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How 2020 took away the most important role of Iowa and New Hampshire

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: A voter arrives to cast a ballot in the New Hampshire U.S. presidential primary election in Manchester
A voter arrives to cast a ballot in the New Hampshire U.S. presidential primary election in Manchester, Feb. 11, 2020.Mike Segar / Reuters

MANCHESTER, N.H. — It’s possible — maybe even likely — that a single top-tier candidate won't drop out of the Democratic presidential race after tonight’s primary here.

Even if he finishes fourth (again), Joe Biden can plausibly take his campaign to South Carolina, where he hopes African-American voters can save him. (Then again, yesterday’s Quinnipiac poll showed Biden already losing altitude with African Americans.)

And even if she comes in fifth (again), Amy Klobuchar might have every incentive to keep trucking along. After all, her single delegate out of Iowa gets her a spot in the next Democratic debate in Las Vegas.

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One explanation why the current field might stick around through Nevada and South Carolina is because the field already got winnowed — not by Iowa and New Hampshire, but instead by the DNC’s debate-qualification process.

Those polling, fundraising and now delegate requirements took a gigantic field of 20-plus candidates and whittled it down to five major ones: Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Biden and Klobuchar.

In the most recent Democratic cycles — 2004, 2008 and especially 2016 — the starting field was smaller, and it was Iowa and New Hampshire that played the role of winnower.

But in 2020, due to the debates requirements, this Democratic field essentially winnowed weeks and months ago — to five major candidates.

There’s another thing the DNC’s debate requirements did: By using national polls as one polling metric, it nationalized the race, making Biden seem stronger than his Iowa and New Hampshire numbers indicated, and giving a billionaire like Michael Bloomberg the path he has now.

So if/when folks are wringing their hands later tonight why the Dem field hasn’t winnowed enough, or why it winnowed to this field, or why the race became too nationalized — you can look back at those debate requirements.

They took away Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s traditional role.

Setting tonight’s expectations

Only one person has to win tonight, and that’s Bernie Sanders. For someone who won this contest four years ago with 61 percent of the vote, he’s got to get at least 30 percent of the vote in this larger field. Anything lower than that will only emphasize the size of the non-Bernie field.

For Buttigieg, the closer he gets to Sanders, the better. But ask yourself this question: Can you see him winning the Dem nomination without pulling off the win here?

Elizabeth Warren has gotten lost in the national narrative. And she will have a big problem on her hands if she can’t explain why she didn’t finish at least in third – since she hails from neighboring Massachusetts.

Amy Klobuchar will clearly move on if she finishes fourth, and she could even move on if she’s in fifth (as we mentioned above). But a surprising third-place finish for Klobuchar could be a big, big story.

And that brings us to Joe Biden. Here are the modern-day Democrats who finished in fourth in New Hampshire: Jesse Jackson (’84), Jackson again (’88), Tom Harkin (’92), John Edwards (’04) and Bill Richardson (’08).

And here are the fifth-place finishers: George McGovern (’84), Al Gore (’88), Jerry Brown (’92), Joe Lieberman (’04), Dennis Kucinich (’08).

Finally, be sure to watch the turnout. Dems can’t afford to have another middling night like they had in Iowa last week.

How the New Hampshire primary works

Unlike the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary is a typical kind of election contest — with participants casting secret-ballot votes, and “the winner” is the candidate who gets the most votes.

Undeclared — or independent — voters may vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary, and they simply choose a Dem or GOP ballot. Afterwards, the voter becomes a registered member of that political party unless they specifically fill out a form confirming they wish to return to “undeclared” status.

Forty-two percent of the state’s voter are undeclared, more than any other voting bloc in the state.

Under state law, all polling places must open no later than 11:00 am ET and close no earlier than 7:00 p.m. ET. The earliest that NBC’s Decision Desk may be able to make a projection of the winner at 8:00 pm ET.

2020 Vision: Dixville Notch goes to … Michael Bloomberg?

Well, the first results from New Hampshire are in, and guess who got more votes than anyone else in tiny Dixville Notch?

Someone who’s not even on the ballot: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg got 2 write-in votes in the Democratic primary from Dixville Notch, while Sanders and Pete Buttigieg got one each. (Bloomberg also got the sole GOP vote in Dixville Notch — once again as a write-in.)

Overall, with three towns reporting so far (Dixville Notch, Hart’s Location and Millsfield), here are the early results so far in the Democratic race:

  • Klobuchar: 8
  • Sanders: 4
  • Warren: 4
  • Yang: 3
  • Buttigieg: 2
  • Bloomberg: 2 (write-in)

On the campaign trail today

Pete Buttigieg visits polling locations in Manchester, Nashua and Bedford before holding his primary night event in Nashua… That’s also where Joe Biden holds his election night party… Elizabeth Warren has hers in Manchester, as does Bernie Sanders… Amy Klobuchar does hers in Concord… Andrew Yang makes multiple stops in the state before holding his primary night party in Manchester… Outside of New Hampshire, Tom Steyer stumps in Nevada a day after campaigning in South Carolina.

Dispatches from NBC’s campaign embeds

NBC's Gary Grumbach covers Bernie Sanders’ finale rally in New Hampshire last night: "Sanders made sure to alert the crowd to the historic nature of this evening. 'There are three times more people here tonight than in any other Democratic rally in New Hampshire,' Sanders boasted to deafening cheers. 'This turnout tells me why we're gonna win here in New Hampshire, why we're gonna win the Democratic nomination, and why we are going to defeat the most dangerous president in the modern history of America, Donald Trump.'"

And Joe Biden is hoping that voters get ready to head south, per NBC's Marianna Sotomayor: "Stick with me 24 more hours and I promise you we're gonna do just fine heading south and across this country. We're gonna win this nomination," Biden said at his final event before the New Hampshire primary.

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is … $305,629


That’s how much Joe Biden’s campaign has spent on the New Hampshire TV and radio airwaves during the state’s primary, according to Advertising Analytics.

That’s compared with $5.3 million for Bernie Sanders, $3.7 million for Pete Buttigieg, $3.4 million for Andrew Yang and $1.5 million apiece for Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.

Biden’s spending has been augmented with about $720,000 from pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country. But even with the two sums combined, the onetime frontrunner has been far outpaced by his main rivals on New Hampshire airwaves.

  • Tom Steyer: $19.2 million
  • Bernie Sanders: $5.3 million
  • Pete Buttigieg: $3.7 million
  • Andrew Yang: $3.4 million
  • Reason to Believe PAC (pro-Deval Patrick): $1.8 million
  • Vote Vets (pro-Buttigieg): $1.5 million
  • Klobuchar: $1.5 million
  • Warren: $1.5 million
  • Gabbard: $1 million
  • Unite the Country (pro-Biden): $722K
  • Biden: $306K
  • Patrick: $107K
  • Bennet: $53K

Talking policy with Benjy

Campaigning in New Hampshire on Sunday, Pete Buttigieg told voters that while confronting the deficit is "not fashionable in progressive circles,” it should be part of the Democratic pitch in 2020, NBC’s Benjy Sarlin writes.

The former South Bend mayor’s case is that $1 trillion deficits under Trump, fueled by tax cuts and new spending, mean Democrats should “get a lot more comfortable owning the issue” on offense. But as our own Sahil Kapur reports, the real target for Buttigieg at the moment is Sanders, who attacked for proposing a Medicare for All plan that could cost well over $30 trillion over ten years in new federal spending, per outside estimates.

Buttigieg’s language annoyed some Democrats who still feel burned after Republicans repeatedly threatened to shut down the government or crash through the debt ceiling over deficit fears under President Obama only to drop their demands under President Trump. Sanders tied Buttigieg’s comments to this era, which featured bipartisan talks on cutting entitlements in exchange for higher taxes, which Sanders and Warren each strongly opposed. In a statement, the Sanders campaign said Buttigieg was “parroting the same corporate talking points to justify cuts to Social Security and Medicare that have been used for decades.”

But Buttigieg’s comments about fiscal conservatism falling out of fashion with the party weren’t entirely accurate, either. While some on the left have made a tactical and economic case that Democrats should deliberately stop paying for their plans, the 2020 contenders and Democratic leaders in Washington have mostly stuck to including pay-fors with new proposals.

Warren famously has her wealth tax and an elaborate plan to finance Medicare for All. Sanders has proposed tens of trillions of dollars more in spending and is less forthcoming with budget specifics, but even he has made some rhetorical concessions by acknowledging Medicare for All will require higher middle class taxes and promising his $16 trillion Green New Deal plan will “pay for itself over 15 years” through spending cuts, tax hikes, and growth. As the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, he’s never been above scolding Republicans on the deficit, either.

The Lid: Vacation Nation

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at the time-honored tradition of political tourism during primary season.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

From Mike Memoli and Kristen Welker: “Struggling in New Hampshire, Biden looks to avoid a knockout punch.”

How does the New Hampshire primary work? Here’s our quick primer.

Alex Seitz-Wald and Sahil Kapur have five things to watch tonight.

Both the Sanders and Buttigieg campaigns are asking for partial recanvasses in Iowa.

Trump Agenda: Get me Roger Stone

U.S. prosecutors are recommending 7-9 years in jail for Roger Stone.

The Trump administration is suing New Jersey and King County in Washington over their sanctuary city policy.

Trumpworld now hopes to link Mitt Romney to Burisma.

The Justice Department has created an “intake process” to review information about the Bidens from Rudy Giuliani.

Trump’s new budget calls for new warheads and two types of missiles.

2020: Does Biden still have a chance?

Does Biden still have a chance to win, just because the rest of the Dem field is also so flawed?

Obama campaign veterans are trying to bring more diversity to the 2020 campaigns.

The Democratic campaigns are trying to refocus their attacks on Trump.

Bloomberg still has a lot of issues to address with black voters.