As Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg aim to catapult to the top of the Democratic presidential race with a win in New Hampshire, a sharp-elbowed battle has broken out for third place among candidates trying to keep their campaigns from cratering after the polls close on Tuesday night.
Amid signs of fading momentum, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren had been hoping to revive their campaigns with a strong finish in New Hampshire. But even before the polls had closed, both showed signs they were giving up on the Granite State turning their candidacies around.
In a clear indication the Biden campaign is expecting a disappointing showing, the former vice-president announced he would travel to South Carolina rather than hold a traditional election night rally in New Hampshire after the polls close. Mr Biden is hoping South Carolina, with its large African-American voting bloc, will halt his slide in its February 29 primary.
At the same time, one of Ms Warren’s campaign strategists released a memo insisting “no candidate that has yet shown the ability to consolidate support”, and noting that 98 per cent of delegates to the Democratic convention would still be uncommitted after New Hampshire votes.
The Warren memo, by campaign manager Roger Lau, highlighted the weaknesses of the Massachusetts senator’s rival Democrats in the contests following New Hampshire — an indication her team expects to finish well behind Mr Sanders and Mr Buttigieg, despite her hailing from a neighbouring state.
The struggles of the Biden and Warren campaigns could prove a fillip for Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator. Ms Klobuchar finished closely behind Mr Biden in last week’s Iowa caucuses and was hoping to capitalise on a swell of support following a strong debate performance last week and a slew of newspaper endorsements to become the standard-bearer for the party’s moderates.
A handful of ballots have already been counted in New Hampshire, just after the stroke of midnight on Tuesday. In the tiny community of Dixville Notch, traditionally the first in the state to vote, Michael Bloomberg — the former New York City mayor who made a late entry into the Democratic primary and does not appear on Tuesday’s ballot — won with three write-in votes. Mr Buttigieg and Mr Sanders each collected a vote apiece.
Ms Klobuchar also got an early boost on Tuesday, having come out on top in two other tiny early-voting communities with a total of eight votes. “We’re off to a great start in New Hampshire today!” she tweeted.
Going into Tuesday’s voting, opinion polls show Mr Sanders leading in the state, which neighbours his home state of Vermont. Four years ago, he won a decisive 22-point primary victory against Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Democratic primary.
While Mr Sanders is expected to garner fewer votes this time round, a Boston Globe/WBZ-TV/Suffolk University poll of likely primary voters conducted at the weekend showed him in front, with 27 per cent support, followed by 19 per cent for Mr Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Ms Klobuchar on 14 per cent.
Ms Warren and Mr Biden were tied in fourth place with 12 per cent apiece. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, and more than a third of respondents said they “might change their mind” before Tuesday’s primary.
A third-place finish for Ms Klobuchar, who has seen her support grow in the run-up to both Iowa and New Hampshire contests, could catapult her into the top tier of candidates as moderate Democrats scramble for support from voters who had been backing the Biden campaign, which has been quickly losing ground in the state.
At the same time, a finish below third place for Ms Warren or Mr Biden could make it exceedingly difficult for either to recapture momentum heading into the contests in Nevada and South Carolina this month.
As candidates criss-crossed the state — with a population of 1.3m — on Monday in a last-ditch attempt to win support, many voters said they were still considering who to back. One woman at a town hall with Ms Warren in Rochester, New Hampshire, said she “might have to toss a coin” to decide between voting for the 70-year-old Massachusetts senator or Ms Klobuchar.
Ms Klobuchar, 59, has used her campaign stops to make a direct pitch to New Hampshire’s independent voters. She has portrayed herself a more moderate option to Mr Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, and a more experienced alternative to 38-year old Mr Buttigieg, who has no elected experience in Washington.
Independents make up the largest voting bloc in New Hampshire, accounting for about 42 per cent of eligible voters. Because the state runs an “open” primary, both Democrats and independents are eligible to participate in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
Mr Buttigieg has similarly appealed to independents, as he seeks to capitalise on his narrow first-place finish in Iowa and fend off attacks from Mr Sanders and Mr Biden.