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What Are The X-Factors That Could Shake Up New Hampshire?

Welcome to a special edition of FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): It’s hard to believe that last Monday was the Iowa caucuses and now, it’s time for New Hampshire to vote for a Democratic nominee tomorrow. Obviously, we missed the big X factor of the Iowa caucuses — no results that Monday and still no declared winner because of data issues — but we’re done with Iowa; it’s time to talk New Hampshire.

What’s going on in the Granite State? Bernie Sanders sits atop nearly all of the recent New Hampshire polls we have, and has a 68 percent chance of winning the most votes there, according to our primary forecast, but Pete Buttigieg isn’t too far behind Sanders in our polling average and he even led in one recent Suffolk New Hampshire poll. How would you describe the state of the race? And what factors should we be looking at that could affect who wins on Tuesday?

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): I guess a major question is whether voters will strategically funnel toward the two leading candidates — Sanders and Buttigieg — which would hurt someone like Warren (whose voters maybe move to Sanders) as well as Biden or Klobuchar (whose voters possibly move to Buttigieg).

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): +1 to that, Geoffrey. Strategic voting can make primaries unpredictable. Since New Hampshire looks like a two-man race, that can cause a stampede of support from the lower-polling candidates to whichever of the two front-runners they prefer.

geoffrey.skelley: Perhaps that’s part of why Biden went all in on that video attacking Buttigieg, to stall a continued rise?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I think our model likely has a fairly good handle on New Hampshire. We have Bernie with a 68 percent chance to win and Buttigieg at 27 percent, which leaves 5 percent for a miracle upset by Warren, Biden or Klobuchar. That all sounds about right to me.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): It feels like Sanders is the favorite, but Buttigieg could still win. Warren and Biden seem likely to be vying for third and fourth. Klobuchar seems likely to finish fifth, as she doesn’t seem as strong as she was in Iowa.

sarahf: I’ve wondered Perry, if maybe given what happened in Iowa, it’s Biden who finishes fourth or fifth. New Hampshire is just another state that’s really hard for him demographically.

And after Iowa, a Biden finish in the high single digits wouldn’t totally shock me. His footprint and enthusiasm in the state just seems much smaller (I know, reader, crowd sizes are not the best proxy for a candidate’s enthusiasm). His campaign is already lowering expectations in New Hampshire, but I wonder how that would shake up the race going forward.

nrakich: I would caution against any overinterpretation by the media or others if someone like Biden finishes fifth. If that happens, it would probably only be by a point or two, which really isn’t significant.

Similarly, the collapse of Biden or Warren in New Hampshire opens the door for someone like Klobuchar or Gabbard to finish third, which would surely grab some headlines. But if it’s a third-place finish with 10 percent, that’s really not all that impressive.

natesilver: I mean, it’s not clear to me that the Biden campaign would rather have Buttigieg win New Hampshire than Sanders. If Buttigieg wins New Hampshire, it’s an extremely wide-open race, and a win by Biden in South Carolina could be more impactful.

It’s also not clear to me whether that ad will be effective. It might be! Reporters on Twitter seem to think it’s smart! But, Buttigieg is also using his lack of Washington experience as an asset, and it seems a bit mean-spirited in a state where voters sort of like civility.

sarahf: Right, mayors … are supposed to revitalize sidewalks?

geoffrey.skelley: I agree, it’s unclear if that ad will have its intended effect. Voters have likely already factored in Buttigieg’s lack of big-time experience at this point.

nrakich: Yeah, Sarah, I found that ad ineffective. It felt like it was belittling the important, if not world-changing, work that local government does every day.

However, Geoffrey, I’m not sure voters have fully priced in Buttigieg’s lack of experience. He hasn’t really had a scrutiny cycle this election the way that, say, Warren has.

And only 73 percent of Democrats knew enough about him to have an opinion, according to an average of polls taken from Dec. 19 to Jan. 15. So there is room for more people to learn about him in a negative way.

natesilver: I’m not sure I totally agree that Buttigieg hasn’t faced scrutiny? He’s gotten a LOT of media attention, as this is really the third different period of the campaign in which he’s perceived to have surged.

nrakich: But very little of that media attention has been negative. I think this cycle has shown candidates need to do a bit better than Buttigieg has done so far before they really start to get negative attention. Look at Warren — she rose in the polls for months, to more than 20 percent, before the narrative really turned against her.

natesilver: I don’t know, Rakich, I probably spent too much time on Twitter, where Buttigieg isn’t super popular.

(I definitely spend too much time on Twitter.)

sarahf: What do you all think about turnout here in New Hampshire? Does that have the potential to be an X-factor? It surprised me that turnout was lower in Iowa just given everything around 2018 and record turnout for a midterm.

geoffrey.skelley: New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner — whose main job seems to be protecting New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary — predicted 420,000 voters would turn out for the combined Democratic and Republican primaries. He very specifically predicted — how is unclear — 292,000 Democratic votes and 128,000 GOP ones. If the Democrats reach that mark, it would basically match the Republican turnout mark of 288,000 in the 2016 Republican primary. (Democrats had a little over 250,000 votes last time around.)

sarahf: And so if Gardner’s predictions are accurate, Geoffrey, that would mean pretty high turnout for Democrats, right?

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, that would slightly outpace the 288,000 or so who voted in the 2008 Democratic primary. Of course, it’s important to remember that cycle had two competitive contests going on, whereas the Republican contest this time around isn’t competitive — sorry, Bill Weld. That could influence how unaffiliated voters choose to behave, as they can vote in either party’s primary.

sarahf: I was just going to ask about that. How much do we think it matters that New Hampshire’s primary isn’t closed, meaning independents and those not registered as Democrats can still participate? Do you think it makes New Hampshire a good general election bellwether test?

And what does it mean, if anything, for this year’s candidates? Does that help Sanders? Buttigieg?

natesilver: I’m not sure whether it makes New Hampshire a good bellwether. But independents are a bit more unpredictable and it’s one of the things that makes polling harder.

geoffrey.skelley: Well, New Hampshire’s turnout as a share of the voting-eligible population in the 2016 primary was 52 percent for the two parties combined. Its general election turnout was around 72 percent. While that’s a very high presidential primary turnout — New Hampshire tends to have the highest or nearly the highest every cycle — I’m not really sure it tells you much about the general election.

perry: Because Buttigieg (anti-Trump Republicans) and Sanders (kind of disaffected voters more broadly) are both arguing they can appeal outside of traditional Democratic blocs, it will be interesting to see if one or both of them are successful in doing so. Neither of those candidates are likely to dismiss the role of independents and unaffiliated voters — they are appealing to them as part of their strategy.

natesilver: Independents seem to like both Buttigieg and Sanders here. But they’re different types of independents. The Sanders folks are people whose views are probably liberal, or at least eccentric but averaging out to liberal, but who just don’t really like the Democratic Party as a concept. The Buttigieg folks are more your classic crossover independents and moderate Republicans. There is SOME feeling on the ground here that Buttigieg is prepared to do well with these sorts of independents outside of metro areas, and if he beats his polling here, that might be a reason why.

sarahf: You’ve looked into this a little, Geoffrey. But aren’t candidates like Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang largely the ones doing well with independents or more conservative voters here in New Hampshire? In which case, I’m not sure how much New Hampshire’s independent streak has an opportunity to be a wild card here.

natesilver: I think they (Gabbard, Yang) may be doing well in a RELATIVE sense. That’s why Gabbard might get like 5 or 6 percent of the vote here instead of 2 or 3 percent. But not in an ABSOLUTE sense. Sanders and Buttigieg have the highest share of the vote among independents.

geoffrey.skelley: Right, Gabbard’s overall support in polls has mostly come from people who identify as independents or even Republican. So that might help her at the margins, but that isn’t going to make her competitive.

It’s kind of important to win over Democrats in a Democratic primary — just ask Sanders about his 2016 performance. One reason he couldn’t beat Clinton was that he rarely won more support from Democrats than her.

nrakich: Here’s a potentially fun X-factor: What if we get a national poll on Monday that says something dramatic? Like Biden still has a commanding national lead, or Buttigieg now has 20 percent. Could that affect New Hampshirites’ strategic voting, or the media’s expectations?

natesilver: It’ll affect our model! Our model is going to react quite strongly in one direction or another to the next few national polls, and maybe also fairly strongly to Nevada and South Carolina polls. I don’t know that it’ll affect coverage here though.

It might affect Biden’s strategy though. Like, if they think they’re still strong in Nevada/South Carolina, that would have some impact.

sarahf: On that note, we still haven’t had a horse race poll conducted entirely after Friday’s debate. Do you think there were any last-minute surprises there that the polls might be late to pick up on going into Tuesday?

Much of pundit-land seems to have thought Amy Klobuchar knocked it out of the park, for instance. But I wonder if that’s enough to help her here in New Hampshire. Because does a third-place finish vs. a fourth-place finish matter really matter if you’re Klobuchar?

natesilver: Two of the three tracking polls showed a rise for Klobuchar at the expense of Buttigieg. These are small sample sizes, so one needs to be a little bit careful — and I’d note that our post-debate poll with Ipsos (of national voters, not New Hampshire) showed both Buttigieg and Klobuchar doing well. But, a mini Klobu-surge that hurts Buttigieg and helps Sanders is certainly a plausible story.

nrakich: Yeah, our polling with Ipsos seemed to show a status-quo-preserving debate. Sanders and Buttigieg, who were already the candidates doing best in New Hampshire, got high marks from viewers. So did Klobuchar, but she’s had strong debates before, and while they probably have helped her get to where she is, I don’t see any reason why this one would produce a more sudden surge for her.

geoffrey.skelley: The challenge for Klobuchar is, if she finishes at like 9 percent or something, does she really go on? Nevada and South Carolina do not look good for her at all — she’s at 3 percent and 2 percent in our polling averages, respectively — and I’m not sure you can spin a performance like that in New Hampshire into more support in the next set of contests. Buttigieg might be able to gain support from winning or nearly winning, but for someone further down the list, that’ll be harder.

Then again, she may just want to make it to Super Tuesday [March 3] to run in her home state of Minnesota — though losing your home state is not a great look. …

natesilver: I think she’ll go on if she beats Biden. Maybe not otherwise.

But who knows! If it feels like a wide-open race, maybe she stays in as she’s sort of a plausible compromise candidate down the line. And as Geoffrey said, Minnesota votes on Super Tuesday.

sarahf: This is probably getting a little ahead of ourselves, because it’s not about New Hampshire specifically. But people usually drop out after Iowa — except given the mess that was Iowa this year, that didn’t happen. But there’s usually a second wave after New Hampshire. Do we think that will hold true? Or is this field so fractured and splintered that most candidates are going to cling on?

nrakich: Yeah, I think Michael Bennet and maybe Deval Patrick drop out after New Hampshire.

geoffrey.skelley: It’s been clear that Bennet wanted to keep going at least up to New Hampshire. So after he wins like 1 percent on Tuesday, that will presumably be the end of the line for him.

Patrick, however, probably wants to hang on until South Carolina. A Super PAC running ads on his behalf is dropping a fair amount of money there, for what it’s worth.

sarahf: OK, let’s end on one or two final X-factors you think could throw a curveball in New Hampshire’s primary — and don’t say, “We don’t get any votes.” That would just be cruel and unusual punishment after Iowa.

geoffrey.skelley: I don’t think we have to worry about that! New Hampshire’s primary is state-run, not party-run, so it’ll use the normal voting apparatus.

In terms of curveballs, Warren doing better than expected could be a twist. The new CBS News/YouGov poll that came out on Sunday had her in a clear third at 17 percent. We’ve heard anecdotally that she has a great ground game here, so maybe she will end up holding onto support better than some polls suggest. That could help Buttigieg if Warren supporters aren’t moving to Sanders.

nrakich: I guess I am just looking for whether Buttigieg’s momentum — which has been clear in the day-by-day polls — continues over the final stretch and is enough for him to overtake Sanders. But any disruption in the narrative, from the debate to a national poll to a well-timed attack from another candidate, could in turn disrupt that momentum.

perry: Biden basically conceded in the debate that he wouldn’t win New Hampshire. Probably not ideal (at least for winning, perhaps smart in terms of expectations setting.) He released a buzzy video attacking Buttigieg. I don’t know how that plays. But Biden is the person I’m most interested in — I feel like he could get 19 percent or 9.

geoffrey.skelley: Perry, 19 percent would be a W for Biden, so that would be a curveball!

nrakich: Geoffrey, you’re just playing into the expectations game!!

geoffrey.skelley: I’m just reading into what the media would say about Biden getting 19 percent. It would be taken as a win.

nrakich: Just a couple weeks ago, Biden was forecasted to get 20 percent of the vote, on average, in our model. If he gets 19 percent and that’s perceived as a win, his strategy of lowering expectations will have been very successful.

geoffrey.skelley: Sure, but in the aftermath of a rough performance in Iowa, and the downplaying of expectations by Biden, I’m pretty sure the press would enthusiastically latch onto a Biden comeback narrative.

nrakich: I think that’s probably right. But people need to take a step back and realize that the right interpretation of that would probably be, “Iowa was a weird hiccup for Biden,” not “Biden’s campaign was on the brink of death, and then he recovered masterfully!”

sarahf: Anyone other than Sanders finishing first, though, would be a pretty big deal. I could see Sanders’s margin only being 1 or 2 points, but given the polls we do have, I still think he should win New Hampshire. But Nathaniel is right in that there’s still room for a last-minute surge to take hold. And yeah, understanding how Biden will do remains a bit of a mystery to me.

natesilver: I don’t know how people (by which I mean the media) would react to like a 2-point Sanders win, which is one of the more plausible scenarios.

nrakich: Oh, I guess I’m also looking to see how many candidates finish about 15 percent and therefore qualify for delegates. The more candidates who get delegates, the more chance we have of a ~~ CoNtEsTeD cOnVeNtIoN !!! ~~

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.