The 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination Race: Beware Far-Too-Early Narratives

The actual voting to determine the Democrats’ candidate to run against Donald Trump has finally kicked off as the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are in the books, with the Nevada primary underway. As is their wont, many commentators in the media (and many voters) have already taken to hard narratives about the state of the race. For some, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg have been declared the clear frontrunners. Joe Biden being in serious trouble is another popular story. And on and on.

With the constant political media machine churning and candidates trying to capitalize on whatever possible advantage they can, the repetition of narratives becomes easy to believe. Sometimes it can feel like the trajectory of the race has already been decided by the media. But a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted here. We are only in the midst of the second primary (Iowa, being caucuses, is not technically a primary and operates by some different rules than a primary), yet it sounds like many pundits have declared the race far closer to being over than it actually is.

It’s easy to simply say that you shouldn’t automatically accept a narrative, though. What are some reasons why many people are jumping to quick conclusions? That is what today’s post will discuss.

Iowa and New Hampshire: Historical Results

Long being the beginning contests in the presidential primary process, an enormous amount of weight has been given to Iowa and New Hampshire results historically. On the Democratic side, at least, it’s easy to see why.

Between 1972 and 2016, 7 out of 10 Democratic winners of the Iowa caucuses who faced competition went on to win the party’s nomination, including every winner since Al Gore in 2000. (Barack Obama in 2012 and Bill Clinton in 1996 were unopposed in their re-election bids, at least in Iowa).¹ ² For the same time frame in New Hampshire, 7 of 12 winners have gone on to win the party’s nomination.³ ⁴ This includes every winner from 1996 to 2012.

So the history indicates that the “frontrunners” Buttigieg and Sanders are in very good shape. So why the skepticism?

Iowa and New Hampshire in 2020

History is a helpful indicator, but leaning too much into it and not acknowledging the differences between historical contests and the current one can easily lead to erroneous assumptions. Sure, perhaps by definition Buttigieg and Sanders are indeed the frontrunners, but arguably too much stock has been placed into this status by many pundits. Let’s look at the context of the 2020 race.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire differ a lot in demographics compared to the rest of the nation — and particularly in the case of the Democratic Party’s membership. Racial minorities are an increasing share of the general American electorate, and make up a large proportion of the Democratic electorate. Iowa and New Hampshire, on the other hand, are predominantly white voters, much more so than the Democratic electorate at large. They also skew towards being older, more rural, and having more white adults that do not have college degrees than average, demographics that tend to identify with the Republican Party.⁵ Then, of course, the two states are a very small percentage of the total population.

Although it may sound obvious, the candidates themselves have to be accounted for. But sometimes details beyond the surface aren’t explored in analysis, or at sufficiently. How many competitive candidates are there now compared to the same point in previous elections? It can be argued that Buttigieg, Sanders, Mike Bloomberg, Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar are all competitive candidates still, but were there that many competitive candidates in previous elections? (In fairness, there is a lot of subjectivity to what would be considered “competitive” and it can be challenging to look back at many previous elections and determine all of the candidates who were considered “competitive” then).

In the case of New Hampshire, Sanders’ success both in 2016 and 2020 is in part due to the fact that it is right next door to his home state of Vermont. “Home-field advantage” isn’t a guarantee for a win, but it certainly helps in presidential races when people tend to be much more familiar with a local candidate compared to the others from abroad. Sanders eventually fell short of the nomination in 2016 to Hillary Clinton. Sanders did win the state against more competition this time around, but it was much closer and he did not win nearly as high of a percentage of the vote in 2020 as he did in 2016. Does that mean he underperformed this time? Not necessarily. There could be all sorts of reasons for that, so it would also be too much of a jump to outright say he did better or worse this time around.

Lastly — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — correlation does not imply causation. Iowa and New Hampshire may be good indicators of how the Democratic nomination plays out, but is it because of the results in those two states? They have a hand in it, but there are lots of other states that play a key role too. What about all the Super Tuesday states, for example? It’s a long election season, and we have yet to see who else drops out of the race and whatever other surprises are in store.

Nevada and Beyond

Nevada’s primary, and the closely-following South Carolina primary, are arguably the first serious indicators of how 2020 will play out for the Democratic Party. Nevada has a large and rapidly increasing number of Latino voters that the Democrats are vying for in 2020. South Carolina has a large black voter population, originally considered a lock for Biden but may go elsewhere in the primary. Both of these broad demographics tend to be Democrats, especially black voters. And that’s not even getting into Super Tuesday on March 3rd, arguably the biggest day of the primary slate. Look for Super Tuesday to be the first serious look at how the Democratic Primary will take shape.

  1. Des Moines Register. “Iowa Caucuses Results History 1972 to 2016.” https://data.desmoinesregister.com/iowa-caucus/history/#2016/dem (accessed February 20, 2020).

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Senior Page Editor - Sayfie Review, Assistant Staff Writer - Ballotpedia (my views do not express those of my employers), M.A. in Political Science

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