The Narrative Abides

Iowa and New Hampshire voters are changing the perception of the race.

On the morning of the Iowa Caucuses, I pointed out that the race for the Democratic nomination remained exactly as it was when it began: with Joe Biden in the lead and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren vying for second and third. With none of the other candidates having reached double digits in the national polling after umpteen debates and fourteen months of campaigning, I postulated that one of the three—and “probably Biden”—would win the nomination.

After Iowa, I contrasted this view with that of “the narrative.” That is, the media’s focus on Iowa and New Hampshire—wildly unrepresentative though they may be—as testing grounds proving the viability of candidates. While I have conceded that the narrative seems to be winning—Sanders and Pete Buttigieg got boosts from their showing in Iowa, even despite the messiness of the process, while Biden took a hit—I’ve argued that the whole thing is absurd. It’s not 1976 anymore and we’re saturated with minute-by-minute coverage rather than waiting to see what Walter Cronkite had to say.

Clearly, the narrative is winning.

Steven Taylor’s post-New Hampshire hot take of last evening is being echoed by the national media this morning. Sanders is seen as the prohibitive frontrunner after his strong second-place finish Iowa and win in New Hampshire. Buttigieg is now seen as highly viable after winning Iowa and finishing a strong second in New Hampshire. Amy Klobuchar, who had been an afterthought, has new life after a mere third-place finish in the Granite State. Biden is seen is in a death spiral, needing a win in South Carolina to have any chance at all. And nobody is talking about Warren at all.

And, even though he joined the race too late to qualify for either of those contests, Mike Bloomberg is suddenly seen as a viable contender for the role of non-Sanders centrist.

The whole thing seems farcical to me. The delegates awarded thus far amount to a rounding error in the nominating process. And Iowa and New Hampshire are tiny, insular, and lily-white. Why their votes would have any impact on my estimation of Biden or Warren, both of whom have the resources to go the distance, is beyond me. (I get why an Andrew Yang would drop out and why those who prefer other marginal candidates would finally give up and choose from among those with a chance.)

But, of course, I’m a wildly atypical voter. While I still don’t have a strong preference between Biden and Buttigieg, I’ve been paying a lot more attention than most for a lot longer. Rather clearly, a lot of Biden’s “support” thus far has been a function of name recognition and affection for the Uncle Joe of the Obama years. And, apparently, some significant number of even the sort of person who goes out into the cold Iowa winter to caucus are just now figuring out the Buttigieg is gay.

That all said, we shouldn’t over-react to Iowa and New Hampshire. While it’s true that showing poorly in both of them has historically been a bad sign, we’ve never had this many well-financed candidates.

And there is precedent—think John Kerry in 2004, John McCain in 2008, and even Mitt Romney in 2016—of candidates who were early favorites, became perceived as also-rans, and ultimately won the nomination. (Of course, all three went on to lose in the general.)

Sanders is now the frontrunner, both in media perception and in the national polls. But I’m not persuaded that he’s nominateable. Even aside from calculations over “electability,” I just think he’s too cranky and unlikable to maintain plurality support when we start getting outside sleepy hamlets.

I still think Warren, in particular, shouldn’t be counted out. She’s just too energetic, well-organized, and well-funded to give up any time soon.

I’m more worried about Biden than I was a week ago. Not so much because of his thin support in two unrepresentative states but because his reaction thus far seems to be of a man defeated. There was always concern as to whether he was too old and lacked the fire in the belly for the long haul. There’s more reason to wonder that now.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. SC_Birdflyte says:

    I think any predictions before Super Tuesday are even more perilous than usual. Bloomberg hasn’t been tested in any primaries yet, but if he makes a strong showing then, he becomes a candidate worth serious close consideration. How about a Bloomberg-Klobuchar ticket?

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    I’ll quote myself from Steven’s earlier post

    A few things. Turnout has been reported to be typical for a NH primary, which brings into question Bernie’s claim that he is the candidate that will bring new voters and after a primary and a caucus, Bernie is is mired in the mid-20% range. Given that Warren had earlier polled near 20% the erosion of her popularity did not flow to Bernie.

    Time for Biden, Steyer, Gabbard to drop out. I’d add Warren, given this dismal showing in a neighboring state, but she had a 3rd in Iowa. Hell, Warren should drop out as well.

    You maybe correct about a Warren comeback, but I’ll note that she has lost much of her press coverage and what she is getting is of the what happened to her campaign variety, which often is taken as a deathknell by voters.

  3. Jen says:

    I’ve felt that Biden seemed listless from the get-go. He did very little in NH, and his support while a mile wide is about an inch thick. People are ready to abandon him, and he’s not giving them any reasons not to. I have a number of Republican-leaning independent friends who would have been ideal Biden voters–they all went Klobuchar yesterday.

    Biden just doesn’t seem to care, it’s like someone talked him into doing this suggesting it would be a cake walk and pointing to a few of the national polls. If you’re in early states and give off an air of IDGAF, this is what happens.

  4. mattbernius says:

    Sigh. What the last four years have demonstrated is that, with both parties, our reliance on norms and traditions is leading to disaster.

    And Iowa and New Hampshire are tiny, insular, and lily-white.

    Not to mention, one runs an incredibly exclusionary and anti-democratic (small “D”) nominating process.

    Given that the election will come down to a handful of key swing states, why are they going so relatively late in the process. Likewise everyone keeps repeating that Iowa and New Hampshire in no way resemble the necessary plurality of votes that the Democratic party relies on to win elections.

    But the party’s reliance on traditions and norms (not to mention not offending small pools of white folks) mean that we’re not letting the most important parts of the party (and frankly states) led the selection/winnowing process.

    And for as much as we say that this will change things in 2024, I just don’t see that happening.

  5. KM says:

    @Jen :
    Biden seems to have been promised a fairly easy win in the primaries and that Trump would be his big problem. He and his campaign seem honestly confused as to why people aren’t just falling in line for him and their initial attitudes were problematic at best. We give BernieBros crap for their behavior but Pro-Joes could be just as bad – essentially telling people they needed to shut up and accept him or Trump would win. Dems need to accept *the eventual candidate* in order to defeat Trump but it was waaaayyyy too early to be busting that out specifically for him.

    I like Joe but feel there’s better choices. If it ends up him, so be it. If he ends up as VP again, so be it. The idea of him being the front-runner was solely based on name-recognition and nostalgia – he wants to stay in the running, man’s gotta earn it the hard way but he doesn’t seem to have the heart…..

  6. Joe says:

    @SC_Birdflyte: I had your same thought, phrase by phrase this morning.

  7. charon says:


    Biden’s remark about the “dog-faced pony soldier” was a line he has used before. This sort of reprisal of past bon mots can be a symptom of senile dementia, and people have already been noticing he does not seem all that sharp cognitively. Maybe it is just “normal aging” but he really is not inspiring confidence by his affect.

    Also, calling a voter with a question a liar is pretty poor judgment, another sign that maybe he is kind of losing it.

    He really is a no-hoper in a “death-spiral”, it would help the party find a candidate for him to drop out.

  8. An Interested Party says:

    Hopefully the narrative does not abide, as it seems to be forming into a Bernie vs. Bloomberg fight for the nomination…I’m sure the deranged Orange Menace would be quite pleased if that’s how the race goes…

  9. Scott F. says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Warren’s showing in NH is disheartening, but she’ll stay in through Super Tuesday and then we will see.

    Warren’s still the candidate with the clearest anti-corruption message which works as anti-Trump, but also works as anti-McConnell, anti-Barr, and anti-GOP enabler. Trump seems to have taken his Senate acquittal as permission to let his natural bullying, corrosive, criminal self out to play. If Barr keeps backing POTUS up with blatant abuse like the Stone sentencing reversal and Republicans remain in sycophant mode, I’ve got to figure there’s a body of voters who want to see an end to the lawlessness.

  10. Mr. Prosser says:

    @SC_Birdflyte: @Joe: Me too. I can’t see any of the present NH group winning in November

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    At the very least Biden should have heard that coming out of his own mouth, recognized that it was so obscure it required explanation, and proceeded to do so. Anyone can say something stupid, that’s what editing is for. Biden didn’t recognize he needed to edit that phrase.

  12. Gustopher says:

    The candidate that can win the general election is the one that can change the narrative. So far, that’s not Biden.

    Whoever we run is going to be called a lot of awful things by the right. And they will need to manage the media. I’ve been hoping Warren learned from the Pocahontas adventure, but if she’s not catching on, it doesn’t matter — not counting her out yet, but she’s going to have to start doing better.

    But they all have special challenges.

    Perhaps Klobuchar will surprise people by learning how to take advantage of earned media, and her lack of money will be less of a problem. Turn on a little bit of that Minnesota Nice, throw a stapler at Donald Trump, whatever.

    Perhaps Mayor Pete will get a black supporter.

    Perhaps Bloomberg will start buying up properties that Trump leased his name to (a lot of Trump hotels aren’t owned by Trump) and then tear down Trump’s name.

    I’m not ready to be all doom and gloom for Democrats’ chances this cycle. But Biden has loser-stink in large part because he cannot set the narrative, and setting the narrative is the one skill we need.

  13. Gustopher says:


    This sort of reprisal of past bon mots can be a symptom of senile dementia, and people have already been noticing he does not seem all that sharp cognitively. Maybe it is just “normal aging” but he really is not inspiring confidence by his affect.

    Oh for fucks sake, you think everyone has dementia.

    People have favorite phrases that get trotted out. It means nothing more than he’s been watching John Wayne movies lately*. It’s not a sign of mental decline.

    The man is old, and he tires easily**. That’s all.

    *: That may be itself disqualifying.
    **: This may also be disqualifying.

  14. CSK says:

    Buttigieg has in fact picked up an endorsement from an African-American state legislator in So. Carolina, JA Moore.

  15. Michael Cain says:

    Super Tuesday may be interesting. I live in Colorado, which has just about as many delegates as IA and NH combined. We’re a vote-by-mail state. My ballot will be in my hand by the end of the week. Last day to return them is March 3, three days after the SC primary, but many people won’t wait. So far, advertising has been a whole lot of Bloomberg (since just after Thanksgiving!) and a dash of Steyer. Given that VA/NC, TX, and CA are all voting March 3, we probably won’t be seeing any personal appearances by candidates here.

    California runs about 75% mail-in ballots for primaries and their ballots went out last week. I’m glad I’m not the campaign managers deciding whether they need to spend their time and money in SC or CA.

    Can an essentially unlimited budget for TV ads buy delegates?

  16. Gustopher says:

    @CSK: I suspect that you are using some sort of hyperbole for dramatic effect…

    Does South Carolina even have a legislature?

  17. DrDaveT says:


    The man is old, and he tires easily**. That’s all.

    Sorry, I disagree. I am very sensitive to this particular issue for personal reasons at the moment, and Biden trips all of my alarms every time I see him speak for more than a couple of sentences.

  18. CSK says:

    Why don’t you check with That was where I got the information about Moore, from a story by Meg Kinnard of the Associated Press.

  19. Jen says:

    @Michael Cain:

    Can an essentially unlimited budget for TV ads buy delegates?

    I’m curious about how this will play out. It didn’t do Steyer any favors in NH–he saturated the airwaves here and was way down the list in votes. One of my first jobs in politics was as the media runner–I would go to all of the TV stations in the market I was working in and take note of all of the ad buys (this is all public record and open). It’s probably automated or digital in some way now. At any rate, I’d go and collect all of that info (I think it was weekly), and then the campaign would plug all of that info in, and we could compare the different ad buys in market and test different ads and see how they would end up being received by polling.

    Things are MUCH different now. You don’t have that somewhat fixed TV market–I was able to almost totally avoid political advertising in NH by getting my news from BBC America/PBS, and NHPR, and watching Netflix, Amazon Prime, or shows I DVR’d and could fast-forward through commercials.

    My hunch/guess is that digital advertising is possibly slightly more effective with certain age brackets, while TV might still hold some water with the older crowds. For total cord-cutters, I’d think digital only.

  20. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Scott F.:

    As I wrote Monday, I initially supported Warren, backed away and returned again, before finally deciding that she couldn’t win. It was her issues, including corruption that attracted me, but she can’t sell a very good package.

    BTW I indeed did change my vote moving from Pete to Amy Tuesday AM.

  21. Scott F. says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Warren’s issues will still get my vote on Super Tuesday when I vote in the California primary. (Which is finally early enough in the calendar that my vote could still matter.)

    … she can’t sell a very good package.

    I don’t disagree, but I think her failing has been more about an unwillingness to strongly differentiate herself from her rivals in the primary so far, by not hitting Sanders and only really pointing to big money influence. Charlie Pierce writes about Warren opening her NH post-primary speech with a shout out to Klobuchar’s success and he saw that as “…both a tribute to her innate decency and a window into why her campaign seems stuck in the mud. I don’t know who is advising her, but this strategy of refusing to take the fight to the opposition right in front of her is not working. I think CP has that about right.