As the year began I wrote what I called my New Year’s “irresolutions” – a set of observations on the Democratic field that I cloaked in uncertainty. I promised to come back and identify those that were wrong. There are two standouts in that regard: (1) Joe Biden’s staying power is far less certain – and I take little comfort in having been right about that before I was wrong; and (2) I now suspect that a Michael Bloomberg nomination is as likely as several other possibilities on the table.
I was not alone in being wrong and there are two core reasons for why so many were. The first is that the polls were wrong – not a single poll showed a Sanders-Buttigieg tie in Iowa with Elizabeth Warren in third; nor did a single poll show the Sanders-Buttigieg photo finish in New Hampshire with Amy Klobuchar in a strong third. In addition to the usual problems with polls (see prior posts and tweets), in Iowa, polls overestimated turnout and apparently underestimated the power of organization and the movement of late deciders. They included too many non-voters and too few who moved late to Buttigieg. In New Hampshire, there was not time for quality polling between the debate and the primary given issues with callbacks and weekend samples so most polling missed the Klobuchar growth. Additionally, those “future former Republicans” of Buttigieg’s may have been a bigger piece of the electorate than some foresaw.
The second reason pundits were wrong is that this is not an election like any we have seen before. Voters are seriously shopping for a candidate who can defeat Donald Trump. Like the pundits’, voters’ hypotheses about that shift over time, and so too do their candidate preferences. Debate performances, candidate message, perceived toughness, all matter. Since so many were so wrong, the impact of punditry seems to matter less although I am continually concerned that wrong polls can impact elections and, in their own way, thwart the voter will they intend to reflect.
The factors that made punditry and polls wrong in these first two states are operative in those that are coming up. There will not be time for quality polls between debates and primaries or between South Carolina and Super Tuesday. Voters may also change their minds about who is the strongest candidate and about what they will tolerate from candidates about whom they have mixed feelings.
Yes, polls do not show Buttigieg and Klobuchar to have much support from voters of color but usually these are polls with small and often unbalanced samples of voters of color. Besides, African American and Hispanic voters have in the past overlooked far more egregious violations on race than these candidates are accused of. I suspect most voters of color have concluded a long time ago that white politicians are imperfect on these issues. Additionally, I suspect these candidates will do some more outreach than perhaps they have to date and maybe (or not) to positive effect.
This is not a prediction that their support will grow – I don’t know – but there is no reason to rule it out either. Sanders is better known in those communities, and has a civil rights movement history from the 1960s. That doesn’t mean he has a lock on anything – and neither does Biden. Further, we have not heard yet from any voters in the south or in the southwest and we don’t really know how they are judging these candidates, or will after two more debates in their very different home states. We will have to wait and see. And the results of the next two states may or may not tell us much about Super Tuesday, when a third of delegates are chosen.
One element of current punditry I question is whether voter decisions are ideological. There is a conventional analysis that groups moderate candidates and progressive candidates and presumes some trade-off among them. The analysis is supported by voters’ second choices – as Warren is the more frequent second choice of Sanders supporters and vice versa. But some of that may reflect changeable theories of who can win. Further, there are perhaps gender dynamics in play – worth wondering whether Warren’s weakness in New Hampshire was in part attributable to Klobuchar’s growth. I don’t know.
One more irresolution I want to comment on: whether there will or even can be a first ballot winner. Multiple candidates and the deferral of the votes of super-delegates do make it less likely, as basic arithmetic and every model shows. But candidates can release their delegates before the vote; they can team up on prospective tickets too; but more importantly, the primary process is not linear, many things can happen, and a clear winner has time and space to emerge. We will see. The only thing I do know is that we should not pre-judge results because the situation and voters’ behavior is unique to this year and to the need to defeat Donald Trump.