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.
Despite disappointing polls and fading momentum, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are both hoping to revive their campaigns with a strong finish in New Hampshire. In a sign Mr Biden may be conceding a disappointing showing, however, his campaign announced he would travel to South Carolina rather than hold a traditional election night rally in the Granite State after the polls close.
Mr Biden’s announcement could prove a fillip for Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator. Ms Klobuchar finished closely behind Mr Biden in last week’s Iowa caucuses and is 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 cast 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.
Ms Warren was out early on Tuesday at a polling site in the seaside town of Portsmouth, providing doughnuts for supporters at a local school. “Overall, I believe that we ought to try to get as much good to as many people as quickly as we can,” she told reporters.
Mr Buttigieg was also out before dawn in New Hampshire’s largest city, Manchester. “It feels good out here,” he told supporters.
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, the Massachusetts senator, and Mr Biden, the former US vice-president, 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, from neighbouring Massachusetts, 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.
For most of 2019, Mr Biden had been seen as the Democratic frontrunner, but his disappointing finish in Iowa and expectations for the same in New Hampshire have called into question whether he stands any chance of securing his party’s nomination.
On Monday, Mr Biden sought to downplay expectations for New Hampshire, telling ABC News: “I think it’s always going to be an uphill fight.”
Mr Biden and his campaign have said they are focused on South Carolina, where the second primary contest will be held at the end of this month. Most Democratic primary voters there are expected to be African-American.
A national Quinnipiac poll published on Monday found that Mr Biden’s support among black voters had fallen from 49 per cent before the Iowa caucuses to 27 per cent this week.