To take just one example: I’m hardly a fan of Joe Biden’s candidacy, but when you read an op-ed begging him to drop out after these two states have voted, you have to admit that there’s something very odd going on here.
That’s not to mention the long list of appealing candidates who dropped out before anyone had a chance to vote for them, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Julián Castro. I’m surely not the only one thinking that the race might be more compelling if they were still around.
To give you a sense of how small the two states whose results we’re making such a big fuss over are, in 2016 there were just over 31 million primary votes cast by Democrats. Iowa and New Hampshire accounted for about 425,000 of them, or 1.4 percent. There’s no reason to believe the relative proportions will change this year, which means that between 98 and 99 percent of Democrats haven’t yet had the chance to vote.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a couple more candidates drop out in the next three weeks, before we even get to Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states including Texas and California will be voting. These states accounted for 38 percent of the entire Democratic primary vote four years ago, or about 27 times as much as Iowa and New Hampshire. Yet that day’s results won’t have a fraction of the impact of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Or think about it this way: To win the Democratic nomination, a candidate will have to get 1,990 delegates on the first vote at the party’s convention. The current delegate leader is Pete Buttigieg, who has 23 delegates.
It’s not just about the numbers. After a year or so of campaigning without any actual voting, we in the media are desperate for something concrete we can report on. And we want to write a story that changes, with a narrative momentum to it. That’s why we wind up getting influenced by how one or another candidate has performed relative to expectations, which when you think about it is utterly ludicrous.
Whose expectations are we talking about, after all? Those of journalists and pundits themselves. If someone exceeded expectations or fell short of expectations, it just means we inaccurately predicted how well they’d do in one state. And why should our mistaken assessment mean that in any objective way they did well or poorly?
Take, for example, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. In Iowa, Warren came in third place, with 18 percent of the vote. In the stories about the caucuses that mentioned her at all, her performance was described as somewhere between mediocre and abysmal, leading to a bunch of stories asking why her candidacy has failed. The nearly universal assumption is that while she’s not quite through, it would take a miracle for her to become the nominee.
Compare that with what happened In New Hampshire, where Klobuchar came in third place with 20 percent of the vote, a nearly identical result as Warren had in Iowa. Yet because of “expectations,” her performance was described as a triumph. “Klobuchar’s bronze is gold,” read one headline. “Klobuchar Stakes Her Claim as New Hampshire’s New Comeback Kid,” read another.
I’m not trying to make a case for Warren or against Klobuchar — there are good reasons you might want to support either one of them. But the grounds on which on a given day one candidate is hoisted up and another is pounded down are so divorced from objective reality as to be almost arbitrary.
So what do we do about this? The longer-term answer is to change how we select nominees; a system of rotating regional primaries, in which all the voting would take place on four or five days, is one possibility. But in the meantime, all of us — voters, journalists, pundits — should forget about who exceeded expectations and who has momentum and who’s occupying which “lane.”
Instead, we should ask the same questions we should have started with: Which of these people would actually make a good president? What kind of insights can we get from their campaigns about that — their persuasiveness, their organizational skill, how and what they think about policy issues, how they conceive of the president’s job?
Once the voting starts, it’s hard to resist losing sight of all that and just thinking of the whole thing as nothing more than a sporting event, where we keep an eye on the scoreboard and wonder who’s going to be able to rack up more points. Especially since that’s the way everyone talks about it. But we should try to remember that this is serious business, and we should take it seriously.