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Biden’s Challenge: Iowa and New Hampshire

A Commentary By Kyle Kondik

The schedule advantages Biden’s rivals, although it’s unclear if they can capitalize; NC-9 fallout.


— Perhaps the biggest threat to Joe Biden is the nominating calendar.

— Biden is reliant on support from African Americans, but the electorates of the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, are almost entirely white.

— However, even if one or more of Biden’s rivals best him in the leadoff states, they may not necessarily have much appeal to the crucial African-American voting bloc themselves.

Iowa, New Hampshire, and Biden

As Democrats prepare to debate tonight, the Democratic race remains largely as it has been. Joe Biden is leading, but the other candidates are preparing — and hoping — for him to eventually fall off. It is anyone’s guess as to whether this will actually happen. Democrats hoping for Biden to collapse may find themselves in the position of Donald Trump’s opponents from four years ago by acting out their own version of Waiting for Godot — anticipating the arrival of something that never actually arrives.

If Biden retains his lead into next year, though, it may be that the thing that ultimately trips him up is the Democratic nomination calendar.

While Biden’s lead is built on support from African Americans, hardly any black voters will participate in the first two contests: the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3 (the day after the Super Bowl) and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11. According to the 2016 exit polls, the Democratic electorates in both states were over 90% white.

The opportunity that these two overwhelmingly white electorates present to the other candidates is obvious, based on the current demographic bases of support for Biden and his two current leading rivals, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

According to the most recent Economist/YouGov poll, Biden leads with about 40% among African-Americans nationally, while Sanders, Warren, and Kamala Harris are well behind at around 10% apiece. Meanwhile, Warren leads with white voters with 26%, with Biden (18%) and Sanders (16%) behind her. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released over the weekend tells a similar story: Biden was at 38% with the broader universe of nonwhite voters, with Sanders at 19% and Warren at 12%. Meanwhile, the three top candidates were all at around 20% with white voters.

According to the most recent Economist/YouGov poll, Biden leads with about 40% among African-Americans nationally, while Sanders, Warren, and Kamala Harris are well behind at around 10% apiece. Meanwhile, Warren leads with white voters with 26%, with Biden (18%) and Sanders (16%) behind her. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released over the weekend tells a similar story: Biden was at 38% with the broader universe of nonwhite voters, with Sanders at 19% and Warren at 12%. Meanwhile, the three top candidates were all at around 20% with white voters.

Biden’s team is already lowering expectations for Iowa and New Hampshire, and perhaps rightfully so. One would suspect Iowa and New Hampshire to be among the most challenging states in the country for a candidate like Biden given the racial disparities in his levels of support. The danger for Biden is that he might lose both states, which could prompt a ripple effect that would hurt him elsewhere. Nevada votes next, on Feb. 22, followed by South Carolina on Feb. 29. The Silver State will provide the first real test of the preferences of nonwhite voters (in 2016, its caucus electorate was split about 60% white to 40% nonwhite) and the Palmetto State will show how southern African Americans, a vital voting bloc, are leaning: That electorate should be about 60% black.

Super Tuesday follows on March 3, and by March 17 about two-thirds of the delegates will have been awarded.

The past two contested Democratic presidential nomination battles showed how Iowa and New Hampshire may — or may not — change the race. Hillary Clinton’s failure to sweep Iowa and New Hampshire helped open the door to Barack Obama in 2008, while Clinton’s narrow Iowa win and blowout New Hampshire loss to Sanders in 2016 did not really threaten her hold on the nomination.

A key difference between Hillary Clinton’s main challengers in 2008 and 2016 was that Obama, as a dynamic African-American politician, had a lot of growth potential among black voters. Following his victory in Iowa, which showed his national viability, he turned this potential into reality, riding big margins with black voters to a narrow national victory over Clinton for the nomination. Eight years later, Clinton’s main opponent, Sanders, was unlike Obama in that he did not possess obvious appeal to African Americans. Clinton’s black support held in South Carolina and in later contests, and she won the nomination comfortably.

One factor that might bolster Biden if he struggles in Iowa and New Hampshire is that if Warren and/or Sanders edge him out in those states, neither of those candidates may be able to capitalize on those victories by boosting their support with African-American voters, as Sanders failed to do in 2016. In other words, Biden may be able to survive losses in both states, although his potential ability to do so would be historically strange: Since 1976, nearly every nominee for either party won at least one of Iowa or New Hampshire. The sole exception was Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic contest, although that race deserves something of an asterisk because the other Democratic candidates (including Clinton) essentially forfeited Iowa in deference to home-state candidate Sen. Tom Harkin.

The possibility exists that Biden could be the second.

But this also points to intriguing other alternatives, such as the possibility that if Biden falters, his black support could become splintered — which might open up the path to the nomination for whichever one of Warren or Sanders comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire better positioned than the other — or perhaps migrate to someone other than Warren or Sanders. This possibility surely sustains the candidacies of African-American candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, whose respective paths to the nomination are very much like Obama’s on paper: Win or exceed expectations in Iowa and/or New Hampshire, and boost their African-American support as a result. The problem for both is that, in addition to having to contend with the other, Harris and Booker are way behind Obama’s progress from 2007, where by this time in the race he had established himself as the clearest challenger to Clinton. Harris and Booker have done nothing of the sort, and they are languishing behind not just Biden, but others as well.

The North Carolina fallout

Republicans held the closely-watched do-over special election in NC-9 on Tuesday night, as Rep.-elect Dan Bishop (R) defeated veteran and 2018 nominee Dan McCready (D) by about two points.

Both sides had reasons for optimism: Republicans held the district, and Bishop should have an easier time defending it as an incumbent next year and with presidential-level turnout. From that standpoint, Republican outside forces may not have to pump money into the seat, which means that they could use those resources elsewhere. Had McCready won, Republicans may have been able to reclaim the district next year, but it would have come at considerable expense. President Trump can also plausibly claim that his Monday night rally in Fayetteville helped push Bishop over the finish line, although specifically quantifying the effect of such rallies on any contest is difficult. Our new rating for NC-9 for next year is Likely Republican.

Meanwhile, Democrats could point to McCready considerably outperforming Hillary Clinton’s 12-point loss there in 2016, which was a positive theme for Democrats in special elections last cycle. While the president’s efforts on behalf of Bishop may have helped, Trump’s overall unpopularity once again threatened GOP control of a district that is not as competitive on paper as Tuesday night’s result indicated. The result was fairly similar to that in last year’s OH-12 special election, a district that Republicans also narrowly held but where the Democrat ran about 10 points in margin ahead of Clinton’s 2016 showing. Those two races (OH-12 last year and NC-9 this year) were also similar in that Democrats shot out to early leads based on Democratic-leaning early votes, and Republicans made up sufficient ground on Election Day. That is the usual pattern in North Carolina and Ohio, as well as Florida and some other states.

Republicans also ended up easily holding NC-3, the night’s other special election. In fact, Rep.-elect Greg Murphy (R) won by 24 points, matching Trump’s showing from 2016 and providing Republicans with a helpful data point. That race is Safe Republican for next year.

One thing to watch in North Carolina going forward is whether Democrats attempt to use their power on the state Supreme Court to force a re-draw of the state’s Republican-drawn congressional gerrymander. The court just threw out the state’s legislative districts, although there might not be sufficient time for a similar lawsuit and ruling on the state’s congressional districts to impact 2020 elections.

The NC-9 do-over wraps a bow (finally) on 2018’s House elections. In the end, Democrats won 235 seats and Republicans won 200. In 2016, Republicans won 241 seats and Democrats won 194, so the Democrats netted 41 seats from November 2016 to November 2018. To win the House back, Republicans will have to net 18 seats, although that number may actually be 19 — remember that Rep. Justin Amash (I, MI-3) left the GOP earlier this summer, meaning that Republicans will have to defeat him in order to be 100% sure that the seat’s occupant would back a Republican in the 2021 speaker vote.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and the Managing Editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.

See Other Political Commentary.

This article is reprinted from Sabato's Crystal Ball.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. Comments about this content should be directed to the author or syndicate.

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