The Iowa caucuses bat leadoff, in early February. Sanders came very close to winning them in 2016 (reports differed about whether coin flips in tied precincts made the difference). Today, he’s in second place in the RealClearPolitics average, a few points behind Pete Buttigieg. Moreover, he does have some momentum (though it’s not as impressive as Buttigieg’s): He’s up seven points in the RCP polling average since late September. In addition, the Hawkeye caucuses are often fertile ground for overperformances by candidates running outsider campaigns that appeal to younger voters; this is what led Barack Obama (in 2008) and Sanders (in 2016) to late surges. I wouldn’t call the Vermont lawmaker the favorite – again, in this field no one is – but overall, he is well-positioned here.
The next race is New Hampshire a week later. This is a somewhat natural fit for Sanders, who hails from a neighboring state. Sanders blew the roof off here in 2016, winning by over 20 points. His lead today is not as impressive – just 1.3 points – but he is nevertheless ahead, and blowouts are going to be hard to come by in a 15-person field.
At this point, things become difficult to game out, because the sequential nature of the races begins to come into play. By mid-February most of the field will have dropped out, and where their share of the electorate goes will likely prove crucial.