The View from the New Hampshire Losers Bracket

Forget Bernie and Mayor Pete. The real action in New Hampshire was all below the fold.
February 11, 2020
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(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Without diminishing the importance of Bernie’s back-to-back New Hampshire championships . . . or the unbelievable, unimaginable achievement of an openly gay, mid-town mayor sitting on the cusp of standing alone as the Bernie alternative, the New Hampshire result really didn’t change the battlespace for the two of them.

The real action on Tuesday was all below the fold.

There was the one-time frontrunner Joe Biden’s near extinction, plunging into the single-digits and now needing a win in South Carolina just to keep going. There was Elizabeth Warren—the candidate I thought as recently as Halloween was the frontrunner for the nomination—collapsing in her own backyard. And there was Amy Klobuchar picking up a ticket to ride, even if the train is a dead-end.

I’ve done the thing where you stand around a Manchester ballroom with a candidate looking up at the results and trying to evaluate your options going forward, so let’s talk about those three.

Amy Klobuchar’s Ticket To Ride

Eight years ago my campaign roommate Jake Suski and I were standing at the back corner of the Black Brimmer, a restaurant/music venue in Manchester, waiting for Jon Huntsman to take the stage. Earlier that day I had participated in a “walk-through” of the Brimmer, where Huntsman’s campaign manager and I discussed the particulars of the night’s speech with the advance team.

They had prepared a confetti cannon for the best possible outcome and were wondering how to know whether or not it was appropriate when the results eventually came in.

At that moment we felt the way that I suspect many Klobuchar staffers felt Tuesday night: Hopeful for the big surge, coming off a well-reviewed debate performance by our base in the D.C. media. On the strength of that boost the flinty Granite Staters had pushed us from fifth to knocking on the door of second, according to both public and internal polling.

Given the state of play I suggested to the advance guy that if we finished second, we should blast the confetti all the way to Boston and pretend we won. If it was third, we’d reconvene and maybe we’d pull the confetti trigger, depending what type of third it was.

So as Gov. Huntsman finished his third place victory speech—a third place that was very much a third, finishing a full 6 points behind the insufferable gadfly Ron Paul—I sipped on my bourbon and contemplated whether or not the campaign was even going to be around in the morning.

Nobody had mentioned the confetti and I figured that the advance staff, like me, recognized that this was simply a nice final week capping a campaign that never really had a chance. It was something to feel good about, sure. Be proud of, even! But not really confetti cannon material.

As the speech comes to a close, Huntsman declared that he had a “ticket to ride.” He turned to his family. And what was probably two beats later but felt like a full minute, I heard the cannon blast.

WTF.

Confetti.

I looked at Jake. We shrugged and shared a rueful laugh. So it was to be a third place victory after all. We decided what the hell and headed on over to the media corner for a final spin.

Less than a week later, Huntsman was out.

I started this piece trying to convince myself that Amy Klobuchar’s New Hampshire surge was different. That maybe she really does have that ticket to ride that we pretended we did.

And to be fair, her third place looks to be a little stronger than Huntsman’s. Yet, the vibe feels awfully familiar: It’s a third-place sugar high tonight that flows into the morning shows tomorrow and is followed by a return to reality on Thursday.

A reality where she has no real organization or money and there are other candidates with stronger bases of support, more financial resources, and greater ability to go the distance.


Warren’s Collapse 

Late last year, I was of the view that Elizabeth Warren was uniquely able to unite the Bernie and Biden tribes and positioned to win the nomination.

Wrong.

Warren’s loss in New Hampshire is a death knell. There is no other way to describe it.

She is the senator from neighboring Massachusetts. But this isn’t a normal neighboring-state situation. The Boston media market encompasses almost the entirety of New Hampshire. Granite Staters cheer for the Pats and the Sox. A big portion of the vote comes from Boston commuter towns in the southern part of the state, such as Nashua and Salem.

How did Warren do there?

Nashua—which is about a 50 minute drive from downtown Boston and 15 minutes from the Massachusetts border—gave Elizabeth Warren 8.7 percent of the vote.

Salem—which is 40 minutes due north of Boston on I-93—gave her 6.3 percent.

There is no spinning this. She might continue on. There will be pressure for her to do so. But tonight Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign ended.

The most interesting question is what she does when she drops out. She played footsie with Bernie Sanders throughout the entire race, always assuming that she needed to stay on the good side of his supporters. Will she outright endorse him now? Because it would be a very real risk for her to throw in with the guy who isn’t even an actual Democrat. If she did, it would force the hand of the anti-Bernies who are already running out of time to coalesce.

She could endorse Buttigieg, if she thinks he’s the future of the party. Or Klobuchar, to do a fellow senator a solid. Or, theoretically, Biden. (Though it’s impossible to see why she’d do that.) But the most likely path is waiting until the writing is already on the wall and hopping on the winning horse.


Biden’s Big Question

In 2016 I was back in Manchester—this time backstage at the community college where Jeb Bush was giving his fourth-place victory speech. (Pro Tip for campaign newbs: All election night speeches are victory speeches, unless they’re concession speeches).

Heading into the night it had already been decided. No matter the result, Jeb was poised to give defiant remarks and pledge to fight on. With South Carolina and the first campaign appearance from his brother looming in a state that had famously propelled W to the presidency in 1999, there was never a thought to making the Granite State the end of the road.

In hindsight, maybe there should have been.

For perspective, the campaign never really considered an alternate strategy. And I can’t speak for Jeb but I’m pretty certain he didn’t either. Even had he dropped out, the 7 percent of the vote he received in South Carolina would’ve barely dented Trump’s landslide Palmetto victory.

But it was clear that the writing was on the wall and that the primary was unspooling quicker than we had realized with Donald Trump poised to be the nominee.

Joe Biden faces a similar crossroads tonight, sitting in a position that is better than Jeb was in, but vanishingly so. His South Carolina gambit is premised on a base of support and a polling lead that Jeb didn’t have. So there is more reason for him to believe.

But Biden is poised to leave New Hampshire with about 3 percent of the vote less than Jeb got in 2016. And with nearly a third of the vote share already having coalesced around a single anti-Sanders candidate.

The flight to South Carolina will be one of psych-up talk. (Biden, incidentally, made that flight before the results even started to come in). The first spate of morning interviews and the raucous Wednesday rally will bring fresh hope.

But after that are 18 long days before South Carolina votes. And that span will be interrupted by a caucus in Nevada that is likely to bring yet another loss. These days will be filled with questions from the press about when you might drop out. Friends will call and text cautiously, softly asking whether you have considered your next move. Some expected endorsements will swing to the younger upstart. Eighteen long days.

My first boss once told me that boot camp and losing campaigns have one thing in common. You never realize how long a week can be until you live it one excruciating second at a time.

Biden has 1,555,200 of those seconds ahead of him. All with Bernie looking increasingly poised to solidify himself as the nominee. If he can survive them, he will need a victory to begin an unprecedented comeback.  And maybe Biden could reset the race if he endures and then, somehow, triumphs.

Are those seconds worth it?

Only a dog-faced pony soldier can answer.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is a contributor to The Bulwark and a communications consultant. He previously served as senior advisor to the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, communications director for Jeb Bush, and spokesman for the Republican National Committee.