Uh, what if Buttigieg actually wins New Hampshire?

Uh, what if Buttigieg actually wins New Hampshire?

I’ve been blogging this race for a year and not until this afternoon did this scenario occur to me. It’s ludicrous, supposedly. Buttigieg was a one-trick pony, all-in on Iowa but far too young and inexperienced — and maybe, for some voters, too gay — to do much beyond that. A bounce from winning Iowa might help him to a respectable third-place finish in New Hampshire or Nevada but he’d be an afterthought by Super Tuesday. Bernie would win New Hampshire easily, just as he did four years ago. Biden would be the default centrist alternative to Bernie. Or, if Biden imploded, centrists would turn to Elizabeth Warren as an acceptable compromise between the left and the middle.

Buttigieg winning New Hampshire? Not a scenario worth considering.

It’s time to consider it. New from Monmouth:

As you can see, Monmouth had Buttigieg at 20 percent last month too, even leading the poll. It’s Bernie who’s the big gainer here, not Mayor Pete. But the RCP poll average in New Hampshire looked different at the time, making Monmouth’s data last month seem fluky. Here’s a snapshot of the polling average over the last 30 days of the race:

Buttigieg lost nearly five points between mid-January and last week, from 18.3 percent on January 10 to 13.7 percent on February 3, the day of the Iowa caucus. At no point has he been in second place — in the polling average. But things have changed this week. He’s finished second in all three of the polls of New Hampshire taken since Monday, with comfortable leads of seven and nine points over Biden in two of those polls. And the slim four-point gap between him and Sanders in today’s Monmouth poll is the smallest lead Bernie’s had over Buttigieg in New Hampshire since mid-January.

The race is very much in flux too, with just 49 percent of New Hampshire Dems saying they’re set on their choice. As the polls show Mayor Pete rising and Biden fading, how many reluctant Biden backers there will switch to Buttigieg as the centrist with the best chance of stopping Bernie? In fact, the only thing stopping Buttigieg right now appears to be Klobuchar’s continued presence in the race: According to Monmouth, if you remove her from the ballot it’s a 28/28 tie between Pete and Bernie, with Biden a distant third at 19 percent.

And bear in mind, there’s a debate tomorrow night at which Buttigieg, a sharp and poised pol, will get to show his stuff.

Is Iowa going to bounce Buttigieg right into an upset victory in Bernie’s backyard? What if it does?

Bernie wants to win, of course, but I think he’d accept another Pete upset victory as a valuable consolation prize. That’s because, for the moment, Buttigieg is something of a stalking horse for Sanders. Emphasis on “for the moment.”

Sanders’ campaign has always faced two key questions. First, could he consolidate the party’s left wing behind him, or would he and Sen. Elizabeth Warren undermine each other by splitting that vote? Second, even if Sanders could win the battle for the party’s progressives, would that be enough to overcome Joe Biden, who seemed to have a lock on moderate and minority voters?

Buttigieg has helped on both fronts by sapping support from both Warren and Biden, whom his backers consistently list as their second choice candidates…

In short, Buttigieg is helping to consolidate the left and split the moderates, creating ideal conditions for a Sanders win. Meanwhile, there’s still little sign the man from McKinsey has a real shot himself. Even with his recent success, he’s still polling at fifth nationally, now behind Bloomberg, and hasn’t shown a pulse with minority voters yet. If he does somehow manage to knock out Biden entirely, it might actually be counterproductive. According to Morning Consult, the most popular second choice among the ex-VP’s voters is Sanders, followed by Bloomberg and then Warren (this is your regular reminder that Americans don’t vote strictly based on ideology).

Klobuchar will be gone after New Hampshire and Biden and Warren will be on life support, all thanks to the surprising strength of Mayor Pete. We could have a three-way race on Super Tuesday between Bernie, Buttigieg, and Bloomberg (come collect your winnings if you had them as the last three standing as of last summer), with Biden probably insisting on hanging around for that vote even though Democratic establishmentarians will be terrified of him siphoning off votes from the probably more viable Butti and Bloomy. We’re perilously close here to an electoral crisis for the Democratic leadership in which they have to decide between a 38-year-old former mayor and a 78-year-old Wall Street plutocrat as the party’s last hope of defeating the socialist revolution. Whom do they choose between those two very flawed options?

Can they convince Bloomberg to pull the plug and back Buttigieg in the name of uniting against Bernie? Probably not. You don’t drop a few hundred million in Super Tuesday states just to stand aside for some wunderkind. Bloomberg’s a better-known pol and is the only candidate in the race who can not only compete with Bernie’s grassroots money machine but overwhelm.

They definitely can’t convince Buttigieg to stand aside for Bloomberg now that he’s on the brink of top-two finishes in each of the first two states. They may have to reconcile themselves to a sustained three-way race in which (a) none of the three snags a majority of delegates, thus triggering a contested convention, and (b) they’re forced to nominate Bernie anyway since he’s likely to win a plurality of the delegates. Total nightmare. On top of that, party reunification after a long bitter race might require a Sanders/Buttigieg ticket. The left, which loathes Mayor Pete, won’t like that. And party chieftains, who want something besides an all-white-guy ticket, won’t be thrilled. But maybe it’s unavoidable.

As for the scenario in the headline, Buttigieg winning New Hampshire outright, I’m not sure it does much to alter the three-way-race trajectory we’re on now except maybe to convince Democrats that Bernie’s not as strong as he’s cracked up to be. Maybe that leads to a big Pete bounce in Nevada, which suddenly also becomes a two-man race. Or maybe a weak Sanders plus an upstart Buttigieg leads lots of undecided Dems to opt for Bloomberg on Super Tuesday on the theory that he’s at least operating a campaign Death Star that can be used to obliterate Trump this fall. At the end of the day, most Democrats just want to take back the White House. If the race is a total hash next month and Bloomberg seems like the best bet to achieve that goal by dint of sheer wealth alone, maybe that’s how they break. Good luck stitching the party back together in time for Election Day if Bloomy’s billions end up snatching away Bernie’s momentum just when it seemed like he’d overcome all the obstacles to the nomination.

Here he is today after declaring victory in Iowa, eyeing Bloomberg in the distance.

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