Will tonight offer clarity or confusion?
MANCHESTER, N.H. — The traditional role of the early primary and caucus states is to winnow the field of presidential candidates and bestow national momentum on one or several finalists. It is far from clear that this will happen in New Hampshire — or anytime in February.
It is reasonably likely that the top two finishers in New Hampshire will be the same as in Iowa: Mr. Sanders and Mr. Buttigieg. And it is possible that one of them will win the state convincingly, or that both of them will far outdistance any runners-up and narrow the race to a small number of options.
But it is also entirely possible that New Hampshire will echo Iowa in another way, by producing such a divided result that it fails to bring the race into sharp focus. In Iowa, five candidates finished in the double digits and the top two each earned barely a quarter of the popular vote. That was hardly an emphatic outcome, and it remains to be seen whether New Hampshire voters will be more decisive.
Of course, the lack of an overwhelming preference is also a kind of preference — one that would reflect voters’ dissatisfaction with the longtime national front-runner, Mr. Biden, and uncertainty about their remaining options. For Democratic voters uncomfortable with Mr. Sanders, even a strong second-place finish for one of the other candidates could have an outsize national impact, if it signals to more moderate voters that someone else is their strongest remaining option.
Even then, there about 60 billion reasons that the race might remain in turmoil for a good while yet. If the early states are supposed to bring order to the race, it might be difficult for them to do that when Michael R. Bloomberg is bypassing them entirely with a self-funded campaign trained on Super Tuesday.
How bad is it for Biden?
For months, Mr. Biden’s campaign has sought to tamp down expectations about his prospects in New Hampshire, arguing that rivals like Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren have dramatic home-field advantages, given their status as neighboring-state Democrats.
But now, fresh off a disastrous fourth-place finish in Iowa, Mr. Biden is confronting the possibility of a fourth- or even fifth-place result in New Hampshire.
Despite a slate of prominent endorsements and widespread name recognition, there is the chance that Mr. Biden places behind relative newcomers from the Midwest, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Klobuchar.
Such a result would destroy the Biden camp’s efforts to claim the mantle as the moderate standard-bearer in the Democratic Party, threaten his fund-raising and make it difficult to generate enthusiasm headed into the next contest, Nevada.
Certainly, Mr. Biden could surprise here. And his campaign has already made its posture clear: Whatever the New Hampshire result, Mr. Biden is committed to testing his theory that he will do best in later-voting, more diverse states like South Carolina.
The question is what the state of his money and momentum will be coming out of New Hampshire on Tuesday.
Warren is looking for a jolt.
Ms. Warren had, not so long ago, dreamed of winning the New Hampshire primary and vaulting herself toward Super Tuesday with serious momentum.
No longer, at least if polls are to be believed.
The Massachusetts senator appears instead to be engaged in a three-way fight for third place with Mr. Biden and Ms. Klobuchar.
Ms. Warren, who finished third in Iowa behind Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Sanders, the same two men she trails in New Hampshire, has spent the week trying to float above the intensifying fray and projecting strength beyond the early states. “There are 55 more states and territories after this,” she said in Concord on Sunday. “It looks like it is going to be a long battle to the nomination. We have already built out offices and have on the ground troops in 30 states.”
She may have offices and troops, but Ms. Warren also needs money and political momentum, and a weak showing in New Hampshire could rob her of both.
Expectations are high for Sanders.
Mr. Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, is seeking the pole position in the Democratic primary race, after a strong finish in the flawed Iowa caucuses.
But recent polling shows him in a tight race in New Hampshire with Mr. Buttigieg, who also did very well in Iowa.
Anything short of a victory on Tuesday would be a significant disappointment for Mr. Sanders, who won the state’s primary in 2016 against Hillary Clinton with 60 percent of the vote. He probably needs a commanding win to propel him into the rest of the early states and Super Tuesday.
Just as he did in 2016, Mr. Sanders is targeting working-class voters and young people in the state. On Monday, he held a huge rally at the University of New Hampshire that featured a resounding speech from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and a musical performance by the Strokes.
But the dynamics are different from what they were last time he ran here. For one, he now has competition on the left from Ms. Warren, meaning he is no longer the only liberal in the race nor is he the only candidate from a neighboring state. He also faces some competition from two other outsider, anti-establishment candidates, Mr. Yang and Ms. Gabbard.
Another thing to watch: New Hampshire, which allows independent voters to participate in Democratic and Republican primaries, will be the first big test for Mr. Sanders’s gamble that he can attract independents.
How far can Buttigieg go?
A few weeks before Iowa’s caucuses, Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign was quietly letting it be known that if he didn’t have top-three finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he’d end his campaign before heading on to Nevada and South Carolina.
Now, after a virtual tie for first place in Iowa and New Hampshire polls showing him second to Mr. Sanders, the question for Mr. Buttigieg is how far can he go.
At this point, expectations for Mr. Buttigieg, 38, are as high as they’ve been. A top-two finish would cement his status as a leading candidate, thumping Mr. Biden, the establishment choice, twice in nine days. Third or worse, at this point, would be an extreme disappointment.
Mr. Buttigieg’s team knows the road is about to get much tougher. Nevada’s caucuses and South Carolina’s primary are dominated by Latino and black Democrats — groups that have been far less receptive to his message of handing the reins of government to a new generation.
His hope, expressed to reporters, donors and supporters over the last months, is that winning begets winning. He claimed victory in Iowa before any results were posted and turned that into momentum in New Hampshire. A win or a close-enough second place here could send him west with an argument that he’s the best, or perhaps the only, alternative to Mr. Sanders.
Klobuchar needs to capitalize on her upswing.
Few candidates have personally felt a 48-hour momentum swing quite like Ms. Klobuchar.
With capacity crowds all weekend, more than $3 million raised over the weekend and two polls showing a surge into third place, Ms. Klobuchar carries the confidence, and media scrums, of a candidate on the rise.
Of course, she still finished fifth in Iowa. And her millions raised over the weekend pour into a war chest far smaller than that of the top two candidates.
Her success in New Hampshire will hinge on whether her blunt appeal to moderates, independents and even Trump-regretting conservatives could patch together a coalition broad enough to compete with Mr. Biden, the one-time poll leader who has admitted that he has slipped in the Granite State, and Ms. Warren, who has also seen some precipitous falls in state polling.
For Ms. Klobuchar to have a good night, she’ll need a strong showing in the rural northern parts of the state and along the seacoast.
But while her moderate roots find a home in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, the map gets harder for Ms. Klobuchar in Nevada and South Carolina, and then later on Super Tuesday, with a heavy dose of the West, South and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of ads from Mr. Bloomberg.
Perhaps no candidate would have to scale as rapidly as Ms. Klobuchar after Tuesday’s primary, should she have a strong showing. But Ms. Klobuchar vowed on Monday to continue onward to Super Tuesday no matter what.
Sydney Ember, Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting from Manchester, N.H.
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