28 Scenarios For What Things Could Look Like After New Hampshire

Manchester, N.H. — After an extremely confusing week in the Democratic presidential primary, I have some bad news: New Hampshire might not resolve as much as you think.

Manchester, N.H. — After an extremely confusing week in the Democratic presidential primary, I have some bad news: New Hampshire might not resolve as much as you think.

That’s for two reasons. First, our study of past primaries finds that the bounces that result from New Hampshire are only about half as large as the ones that come out of Iowa. The bounces from Nevada and South Carolina tend to be even smaller. Instead, it’s an event like Super Tuesday that has the potential to produce a big bounce. Our research finds that the symbolic importance of early-state victories diminishes as the race goes on, and the actual number of delegates at stake matters more, with the media giving more attention to contests in high-population, delegate-rich states like California and Texas, which both vote on Super Tuesday. New Hampshire is still getting quite a lot of press coverage, obviously, but it also has just 24 delegates.

The second reason is that the leader in New Hampshire polls, Sen. Bernie Sanders, may not see his overall position fundamentally change by whatever happens tonight — barring an extremely unlikely outcome like finishing in fourth place.

On the one hand, a New Hampshire win is largely priced in to Sanders’s numbers. Since our forecast has Sanders winning New Hampshire about 2 out of 3 times, his current chances of winning a majority of pledged delegates nationwide ( 46 percent) already account for his probable win in New Hampshire. Furthermore, our model — which attempts to simulate how voters and the media will frame the outcome in New Hampshire — assumes the magnitude of a candidate’s bounce depends on “expectations.” (This is defined as national polls adjusted for regional factors.) And since Sanders has become the national polling front-runner — and New Hampshire neighbors his home state of Vermont — a win here is largely expected for him.



On the other hand, the primary field is such a mess that a loss here would probably be survivable for Sanders, especially if it is the second-place candidate in New Hampshire polls — former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — who ultimately wins. Buttigieg, even after Iowa, is still only at around 10 percent in national polls and has a lot of work to do to appeal to the more diverse electorates in Nevada and South Carolina. Buttigieg would certainly become a major contender for the nomination if he won New Hampshire, although it would still be a wide-open process, with Sanders and other candidates having a pretty decent shot.

Let’s look at some numbers from our model … and then I’ll go ahead and add a major caveat to everything that I said above.

First, here’s a list of scenarios based on the winner and his or her margin of victory. I’m only listing scenarios if they occurred at least 100 times in 10,000 simulations (or 1 percent of the time), which means this chart only includes scenarios that involve Sanders or Buttigieg winning. (Collectively, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar have about a 2 percent chance of winning New Hampshire — stranger things have happened! — but no one scenario involving them came up more than 100 times.)

How New Hampshire could affect nomination odds, Part I

Based on winner and margin of victory, according to FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast

chance of winning the majority of delegates overall
Winner
NH Margin
Biden
Sanders
Warren
Buttigieg
Other
None
Sanderslarge12%57%4%1%2%24%
Sandersmedium135342225
Sandersnarrow154852227
Buttigieglarge1331518429
Buttigiegmedium1634511332
Buttigiegnarrow1533510433

Specifically, we’re defining a “narrow” win as anything less than 4 percentage points over the second-place candidate, a “medium” win as 4 to 12 percentage points, and a “large” win as more than 12 percentage points. Scenarios are only listed if they had at least a 1 percent chance of occurring.

A narrow Sanders win (specifically, by 4 percentage points or less) would basically preserve the status quo; he’d go from a 46 percent chance of winning a majority of pledged delegates to a 48 percent chance. Bigger Sanders wins would improve his position, perhaps making him more likely than not to win a majority of pledged delegates. In a landslide win (more than 12 percentage points), for instance, he’d have a 57 percent chance of getting that majority.

A Buttigieg win, on the other hand, would cut Sanders’s chances of winning a majority of pledged delegates down to about 1 in 3. That’s not great for Sanders, although it’s hardly a disaster; the bigger dangers to Sanders have always been a loss to Biden (who could leap back ahead of him in national polls) or Warren (who could overtake him in the progressive “lane”).

And if we flip the race and look at things from Buttigieg’s perspective rather than Sanders’s, New Hampshire matters quite a bit more. A loss here would put him on the ropes, with other candidates (Biden, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Klobuchar or Warren) having a claim to being the most viable rival to Sanders, especially as they are polling better than Buttigieg in upcoming states. And even with a win here, Buttigieg would need a fairly big bounce to become the national front-runner — bigger than the one he got for sort of halfway winning Iowa. A big, emphatic win could do a lot more for him than a narrow one.

However, a Buttigieg win in New Hampshire would also increase the likelihood of no one winning a majority of pledged delegates and possibly producing a contested convention. So if you’re rooting for chaos, the scenario you should probably be rooting for is a narrow Buttigieg win, one that would weaken Sanders but that wouldn’t necessarily be enough to establish Buttigieg as Sanders’s sole rival to the nomination.

As for Biden, there just isn’t a great scenario for him either way. Sanders is stronger overall, but Buttigieg is more in Biden’s lane. Warren would probably slightly prefer Buttigieg winning, although the difference is not as large as I would have thought. Keep in mind that there’s also a fair amount of overlap between Buttigieg and Warren voters, in that both candidates primarily rely on college-educated Democrats.

We can examine more detailed scenarios, but they don’t necessarily reveal all that much. Here’s a table that accounts for the second-place finisher in the race in addition to the winner’s victory margin.

How New Hampshire could affect nomination odds, Part II

Based on winner, margin of victory and second-place candidate, according to FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast

chance of winning the majority of delegates overall
winner
NH margin
2nd
BID.
SAN.
WAR.
BUT.
Other
None
SanderslargeBiden13%57%4%0%3%23%
SanderslargeButtigieg125641224
SanderslargeWarren115943222
SandersmediumBiden164743228
SandersmediumButtigieg135342225
SandersmediumKlobuchar135523324
SandersmediumWarren115361326
SandersnarrowButtigieg144952227
SandersnarrowWarren1641101329
ButtigieglargeSanders1331616529
ButtigiegmediumSanders1634411332
ButtigiegnarrowSanders1534510433

Specifically, we’re defining a “narrow” win as anything less than 4 percentage points over the second-place candidate, a “medium” win as 4 to 12 percentage points, and a “large” win as more than 12 percentage points. Scenarios are only listed if they had at least a 1 percent chance of occurring.

Based on our research, the order of finish beyond first doesn’t actually matter very much — unless the race is so close that the outcome is ambiguous (as it is in Iowa). However, the share of the vote a candidate gets does matter, and candidates get a higher vote share on average when they finish in second place. So Warren could considerably help her chances by beating her polls and finishing second, for instance.

Finally, here’s a table showing the post-New Hampshire odds based on the order of the top three finishers. Again, you don’t see big differences here based on who finishes in second and third:

How New Hampshire could affect nomination odds, Part III

Based on winner, second and third place candidate, according to FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast

chance of winning the majority of delegates overall
winner
2nd
3rd
BID.
SAN.
WAR.
BUT.
Other
None
SandersButtigiegBiden14%52%4%2%3%25%
SandersButtigiegKlobuchar135352226
SandersButtigiegWarren125352226
SandersBidenButtigieg164942325
SandersKlobucharButtigieg125544321
SandersWarrenButtigieg115362226
ButtigiegSandersBiden1933411331
ButtigiegSandersKlobuchar1136612333
ButtigiegSandersWarren1434611432
ButtigiegWarrenSanders1630714033

Specifically, we’re defining a “narrow” win as anything less than 4 percentage points over the second-place candidate, a “medium” win as 4 to 12 percentage points, and a “large” win as more than 12 percentage points. Scenarios are only listed if they had at least a 1 percent chance of occurring.

But here comes that big, gaping caveat that I mentioned before: The media often comes up with inconsistent and even arbitrary framings regardless of the results. It’s largely the media’s reaction that dictates the bounce in early states, where there are few actual delegates at stake. And the media seems to care quite a bit about who finishes third in New Hampshire. Does that mean the media doesn’t take Sanders and Buttigieg as seriously as it should? Well, probably, yeah!

Nonetheless, the buzz among media elites and campaign professionals regarding Biden, Warren and Klobuchar could vary a lot based on the exact order of their finish, and that could affect the outcome in a number of ways in subsequent states, more so than our model assumes. Keep in mind that our model is just making a fairly crude educated guess about these scenarios. The only way to know for sure about how big the bounce will be is to wait for the polls, and the model will rapidly adjust once post-New Hampshire polls are published.


Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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