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Who is going to win the New Hampshire primary, according to the polls

Sanders leads in New Hampshire primary polls, but the race is closer than it appears.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator Bernie Sanders waving to the debate crowd.
New Hampshire’s top five 2020 Democratic presidential candidates ahead of last November’s debate.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

The latest polls heading into the New Hampshire primary show Sen. Bernie Sanders with a distinct advantage, albeit one somewhat threatened by former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is also surging.

Pollsters have been busy in New Hampshire, and have released more than 20 polling updates in recent days. The latest five come from Suffolk University/the Boston Globe/WBZ-TV, Emerson College/7 News, the University of New Hampshire/CNN, CBS/YouGov, and Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald/NBC.

Suffolk’s pollsters found Sanders to be in the lead, with 26.6 percent support; Buttigieg followed with 19.4 percent. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was third with 13.6 percent of likely Democratic voters backing her, former Vice President Joe Biden was fourth with 11.8 percent, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren rounded out the top five with 11.6 percent. No other candidate received more than 3 percent support. The poll’s margin of error is 4.4 percentage points.

Emerson’s poll found very similar results, with Sanders in first with 30 percent support of likely Democratic primary voters, and Buttigieg in second with 23.1 percent. (Sanders’s lead again is within the poll’s 4.3 percentage point margin of error.) Klobuchar was in third with 14.2 percent, Warren fourth at 10.6 percent, and Biden at the bottom of the top tier with 9.8 percent. No other candidate got more than 4 percent support.

Suffolk University and Emerson College pollsters have been running telephone tracking polls measuring changes in likely voter sentiment over time since the beginning of February, and their latest polls have the most recent data, having been conducted February 8 and 9.

Sanders and Buttigieg also topped the University of New Hampshire, CBS News/YouGov, and the Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald/NBC polls; all three were taken February 5 to 8 and do not show as strong of support for Klobuchar, who may be building off her strong debate performance on Friday.

University of New Hampshire pollsters found Biden to be third, Warren fourth, and Klobuchar fifth; the poll has a 5 percentage point margin of error. YouGov and the Franklin Pierce polls put Warren in third, followed by Biden, then Klobuchar, with both having a 4.3 percentage point margin of error.

Taking a look at all these polls in aggregate, as RealClearPolitics does in its New Hampshire polling average, it becomes clear that Sanders is in excellent shape, leading in the state by an average of 7.4 percentage points.

RealClearPolitics polling average in New Hampshire, which shows Sanders with a 7.4-point lead.

Biden’s support has collapsed over the past week, falling to an average of 11 percentage points; this means he is essentially tied with Warren and Klobuchar for third place. The Vermont senator’s biggest challenger for a clean win is Buttigieg, who, following a week of precipitous gains, is now separated from Sanders by an average of 7.4 percentage points.

Essentially, if the polls accurately reflect voting on Tuesday, Sanders will win the New Hampshire primary. But he’ll do so by far less than he did in 2016, unsurprising given the crowded field. Polls also suggest there’s a good chance that Buttigieg — or, under the right conditions, Klobuchar or Warren — could win. The race has been volatile up to the last minute, especially after the Iowa caucuses debacle.

Notably, in four of these most recent polls, pollsters explicitly asked participants how sure they were of their choices, and an average of 44 percent said their top picks aren’t set in stone.

There’s another reason to take the rankings with a grain of salt: The margins of error of these recent surveys are in some cases large enough to mean that the frontrunner could actually be in second place, and the second-place candidate could be first. This means that although there’s a good chance Sanders will emerge from the New Hampshire primary as its winner, we could all be in for a surprise.

Late rises have changed the dynamics of the race

The results suggested by the polls have changed markedly in the past week, with Buttigieg and Klobuchar staking out late gains.

Suffolk and Emerson’s tracking polls have provided a clear picture of how voters in the state have responded to the major 2020 primary events of last week — Iowa and a televised debate in Manchester, New Hampshire — as well as candidates’ final pitches in the hours before voting begins.

These polls show a clear upward trajectory for Buttigieg, starting with the Suffolk survey taken February 2 to 3 and the Emerson poll taken February 2 to 4 — that is, with the polls taken directly after the Iowa caucuses. The next Suffolk survey, conducted from February 3 to 4, shows a 4-point bump for the former mayor, as does the Emerson poll taken February 3 to 5.

From there, pollsters at both institutions found Buttigieg’s support increasing rapidly — Suffolk’s February 6-7 polls saw him at 25 percent support; Emerson’s poll from the same period found him at 24 percent, a five-day increase of 127 and 85 percent, respectively.

The week was capped by a drop in numbers over the weekend, to their most recent 19 percent (Suffolk) and 23 percent (Emerson) levels, a decrease that was accompanied by marked increases in Klobuchar’s numbers.

By Suffolk’s findings, Klobuchar remained steady at 6 percent support for all of February until the February 7-8 polling period, at which point her support rose to 9 percent; polling taken from February 8 to 9, however, showed her at 14 percent support.

Emerson found the senator’s support to be more variable, ranging from a low of 8 percent at the beginning of the month to 12 percent just ahead of the Iowa caucuses before landing at 14 percent in its February 8-9 survey.

Again, it’s important to remember that the Suffolk and Emerson polls have margins of error of 4.4 and 4.3 percentage points, respectively, meaning the two candidates’ actual level of support may be less — or greater — than these numbers. But they suggest that voters in New Hampshire have been receptive both to performances watched at the national level and to strong ground operations by the Buttigieg and Klobuchar campaigns.

Buttigieg may have been wise to declare an early victory in Iowa after all

The start of Buttigieg’s rise seems to coincide with Buttigieg declaring victory in the Iowa caucuses on February 3. He was derided for doing so — particularly by the supporters of more progressive candidates — given that the caucuses’ results had not yet been released, but he continued to project confidence despite the criticism. The day after the caucuses, he told Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess (who has endorsed him), “Everything we know is extremely encouraging.”

Buttigieg continued to spread that message as he campaigned across New Hampshire last week, tweeting on Thursday, “The first time I was here, few people knew me or how to pronounce my name. Now we’ve won the Iowa Caucuses and we’re just 5 days away from the New Hampshire Primary.”

It does now seem that, with the Iowa Democratic Party releasing rough final numbers (still subject to recanvassing), Buttigieg is leading the Iowa caucuses’ delegate count, but this polling would suggest he’s also gotten the momentum a win there usually provides. This is good for him, since many observers believed no candidate would get such a bump after Iowa’s Democratic Party struggled to announce the caucuses’ results due to concerns over technological and human errors.

Buttigieg has also likely benefited from spending lots of time on the ground in New Hampshire over the past week — for instance, his schedule last Tuesday included four town halls and one meet-and-greet. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen has explained, voters there value face time with candidates greatly, and often choose their candidates based on what they hear from them in person.

What has led to Buttigieg’s declining poll numbers in recent days is a bit more difficult to assess. However, he did spend much of the weekend before the primary launching attacks on his rivals and feuding with Biden. He has also positioned himself as a moderate and is competing for votes among that population with Klobuchar, whose weekend rise may have come at Buttigieg’s expense.

If that turns out to be the case, he may be in danger of further erosions of support, according to the Suffolk and Emerson polls. Both found Klobuchar’s base to be more solidly behind her than Buttigieg’s — for instance, Suffolk pollsters found 65 percent of Klobuchar supporters said they are sure to vote for her, with 35 percent saying they might change their minds, compared to the 51 percent of Buttigieg backers who said they will definitely vote for him and the 49 percent who said they could change their minds.

And Emerson’s polling found that while progressives are largely certain about whom they’ll vote for Tuesday, everyone else is less sure, with 39.4 percent of self-described moderates telling pollsters they could realign their support and 59.1 and 51.5 percent of somewhat and very conservative likely voters, respectively, saying they could switch on voting day.

All this presents an opportunity for Klobuchar that she seems to be working to capitalize on. She was praised for having an excellent performance at the New Hampshire primary debate that highlighted her strengths and record — one that led to $2 million in donations in the 24 hours following the debate.

She followed that up by crisscrossing the state, breaking her campaign’s crowd records again and again.

“I know I’m not the candidate that’s number one right now, but we are surging,” she said Saturday. “Someone told me in a text with an auto-correct that went bad: ‘Congratulations on your insurgency.’ ”

The question is if her surge is coming too late.

Many voters remain persuadable, and independents could become key to victory

Buttigieg’s and Klobuchar’s late rallies are a good reminder that a Sanders victory isn’t guaranteed. There is a lot of uncertainty around what results to expect because many in New Hampshire have yet to choose a candidate, and because — as we noted above about Klobuchar and Buttigieg — some of those who have chosen someone to support are open to voting for someone else.

The latest Suffolk and Emerson polls show 38 and 31 percent of voters, respectively, might vote for a candidate different from the one they currently support.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks during a campaign event in Keene, New Hampshire, on February 10, 2020.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Numbers like these present a lot of opportunity, but it isn’t equally distributed. While all the candidates are far more progressive in their policy positions than say, Barack Obama, liberal voters have largely gravitated toward Warren and Sanders. Both have solid support, with Emerson’s pollsters finding 85 percent of Sanders backers say they’re sure to vote for him and 68 percent of Warren supporters saying the same.

To build on their bases, both will have to tap the 15 percent of very liberal likely voters Emerson found are open to changing their allegiance, compared to the nearly 40 percent of undecided moderate voters Emerson found available to candidates like Buttigieg, Biden, and Klobuchar.

This reality seems to be reflected in overall poll numbers as well. While Buttigieg and Klobuchar have seen increases in support over the past seven days, Sanders and Warren have not, despite the senator from Vermont declaring Iowa caucuses victory due to his winning the most votes and Warren turning in a respectable third-place finish. Both senators have also been spending more time on the ground in the state than they have in recent weeks due to the conclusion of Iowa’s contest and the Senate impeachment trial.

None of this seems to have made much of an impact, which could mean both have approached the limit of their support. However, because those bases appear to be strong, neither candidate seems in particular danger of losing significant support before Tuesday.

Also of note is the fact that New Hampshire has an open primary, as Vox’s Ella Nilsen has explained, meaning independents — also known as “undeclared voters” — will play an important role in the race:

Undeclared voters are a powerful voting bloc in New Hampshire; they make up about 42 percent of the state’s registered voters. Because New Hampshire doesn’t run a closed primary, anyone who is a Democrat or an undeclared voter may cast a Democratic ballot in the February 11 primary.

Come Election Day, enough “independents” voting Democratic could have an outsize impact on the results of an extremely tight primary race.

Sanders’s decisive 2016 primary New Hampshire win was fueled in part by these voters, and candidates have been working hard to win them over, particularly those who lean Republican but plan to vote in the Democratic primary.

Buttigieg in particular has been making pitches to voters he calls “future former Republicans,” and according to Franklin Pierce University’s polling, those efforts may be paying off: 50 percent of independents who lean Republican say they’d vote for Buttigieg; the only other candidate who captured any support among this group was Sanders, for whom 16 percent said they’d vote.

The same poll found Sanders may have a broader base of support in the state than he is often thought to have: 23.9 percent of self-described liberals said they back him, but he also was found to have the support of 23.4 percent of self-described moderates and 25.8 percent of conservatives.

While experts told Nilsen that independents have not traditionally swayed elections in New Hampshire, with a race as close as the one this year, building coalitions that include independents — especially those that lean Republican — could be the difference between victory and defeat.

New Hampshire is usually a launchpad to the nomination, but things could be different this year

How important a victory in New Hampshire is this year also isn’t clear. Sanders, of course, did not become the Democratic Party nominee after his 2016 win there, but as Nilsen notes, “no major-party nominee in modern history has won without coming first or second in New Hampshire. Winning here, all else equal, increases a candidate’s expected share of the primary vote by 27 percentage points, political scientist William Mayer wrote in 2004.”

Still, it only has 24 national delegates — which will be distributed among candidates proportionally — and some campaigns have already begun to look at contests to come.

Warren’s campaign released a statement ahead of the Iowa caucuses stressing that her path to the nomination lies in a good showing on Super Tuesday and in the states that follow.

And Biden lowered expectations at the New Hampshire debate, saying, “I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here.”

His campaign has pointed to South Carolina and Nevada, states with higher nonwhite populations among whom he polls well, as being places where the race will change dramatically.

“I’m still leading nationally,” Biden said Monday. “And so the idea that this is a — if you come in third or fourth in the first two primaries, or caucus and a primary, that that knocks you out of the box. We’re just getting going.”

Should Sanders win as polls suggest, he’ll likely pick up some positive momentum that will serve his campaign well in the states to follow. But should the race be close enough to allow multiple candidates to declare victory — as was the case in Iowa — the field may not narrow at all, with candidates hanging on through Nevada, South Carolina, and beyond.

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