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Jonathan Bernstein

Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, is annoyed by what he sees as misleading coverage of the Democratic nomination race, especially claims that former Vice President Joe Biden is less popular in the “early states.” In fact, Silver finds, the combined polling in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — the first four states to vote next year — is an almost perfect match for national polls at this point.

OK. But looking at the combined polling of the first four states just doesn’t make much sense — and threatens to give a misleading picture of the broader race.

For one thing, combining those states introduces the same flaw that national polls suffer from. Silver looks at the nine candidates who had at that point qualified for the November debate. According to his calculations, they combine for about 84% of the vote in the early states and 86% of the later vote. The problem is that, by the time South Carolina votes, it’s likely that five or fewer of these candidates will combine for more than 90% of the total. Winnowing works; the losers will drop out, and later voters will choose from a different set of candidates. So there’s not going to be a stable field for the first four states to look at.

But the larger point is back to momentum. If this contest is already well defined — and winning in one state won’t really affect subsequent states — then there’s no real reason to give special attention to the first four states or even to Iowa. If Biden runs badly in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary but no other candidate gathers momentum, then he’s going to eventually match his national polling, and the only real question is what happens to the 15% to 25% currently allocated to go-nowhere candidates. In that scenario, we should only be looking at the national polls.

If the contest is fluid, however, all kinds of changes are possible — and they could happen quickly. It’s not just that someone could rapidly surge in the polls. It’s that we still don’t know which groups will gravitate toward which candidates. That applies especially to the lesser-known contenders. If South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg wins the Iowa caucuses and finishes second in New Hampshire, for example, he’d likely try for the Latino and union vote in Nevada and then the black vote in South Carolina. But how that will go is anyone’s guess at this point. It would depend on which candidates are still running, which party actors and interest groups move to support or oppose him, how he handles the spotlight, how he reaches out to various new-to-him communities, and more.

This isn’t to say that the outcome will be random. Party actors are already trying to boost some candidates (Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren), ignoring others (Sen. Michael Bennet, former Rep. John Delaney), and opposing others (Rep. Tulsi Gabbard). As we get closer to Iowa, they may well settle on one candidate and flood the zone with positive messages about him or her. Or, as was the case in 2008, they might settle on two candidates, more or less equally balanced in party support. At that point, things will become a lot more predictable.

But I see little evidence that we’re at that point yet, and lots of signs that we’re still far from it. What that means is that Iowa and New Hampshire — and the reaction to what happens in both states — may still reorganize things entirely.

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Contact Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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