After a chaotic and more-than-slightly embarrassing Iowa caucus, we’re now on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. We went from a reasonably clear picture of where the race stood before Iowa – Sanders and Biden clearly the top contenders – to what we have today, which is very far from what most people expected. If you put stock in political betting markets, the race to be the Democratic nominee is bordering on the absurd.
Bernie Sanders sitting at the top of the pile on PredictIt with an implied 46% chance of being the nominee isn’t beyond belief – sure, maybe it’s a bit high, but not absurdly so. But that’s just the beginning. Following Sanders isn’t Biden, as most would expect: it’s Michael Bloomberg, at 23%. Then we have Pete Buttigieg at 15%, and finally, the former vice president at 13%.
If Biden being less likely than both Buttigieg and Bloomberg to win the nomination sounds ridiculous to you, you’re not alone. Bloomberg’s seemingly-absurdly-high chances of winning might essentially boil down to a contested convention scenario. Considering that Bloomberg won’t even be competing until after Super Tuesday, by which point almost half the delegates will already be allotted, it’s nearly impossible to see him winning outright.
If I were to venture a guess, the bettors are imagining a scenario in which the race is so fractured that none of the candidates are able to achieve an outright majority by the time of the convention. In such a scenario, Bloomberg’s potential electability and the massive resources he has at his disposal will come into play and make him an attractive candidate to be picked at the Democratic convention.
Whether or not there’s a 23% chance of that happening isn’t obvious, but that scenario is at least more probable than there being a 23% chance of Bloomberg winning an outright majority of delegates.
Then we come to Pete Buttigieg, with a respectable 15% implied probability. Given how much Buttigieg outperformed his polls in Iowa, this assessment doesn’t seem absurd. Maybe there’s a significant demographic of likely Buttigieg voters who for whatever reason are not being captured by polling, which would mean Iowa was an indicator of Buttigieg continuing to outperform his polls. This isn’t unlike what happened with Trump and his supporters in 2016.
What Buttigieg must be hoping for is that Biden underperforms so massively that he drops out, hopefully before Sanders picks up enough steam to become the presumptive nominee. Buttigieg would then take up the mantle of “electable moderate.” (We’ll leave aside the utter absurdity of calling Pete Buttigieg, who is solidly left-wing on every single issue, a moderate.) It’s hard to see that happening before South Carolina. And even if Biden underperforms in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, Buttigieg still has at least one major issue: his abysmal lack of support in the black community.
How Buttigieg overcomes that is, at least for the time being, difficult to imagine. Thus, the 15%. That’s not nothing, and it’s absolutely conceivable that Buttigieg wins, but a 15% chance of winning is much lower than you would expect given the rhetoric of the media class around him. Buttigieg as a presidential candidate has been compared to Obama, but I would argue he’s more like Rubio: loved by the establishment and media analysts, but not exactly adored by the base.
That leaves us with Biden, who, if he wasn’t quite the presumptive nominee, was considered the front-runner for months and months. Now, bettors say he has a 13% chance of being the nominee. Is it ridiculous that the candidate who is leading in polls nationally is in 4th place in betting markets? Maybe, but remember: these people have money on the line. They are projecting forward into the future, considering how things such as fundraising, the order of state voting, and the ever-elusive “momentum” will factor into the race. What they’re probably considering is Biden’s underperformance of his polls in Iowa, likely underperformance of prior expectations in New Hampshire and Nevada, the closing polling gap in South Carolina, and Biden’s collapsing fund-raising. If all the elections were held today, Biden might very well win the plurality of delegates, but that’s not how the nomination process works. It’s probably safe to say at this point that the media’s assessment of Biden was too optimistic.
One of the most interesting things about this process has been the debates – in the sense that they’ve barely mattered. With perhaps the sole exception of Kamala Harris’ attack on Biden back in July, the debates have not produced major moves within the betting markets. This was true of the post-Iowa debate as well. The biggest story to come out of the debates has often been that they haven’t changed the story. That, of course, was not the case for Iowa. Iowa threw the pundit class into disarray. We’ll see if New Hampshire can do the same.