Theodore R. Johnson, The Guardian, February 13, 2020
After the first two states in the Democratic presidential primary have had their say, one thing is quite clear: Pete Buttigieg is on the rise and Joe Biden’s campaign is losing steam.
Buttigieg is still neck and neck with Bernie Sanders in last week’s chaotic Iowa caucuses – which the Associated Press still hasn’t called – and he finished second to Sanders in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. Meanwhile, Biden, the national frontrunner for almost the entirety of the invisible primary, finished a disappointing fourth and fifth, respectively.
In any other election year with any other candidates, this would be more meaningful. But the results to date only tell us what we have long known – Buttigieg does well with white voters. Until black voters have the opportunity to weigh in en masse, we won’t actually know which of the two is closer to leading the field and which is nearer to suspending his campaign.
The dynamics of the Biden and Buttigieg campaigns couldn’t be more different. Never mind the large gap in age and experience – Biden’s career in the United States Senate began nine years before Buttigieg was born – their respective paths to the nomination rely on distinct parts of the Democratic electorate. Buttigieg’s chances are tied to the support of white moderates, and Biden’s hinge on holding on to black voters.
Thus far, we’ve only heard from one – white voters in Iowa and New Hampshire accounted for more than 90% of those who cast ballots. It’s no wonder, then, that the two campaigns seem to be going in different directions.
Biden’s campaign has long considered the South Carolina primary its firewall, where black voters comprised 61% of the electorate in 2016. He continues to lead among black voters with the latest national polls showing him at 38%, more than twice that of Sanders. In South Carolina, which holds its primary on 29 February, support from this bloc is 44%. The poor finishes in the first two states caused Biden to leave New Hampshire early and attempt to reinforce his double-digit lead in South Carolina. Any chance he has of securing the nomination now depends on his ability to maintain the support of the black electorate, expected to be one in four primary voters overall.
The Buttigieg campaign, on the other hand, has faced a number of questions about its inability to attract black voters. After spending much of 2019 at a statistical zero, he has only managed to reach about 2% this week. His strategy all along has been to perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire in hopes that he can ride a wave of momentum and win over the more diverse electorates in Nevada and South Carolina. The campaign often cites Barack Obama’s rise in 2008 as the model for this strategy, but confidence in that approach is misplaced. In other words, Buttigieg had the good fortune of competing in the best two possible states for his candidacy. That luck, however, may be about to run out.
If their electoral coalitions hold true, we can expect to see Buttigieg’s chances decline and Biden’s improve. Political scientists note that two forces affecting presidential primary campaigns are momentum and strategic effects. Momentum from early primary wins helps a candidate’s fundraising, polling and chances of securing the nomination. Strategic effects are the advantages gained by candidates who perform well in later contests, assuming he or she has the resources to hang on until the more favorable elections occur, and finishing strong can be the key to the nomination. The challenge is that momentum and strategic effects operate in opposite directions. That is, improved performance of strategic candidates can staunch the surge of momentum candidates. Biden certainly hopes this is the case.
Despite the rather clear prospects for both, the road ahead is far from smooth.
Biden’s support from black voters is under threat from billionaire candidates Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, who are both spending exorbitant amounts of money on campaign staff and advertising. Bloomberg has managed to tie Sanders for second place among black voters, and Steyer is second to Biden in South Carolina with one in four supporting his campaign. The more they chip into his lead, the less likely it is that he’ll be able to win the nomination.
Over the next three weeks, 16 states will hold primaries, and voters of color figure to make up a substantial part of them. Buttigieg’s failure to gain their support means he’ll either need to appeal to them in a way he’s been unable to do thus far, or he’ll need to win over white voters by exceedingly large margins. Neither of these appear likely, especially considering the relatively strong showings by Sanders and Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren in the first two states. And yet, in 2020 alone, stranger things have happened.
Altogether, the destinies of Biden and Buttigieg in this presidential primary seem to be inversely related. The disparity between their coalitions and primary state demographics means that as one rises, the other is likely to fall. The fates of both campaigns are largely contingent on the choices voters of color, especially black voters, make in the days ahead.