After months of candidate visits to town halls, diners, and individual voters’ backyards and living rooms, New Hampshire Democrats head to the polls Tuesday—and will determine almost nothing.
To help understand why, here’s a brief primer on the Democratic race post-New Hampshire:
What’s exactly at stake in the New Hampshire primary?
The primary results will be used this summer to award 24 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, which will choose the party’s presidential nominee. Iowa, which held caucuses last week, chose 44 delegates. For perspective: Winning the nomination requires 2,382 delegates, out of 4,763 available. So these two contests will determine 1.4 percent of the delegates needed to secure the nomination.
That’s it? Then why all the attention on Iowa and New Hampshire?
The states’ defenders argue that making the candidates spend lots of time in front of engaged voters serves as a useful first screen. And, indeed, voters in later states often look to these results when making up their own minds. A candidate who winds up winning the early contests often becomes the consensus choice relatively quickly.
So why won’t that happen in 2016?
It could—but typically a consensus emerges when the leading candidate creates a sense of inevitability, which dries up money flowing to the remaining candidates, prompting them to drop out. The front-runner in this case, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, won’t be able to stop the flow of contributions to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign because so little money is coming from the usual stable of Democratic Party donors. Rather, Sanders has been able to tap into an enormous pool of small donors who gave him $73 million through the end of December, with $28 million in the bank as of Jan. 1. (Clinton raised $110 million in 2015, and had $38 million to start 2016.) In other words: There is no financial reason for Sanders not to keep campaigning through the coming weeks and months.
But doesn’t the calendar start to favor Clinton after New Hampshire?
Sanders has been able to build a devoted following with his simple message that the political system has been corrupted by big money. His weakness, though, is among nonwhite voters—who happen to make up a large percentage of the Democratic primary electorate. Most of the states that come after New Hampshire have significant black, Latino, and other minority voting populations.
Does this mean Clinton will lock up the needed delegates in the March contests?
She could start building a substantial lead, but the party’s delegate rules will make that a slow process so long as Sanders can win a reasonable share of the vote in each state. Democratic delegates are awarded by congressional district and by the statewide winner—but in both cases the delegates are allocated in proportion to the vote share. Even if Clinton started winning 60 percent of the available delegates in the coming six weeks, she would have won fewer than 1,400 delegates through the end of March.
Meaning this could go on through April?
Possibly, particularly if Sanders can do better than 40 percent in the coming states. In either case, Sanders is also up against Clinton’s overwhelming advantage among the Democratic Party’s 700 so-called “super delegates”—members of Congress, governors, and Democratic National Committee members, whose votes are not based on the result of any primary or caucus, but rather their own discretion. Currently, according to the Associated Press, Clinton has a 362-8 lead over Sanders.
And it is that advantage, according to Josh Putnam, a University of Georgia political scientist who maintains the popular Frontloading HQ website, that ultimately might wind things down in Clinton’s favor. In fact, by late March, half of the delegates up for grabs in primaries and caucuses will have been allocated. And if Clinton has a lead among those, her large super-delegate lead will make it mathematically difficult for Sanders to come back.