Setting aside the counting mayhem, Iowa appears to have performed its traditional role of framing the nomination decision for the voters of New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Tuesday. The front page of last Wednesday’s New Hampshire Union Leader prominently featured Sanders and Buttigieg side by side, underneath the headline: “On to NH, confident of victory.”
Buttigieg, the candidate who outperformed expectations in Iowa, surged last week in the Granite State. The former South Bend, Ind., mayor now occupies second place, according to the FiveThirtyEight model — just five points behind Sanders as of Sunday evening. Meanwhile Biden, the candidate who disappointed expectations the most, has dropped sharply as political media have been publishing various autopsies of his Iowa campaign. As of Sunday, he had sunk to fourth place, slightly behind Warren.
Can Sanders break out of his 'lane’?
And what of Sanders, who consistently led in New Hampshire surveys before Iowa? Thus far, the senator from Vermont remains steady, but with no hint of a post-Iowa bounce despite a virtual tie for first place in the caucuses. This lack of movement might be chalked up to media expectations: Sanders was expected to succeed in the caucuses, while Buttigieg exceeded his pre-caucus poll standing. An alternative explanation, however, speaks to a longer-term problem: Can Sanders escape his “lane” in New Hampshire?
Observers of the nomination process are often preoccupied with candidates’ abilities to control a lane — meaning, winning the allegiance of a group of voters in the party electorate. But lanes are blurrier in voters’ minds than they are in pundits’ perceptions. Lanes are often depicted as ideologically defined, such as the “moderate” or "progressive” lane. But research finds that primary voters are not especially ideologically sophisticated or even consistent. Plenty of surveys this past year indicated that although many very liberal voters were looking at both Sanders and Warren, many other voters crossed ideological lanes apparently without a second thought.
Attracting voters of a different collar
Social identity is another way voters choose a candidate. New Hampshire has little racial diversity, but it’s very diverse socioeconomically. Its old manufacturing cities struggle (with varying success) to compete in a high-tech, service-based economy. Affluent, well-educated Democrats live comfortably in southern New Hampshire, the outermost ring of the Boston suburbs. College towns are islands of progressive politics. Retirees from out of state move to rural areas filled with recreational opportunities and amenities like camping, fishing, boating and hiking, bringing their liberal politics with them. In sum, the New Hampshire primary results might tell us some things about who has become the progressives’ or moderates’ champion — but what’s more important is that it could tell us how well candidates do at attracting both white-collar and blue-collar white voters.
All this brings us back to whether Sanders can cross lanes and build a majority coalition within the Democratic Party. Sanders clearly has a strong base among progressives and young voters. But as political scientist Steven Brams explained in his work on the nomination process, winning a lane early may be self-defeating. Presidential candidates ultimately must build a majority coalition within their party, and so they often position themselves in ways that offer the flexibility to attract other voters later in the nomination contest. They may even adopt what Brams called “fuzzy” positions that conceivably include a range of possibilities on the ideological spectrum.
Sanders is not fuzzy. He holds a distinct set of positions that place him at the far left of the Democratic electorate.
Buttigieg’s vagueness has left room to bring in a wide spectrum of voters
In contrast, Buttigieg — a self-styled reformer who has taken both moderate and liberal policy positions — makes a virtue of being somewhat nebulous. He is part of a long train of presidential candidates who presented themselves as reform-minded insurgents aiming to overthrow the status quo, even though they might be only moderately liberal or even moderately conservative in ideology. Included in that group are Gary Hart in 1984, Paul Tsongas in 1992, Bill Bradley in 2000, Howard Dean in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. These candidates do not necessarily attract an ideological voter bloc; rather, they attract a bloc based on social identity — in Buttigieg’s instance, that would include whiteness, affluence and post-college education. New Hampshire has an abundance of those voters.
As the New Hampshire primary nears, watch the polls for the preferences of “somewhat liberal” voters. They are the counterparts of the “somewhat conservatives” whom Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen and I discussed in our book on the Republican primary electorate. These somewhat liberals are not especially ideological and are often ignored, but they’re vital to any candidate who hopes to win a majority. If most of these voters move toward the young former mayor, another classic New Hampshire upset may be in the works.
Dante J. Scala (@graniteprof) is a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.