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Sanders Is The Front-Runner After New Hampshire, And A Contested Convention Has Become More Likely

The Democratic primary is in a confusing state at the moment. And our forecast model is a little confused, also. It’s making a couple of assumptions about how the polls may react to New Hampshire that may not be entirely right. The model is also limited by the lack of polling in states that vote after New Hampshire, most notably Nevada and South Carolina. So we’d encourage you to take the model with a large grain of salt until some of that post-New Hampshire polling comes in.

But the two takeaways that the model feels most confident about are two things that I’m happy to vouch for:

  • Model takeaway No. 1: Sen. Bernie Sanders is the most likely person to win the Democratic nomination.
  • Model takeaway No. 2: The chance of there being no pledged delegate majority — which could potentially lead to a contested convention — is high and increasing.

I’m going to be relatively brief here as I’m writing this at 2 a.m. But let’s take the Sanders conclusion first. The model’s contention that he’s the closest thing to a front-runner we have in this race seems inescapable to me. Sanders won the popular vote in each of the first two states (and he may eventually win the state delegate equivalent vote in Iowa). He leads in national polls (having recently overtaken former Vice President Joe Biden). He has raised a ton of money. He polls fairly well in Nevada (or at least he did back when people bothered to poll it). And he has a reasonably diverse coalition that should net him at least some delegates in almost every state and congressional district.

There are also some negatives for Sanders. While he won New Hampshire — although pledged delegates were split evenly between him and and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, which the model gives Buttigieg a tiny bit of credit for1 — his 25.7 percent of the vote there underperformed our projections by 2 to 3 percentage points. By all rights, New Hampshire ought to have been a fairly strong state for him (as Iowa should also have been). And although Sanders leads in national polls, he averages only 22 percent of the vote in them, unusually low for the national leader at this stage of the race. Between the slight underperformance in New Hampshire and a couple of mediocre polls coming in for Sanders while our model was frozen awaiting New Hampshire results, he actually fell slightly in the forecast from where he had been 24 hours earlier.

Still, Sanders’s 38 percent chance of winning a majority of pledged delegates is far better than that of any other Democrat. He also has a 52 percent chance of winning a plurality of pledged delegates. Even if this isn’t the strongest possible version of Sanders, he’s come far closer to actualizing his potential than anyone else in the field. Furthermore, the tactical considerations of the race are setting up well for Sanders: The moderate “lane” is still very crowded and perhaps getting even more crowded (it’s no longer just Biden and Buttigieg, but also Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg!), and Sanders has pulled well ahead of Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the progressive lane.

But New Hampshire is also good news if you’re hoping for chaos. Our forecast has the chances that no one wins a majority of pledged delegates up to 33 percent, its highest figure yet, and roughly double what it was before Iowa.

Almost everything went well if you’re rooting for a contested convention. Sanders won, but with a smaller share of the vote than the model expected. Moreover, the second- and third-place candidates, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, may or may not be poised to take advantage of any post-New Hampshire surge they get, having begun the evening at just 10 percent and 4 percent, respectively, in national polls, and not having any obvious strength in Nevada or South Carolina. Meanwhile, the two candidates apart from Sanders who had seemed to have built the broadest national coalitions, Warren and Biden, did terribly in New Hampshire. (Although the race is so wide-open that they can’t entirely be counted out either — especially not Biden — at least not until we see some Nevada and South Carolina polling.) Meanwhile, Bloomberg continues to rise in polls, including having his first polling lead of the campaign in any state, in an Arkansas poll that came in while the model was frozen.

Now then, what about potential shortcomings of the model? First, as I mentioned, the lack of polling data in post-New Hampshire states is a problem. That data should begin to trickle in over the next couple of weeks (although note that Nevada never gets much polling).

Also, the model may not be guessing right about the bounces that will emerge from New Hampshire, especially for Klobuchar. It does give Klobuchar some credit for substantially beating expectations (which it defines as national polls adjusted for regional factors) in New Hampshire. But media coverage on election night practically treated Klobuchar — not Sanders — as the winner in New Hampshire (to an extent that probably deserves a little mockery).

Klobuchar needs a huge bounce given that she’s at only 4 percent in national polls. But there’s the possibility of a virtuous circle for Klobuchar, where she rises (perhaps slightly at first) in the polls, that rise begets more media coverage, which begets more endorsements and money raised, which begets more media coverage, which begets a further polling rise, and so forth. I don’t know how high that possibility is. It probably isn’t that high, and even if it is, there are lots of scenarios where Klobuchar rises to, say, 15 or 20 percent in polls and never gets much further than that. Still, because her media coverage will probably wind up being more favorable than the model is assuming, the chances of New Hampshire serving as an initial spark for her to rise into contending status are higher than it probably assumes. More thoughts on all of this — and hopefully more polls — coming later this week.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Bernie Sanders wins New Hampshire


  1. Just as Iowa may wind up having multiple winners, New Hampshire introduced another possibility for split winners, where one candidate gets the most delegates and the other gets the most votes. Our policies for these cases are still a work in progress. But we’re trying to reflect how the media covers the races, since post-primary bounces depend heavily on media coverage. In studying coverage of the 2008 Democratic caucuses in Nevada, in which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but Barack Obama won the most delegates, we found that about 80 percent of media coverage went to Clinton’s popular vote win and 20 percent went to Obama’s delegate win. Thus, we’ll divide the winner bonus 80/20 toward the popular vote winner in the event of a popular vote/delegate split.

    In New Hampshire in particular, the delegate race was a tie. Thus, Sanders gets 90 percent of the credit for winning New Hampshire — 80 percent for winning the popular vote plus half of 20 percent for tying in delegates — while Buttigieg gets 10 percent.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.