Latino voters to carry him into Super Tuesday strong. Nevada experts told me they’ll be watching the results coming out of the New Hampshire primary — making it all the more crucial for the Vermont senator.

Can lightning strike twice for Pete Buttigieg?

Buttigieg had a very good night in Iowa, which could set him up for another good one in New Hampshire.

Here’s the latest RealClearPolitics polling average for New Hampshire: Buttigieg is the purple line, and that upward trajectory started two days after the Iowa caucuses.


Of course, Iowa isn’t everything — New Hampshire has a long tradition of bucking Iowa’s results. But it’s undoubtedly a boost for Buttigieg, who has been drawing 1,500- and 1,800-person crowds this weekend. He still has plenty of competition among the moderate field; voters who like him tend to say they’re also considering Biden or Klobuchar.

New Hampshire could be a good electoral fit for Buttigieg. Even though voters here picked Sanders in 2016, the state also has a long history of electing moderate governors and members of Congress. That’s a mold some of Buttigieg’s New Hampshire supporters think he fits well.

“I believe he’s putting together a strong coalition of progressive Democrats, independents, and Republicans who no longer support the president,” said state Rep. Annie Kuster, a national campaign co-chair for Buttigieg. Kuster told me she knows people who voted for Trump in 2016 but are looking for another option in 2020 and considering Buttigieg.

“I want to make sure they have a place to land in the general election,” she said. “I know them, and they’re telling me he is a candidate they can vote for in November.”

Audience members listen to Pete Buttigieg at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

It’s also a critical time for the South Bend mayor to put up a strong finish. The whole 2020 contest is about to head into Nevada and South Carolina, where polls show Buttigieg is much weaker among nonwhite voters.

New Hampshire is Buttigieg’s real chance to prove he can go toe-to-toe with Sanders and Warren in their own backyards. The big question is whether New Hampshire will make this a two-person race between Buttigieg and Sanders or give another candidate a springboard.

Biden needs to pick things up after a downward slide

From the start, Biden’s team has projected confidence he can win the Democratic nomination even if he loses Iowa and New Hampshire. But Biden came in fourth in Iowa, a less-than-ideal result for the national frontrunner.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We took a gut punch in Iowa, the whole process took a gut punch,” Biden told a crowd of voters in Somersworth. “But this is not the first time I’ve been knocked down.”

Biden didn’t give New Hampshire voters much reason to believe he’ll win here. “I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here,” he bluntly admitted during last week’s debate.

Already, Biden’s campaign staff and New Hampshire surrogates are trying to keep expectations for him low ahead of the primary and focus on the path to the nomination they believe runs through Nevada, South Carolina, and Super Tuesday.

Joe Biden greets supporters after speaking in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s longer than the first two,” said former New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ned Helms, a prominent Biden supporter in the state. “There are some people that say ‘he’s out of it.’ We haven’t hit South Carolina, we haven’t hit Super Tuesday, and as he said — it was a tough one yesterday, but we’re not going anywhere.”

At least one longtime political expert in New Hampshire threw cold water on the idea that Biden could keep plugging away if he loses here as well. Because Biden’s entire pitch is electability and beating Trump, he has to start winning races soon. And Buttigieg could stand to gain the most from Biden’s fall.

“It’s certainly possible that the former vice president is going to put up not one but two fourth-place finishes in the first contests on the calendar,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala. “The reason [African American voters] are with Biden is they felt it was pragmatic reasons, i.e., electability. I’m very skeptical the so-called electable candidate ... will look as electable to South Carolina voters.”

New Hampshire is a crucial state for Warren

Iowa wasn’t horrible for Warren, but it also wasn’t great. She needs things to go well in New Hampshire on Tuesday night.

“I wouldn’t count her out,” said Rath, the Republican strategist. Warren fits New Hampshire’s political mold; the state has a longtime history of electing women, and she’s a well-known entity across the border in Massachusetts as well.

Even though Warren has one of the best field organizations here, she has been lagging in New Hampshire polls for months and is currently tied for third with Biden. One recent CNN/University of New Hampshire poll showed her in single digits at 9 percent, just 4 points ahead of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI).

After flying high in the fall, a combination of attacks by Buttigieg on her Medicare-for-all plan, a nasty public fight with Sanders, and persistent (often gendered) questions about her electability have seen her support drop.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a rally in Concord, New Hampshire.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

“She is in a bit of limbo at this point,” Scala said. “Her niche of support here was relatively narrow. Buttigieg has been blocking her among college-educated voters.”

Some of her prominent New Hampshire surrogates are also trying to keep expectations relatively low for her here, and her campaign already put out a memo looking ahead to Super Tuesday and beyond.

“I think it’s very possible we may have four candidates emerging from New Hampshire; it’s not a must-win for any of them,” said former chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party Kathy Sullivan, a Warren backer. “New Hampshire never picks the president — what we do is maybe clarify matters.”

Amy Klobuchar is making a stand in New Hampshire

Iowa was supposed to be Klobuchar’s moment, and it just wasn’t. She ended in fifth place, which is not where the senator from Minnesota needs to be heading into the primary.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar campaigns in Concord, New Hampshire, on February 8, 2020.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Still, there’s a chance she could have a New Hampshire bump. Klobuchar perhaps benefited the most from the confusion in Iowa, and she’s campaigning hard here to make up the difference. That was reflected in some good polling, large crowds, and impressive fundraising numbers for her by the end of the weekend. If nothing else, Klobuchar could be a real threat to her fellow moderates Buttigieg and Biden, eating into their bases.

Although voters are taking a close look at her — and despite multiple newspaper endorsements here — New Hampshire political experts told me she needed to put up a “shock the world” number in Iowa order to be seriously considered.

“She had momentum and Iowa stopped her,” Rath said. “I don’t know if you can reignite.”

Much like Biden, Klobuchar’s core pitch is electability. That means she needs to start winning elections. A bad New Hampshire loss could be the end of Klobuchar’s campaign.

Someone in the Gabbard, Yang, Steyer, and Bennet tier could surprise

Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang might not be getting talked about a lot by the national media, but they’ve been doing a lot of campaigning in New Hampshire — and voters are taking notice.

Gabbard, in particular, has billboards all over the state; she’s been surfing in New Hampshire’s freezing cold ocean and skiing on the slopes with supporters. It’s unlikely either she or Yang wins outright, but both could appeal to a very libertarian subset of New Hampshire voters. Either one could surprise on election night.

Steyer hasn’t done much campaigning here, but his advertisements are everywhere. And Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) — who is staking his entire campaign on New Hampshire — is polling at 0.8 percent. But hey, he has James Carville’s endorsement.

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