We could play this game with any mix of candidates, but right now, in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, it’s a Buttigieg and Biden show. Early state polls are starting to become much more meaningful every day as national polls start to become white noise lost in the news cycle.
Who cares if former vice president Joe Biden leads nationally? He’s struggling in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he’s still winning handily in Nevada and South Carolina. Early states tell the story missing from national polls. The beneficiary of Biden’s low numbers in the first two states is currently mayor Pete Buttigieg, leading both Iowa and New Hampshire by a hair.
So, the question is whether you’d rather have a lead in the first two states on the primary schedule or the third and fourth states on the primary schedule? Take a look at the numbers, courtesy of FiveThirtyEight, before you answer:
Buttigieg hasn’t locked up either state, by any stretch of the numbers, but he is at least showing off his ability to connect with voters and carve out a niche for himself. It’s arguable that both states are really just a three-way or four-way tie depending on the polls. Consider that a handful of percentage points could put Biden, or Sanders or Warren, easily on top.
Then, there’s Nevada and South Carolina, where Biden is in a much stronger position and Buttigieg is almost a non-issue:
Even in Nevada, Biden’s weaker of the two, he’s still outside the margin of error leading by almost ten points. South Carolina hasn’t much budged as Biden continues to hold near forty percent support, sometimes give or take give percent depending on the poll.
The question here is whether Buttigieg or Biden is in a better position. Based on these numbers, you’d have to argue Biden is sitting in a better spot despite all the handwringing from liberal Democratic voters and his numerous campaign gaffes. South Carolina could be a strong firewall for Biden even if Nevada heads toward Warren.
If the numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire stay as they are, with a four-way statistical tie, the advantage has to go to Biden once the unaccounted for voters finally make up their minds. In almost every poll there is anywhere from five to fifteen percent of Democrats who can’t yet commit to a candidate. That could be good news for Biden since it’s likely they could throw in the towel and support him if it looks like he’s still holding the top spot in national polls and places like South Carolina.
If you look further down the calendar to Super Tuesday, Biden is currently in the best position when compared to the rest of the field.
As FiveThirtyEight also notes, concerning Super Tuesday states, Biden has many more delegates in his corner than the early states might provide:
Like a real-life choose-your-own-adventure book, the primary could still unfold along hundreds of paths. But it’s also important to remember there are several massive states still to vote after Iowa (41 delegates), New Hampshire (24 delegates), Nevada (36 delegates) and South Carolina (54 delegates) — and right now, Biden has far more delegates waiting for him in those states than any candidate is likely to amass in February.
Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are being inundated right now with television and internet ads for various candidates. It’s not surprising to see such a tight race in each state. Buttigieg is the current flavor of the month, but there are indications he’s starting to cool off a little bit as other candidates attack him. That could put Warren, Sanders, or Biden back in the lead, though within the margin of error, in either state.
The bottom line is that I think I’d still rather be in Joe Biden’s position than anyone else. He’s not the strongest front runner historically speaking, but he’s still the front runner and he’s still got solid pockets of support around the country. It’s also reasonable to make an argument in the opposite direction that a tight race in Iowa and New Hampshire means voters are tepidly rejecting Biden, they just don’t know who they’d prefer in his stead.
Polls in December can be fickle as voters starting caring more about holiday parties than they do about party politics. Buttigieg’s numbers could soften or polls could remain stagnant until January, it could be a wash.
With the December debate just days away, the results are still anything but certain.