Here’s Where the New Hampshire Primary Stands as of Today & What to Watch for Tonight
If We Believe in Science & Evolution, We Learn a lot About Human Behavior by Studying the Natural World
By Al Giordano
“The highest-ranking chimpanzee in a group is the alpha-male. These males climb their way to the top of the chimpanzee hierarchy, and the ways they choose to do so can differ with the personality of the individual leader. Take two of the alpha males observed in Gombe, Frodo and Freud, for instance. Though they were brothers, each chimp had a very different leadership style. While Freud maintained control through fostering strong alliances and grooming those he wanted to keep under his command, Frodo relied heavily on aggression and brute strength. In addition to perks like mating rights, and duties like patrolling territory and breaking up fights, an alpha male always needs to be watching for the next chimp who will try to take his place.”
- The Jane Goodall Institute
Before we start, let me clarify that by using a metaphor to describe the current dynamics between Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttegieg in the Democratic primaries – one that references the behavior of the human race’s ancestors – I am not calling anyone a chimpanzee or a baboon. Nor am I projecting – not at all – that Democrats are going to nominate an aspiring “alpha male” to take on Donald Trump, who while he spent yesterday morning flinging his own feces at the nation during a prayer breakfast, is not worthy of a comparison with our noble simian ancestors.
Still, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, if we believe in science, contains clues for understanding certain non-rational habits of human behavior, the very kinds of behaviors that perplex and often bother us about how voters behave in the United States and elsewhere. If you’ve ever watched a battle for leadership of a simian troop on Animal Planet or the Discovery or Smithsonian Channels, you probably know where I am going with this one.
But before we get there, let’s take a more literal snapshot of what happened in Iowa, since then, and what is going on at ground-level in New Hampshire.
If you’re a supporter of Pete Buttigieg for president, you’ve got to be feeling pretty good right now. In the course of a year he came out of nowhere and beat expectations to edge out the narrowest of first-place finishes in Monday’s Iowa caucuses.
If you’re a supporter of Bernie Sanders, you might be angry and upset. Your candidate won back only half the votes he got there in 2016 – and lost the other half. His ‘magic new voters’ that not only were supposed to drive an Iowa victory but are the entire basis of Sanders’ November ‘electability’ argument were nowhere to be found. In fact, mainstream Democratic voter turnout – the people you might call ‘centrists’ but are really center-left liberals – increased even as your candidate’s base fell off. Worse, the half of Sanders’ 2016 voters that abandoned him voted mostly for Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren on Monday.
If you’re a supporter of Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar you’re likely feeling a bit nervous and bewildered. Maybe even you had moments of depression and despair this week. You’re glad your candidate survived to fight anew in New Hampshire but disappointed the delay in reporting results denied your candidate a live TV opportunity to play the ‘comeback kid’ role. And you worry about what happens if your candidate lags behind expectations in next Tuesday’s conference: whether she’ll have the money to carry on through Super Tuesday, which is when the contest begins for real. If you’re the backer of one of them, you may be worrying too much! Read on.
And if you’re a Joe Biden backer, Iowa’s 4th place finish was a heartbreaker. You try to cheer yourself reminding yourself that African-American voters, with whom he is leading in the polls, begin voting in South Carolina on February 29. But you sense it’s going to be a brutal slog until then – especially if Joe doesn’t improve his standing in New Hampshire and Nevada first – and you know that his fundraising has lagged behind that of Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg from the get-go.
And, Biden supporter, maybe something else is gnawing at you. You may have already identified it, or may be in denial of it, or maybe are thoroughly puzzled by it. Take heart that alert Sanders supporters are having the same sneaking suspicion right now and it’s visibly thrown many into a rage and caused many more to worry. Or, in the case of the voters that leaned toward Sanders but don’t share the overzealous traits of his true believers – most 2016 Sanders voters were not – many of them are already more open, after Iowa, to supporting someone else in the primaries ahead.
You might be asking: What if? What if my guy is just too old, too out of step, too 20th Century, to win a 21st Century Democratic nomination? If so, you have arrived at the right question. An underlying set of social triggers was detonated in Iowa when Pete Buttigieg overtook Joe Biden in the moderate lane and Bernie Sanders in the big tent lane, too: those that are awoken when the young buck wins his first battle in the death match to become “alpha male” of the troop.
This dynamic is not as outcome determinative for many working parts of the Democratic coalition, particularly women are not burdened to the same degree by that part of evolution’s inheritance, but in the “Rural White Primary” that is the sum of Iowa and New Hampshire, among many male voters, for whom 5,000-plus years of human evolution have coded certain behavior norms and expectations, there’s a new kid in town, a military trained Harvard graduate, young and beaming with testosterone swagger, and your old guy may be in trouble now that the young guy is making his move for dominance of that demographic troop within the larger Democratic tribe.
None of the view through this lens makes a Buttigieg nomination inevitable. Even if in the coming weeks he knocks Bernie Sanders to the ground, and he might just accomplish that, Mayor Pete has challenges and troubles ahead once the demographics of the Democratic primary electorate widen.
But right now, in the jungle of the white rural voter along the banks of the Merrimack River, Buttigieg is thumping his chest, baring his teeth, and, so far, getting the better of both his older male rivals.
And if you’ve ever watched apes battle for dominance over a troop (what group of chimpanzees or baboons are called) either in the wild or on TV, you know how the rest of the story goes: life after power is not kind to a fallen “alpha.”
A Useful Exercise: Watch Each Surviving Candidate as If He or She Are the Nominee
I spent much of Wednesday and Thursday evening carefully watching the presentation by the candidates during CNN’s live Town Meeting events at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, New Hampshire. While doing so, I did my best to put my own biases and preconceptions aside and ask myself, what if this one becomes the nominee? How will I possibly grin and bear it even if one I least like, or least consider to be able to take down Trump, secures the nomination anyway?
It proved a very useful exercise.
For me, Wednesday night was easy to watch. Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren led the program. Each showed real human and leadership moments. Biden was particularly moving when asked for his advice to others who grow up as he did, as stutterers. The answer was so genuinely moving and inspiring, so well provided a glimpse into Biden’s own empathy for “the other,” that the Biden campaign smartly and overnight turned it into a TV ad already running in the Granite State.
Warren, asked by a young woman, “Do you believe that the men in the race have a better chance of beating Donald Trump, solely based on their gender.”
Warren chuckled, smiling ear-to-ear: “I believe that they think so. But they’d be wrong.” It brought a response of laughter and one of the biggest applauses of the night.
“The world changed in 2016. Once Donald Trump was elected the world changed. Think about it this way. The day he was sworn in… it was the Women’s March, the very-largest protest rally in the history of the world. And I still remember, a lot of commentators were saying afterward, ‘yeah, well, the women really turned out here.” She paused. “And friends of women – also known as men.” (More laughter from the audience.) Then continuing her stern-voiced imitation of TV pundits, “’They really turned out here. But are they really going to be here in a month.’ And the answer was, yes. ‘Were they really gonna be here in six months?’ And the answer was, oh yeah. ‘But are they still gonna be here in a year?’ And the answer was, you better believe it.”
“Understand this: we Democrats took back the House of Representatives in 2018, and state houses around this country because of women candidates, and women and friends of women who were energized by those candidates. What the data show now is that in competitive elections, women are out-performing men. So, here’s how I see this. At the end of the day, when people start picking who they want for a president, it’s gotta be somebody they trust. And it can’t just be somebody who looks like what presidents looked like in the past.”
“Sometimes we gotta think differently. Remember when, in 1960, folks said, ‘Not sure we can do a Catholic because nobody’s ever done a Catholic before. Or in 2008, a lot of folks said, ‘We can’t have an African-American nominee because we’ve never had an African-American president before. But our party is better than that. And we proved that our country is better than that. 2020? We can, and should, have a woman for president.”
Andrew Yang made his ‘electability’ argument, too, noting that “I’m the only candidate in the field that he has never tweeted a word about, Yang said of Trump. “And he has not tweeted a word about me for good reason. Number one, he knows I’m better at the Internet than he is.” (Audience laughter and applause.) “And, number two, his most potent attacks are that you’re a corrupt DC politician, and none of this stuff works on me.”
I know, I know, the point of my exercise was to imagine each as winning the nomination, and game out how I’d feel and respond then. I apologize for not being able to imagine Yang winning the nomination, but he did pass my “I’d like to have a drink with him” test.
The same went, on Wednesday evening, watching Tom Steyer. You can bet I’d like to have a drink with him. He’s spent a lot of money registering voters and getting them out to vote in the midterms, as well as on issue advocacy. Who wouldn’t love the opportunity to dig deeper into his tactical lessons learned? But imagining him as nominee, we all know that’s not going to happen so we’re spared the mental gymnastics of figuring that one out.
Speaking of the tier that is highly unlikely to win the nomination, the final participant on Thursday night was former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. Great guy, terrific life story, has empathy coming out the gills, and governing skills, too. Still, we all know the nomination isn’t happening for him short of a wild-card stalemated convention scenario. I’d have zero worries about him as a nominee who could beat Trump, though. He’d be a strong one. Nonetheless, not much use in spending more time gaming that one out.
Thursday night also brought three of the leading candidates: Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.
Right off the bat, Klobuchar remained one of my favorites: Great candidate, would beat Trump, and be a fantastic president. ‘Nuff said.
Sanders came first. Given my own, ahem, special experiences with his campaign’s zeal for character assassination and video game-level attacks on all who will not ‘bend the knee,’ imagining Sanders as the nominee is about as pleasant as a root canal. And imagining the even deeper degradation of the national political discourse, how much nastier it would become if the fall is spent as a food fight between his cosplay revolutionaries and Trump’s MAGA-heads in the final battle, is a dystopian daydream.
Unlike those of his cohort who have fantasies about ‘being on the barricades,’ I’ve been there where left-wing governments have come to power. I’ve reported extensively over the decades from Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, from Honduras after the coup d’etat, have lived in the land of a guerrilla army, and last year got to know more about Cuba’s health care system than most North Americans will ever know. Today I live in a land with a center-left elected government, in Mexico.
I’ve experienced first-hand the good (and there has been plenty of it) and also the bad. And the worst has always come when the revolutionaries in power either can’t control their own supporters to behave coherently with the revolution’s principles – or have outright set them loose to bully and target even mild dissent in authoritarian fashion.
Would I choose to take my chances under a Sanders presidency over a Trump presidency, knowing all I know from experience? Yes, I would. I’m not a “Never Bernie” adherent. Trump is worse, no contest.
Still, as Gandhi regularly said: the means with which one comes to power will then set in stone the qualities with which it will govern. Camp Sanders is off to a terrible start on that metric. And just as Donald Trump’s tantrum yesterday showed what the authoritarian impulse does to someone in power when he wins a major battle (in his case, impeachment), the American version of “the left,” as the Sanders campaign defines it, if it ever gets there, will mimic and mime of some of the worst behaviors of Trumpism if and when it might taste power. This is not something I’ve studied in books. I’ve lived it.
I am fond of the current government in Mexico. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador didn’t run as a “socialist” but rather on a pluralist coalition whose central issue was “corruption.” Sound familiar? The political repression that ruled Mexico for decades has given way to diminished repression and better – not perfect, but better – protection of human rights. In a word, it is progressive because it makes daily progress. And has done so without riling up its core supporters to hunt down and engage in “repression by the crowd” of its political opponents.
I wish I could have watched Sanders on CNN last night and found some quality, any one, that might have assuaged the concerns born by my own experience with them. Having watched Sanders for 40 years now all I see is a guy playing a role of what he thinks a left-wing leader is or should be in the United States on arena stages and those of the mass media. Do I think that self-made caricature of leadership could beat Trump in November? Maybe. Enough that I’d openly support him as I would any Democratic nominee against Trump. My pride is not large enough to sustain doing otherwise. There would be no other options left.
But does my experience also tell me that Sanders, if nominee, could just as, or more, likely lose and lose so badly he takes the Democratic majority in the US House and all the progress made at the state and local level in 2018 down with him? Unfortunately, yes. A narcissist is not often defeated by a different kind of narcissist. It takes empathy to collapse the game on narcissism, and Sanders has so much “role” encased around him that whatever empathy is in there is buried so deep that it seems incapable of showing up on stage.
And that brings me to Pete Buttigieg. They may be on opposite scales of the tired “progressive vs. centrist” divide but my sense observing him is that, like Sanders, he is also playing a role on a stage. Watching him last night on CNN in my experimental role I did see something that I hadn’t seen before, something that gave me empathy with why he plays his role that way.
Pete Buttigieg is unflappable when on the public stage. Nothing gets to him. Almost nothing provokes him to slip out of script and show his human side. But last night I finally saw it, and I’m very relieved, even excited, to have figured it out. It came during an answer to a question about his experiences in the Armed Forces. Specifically, it was his explanation as to why he, a Harvard graduate with the world as his oyster already, decided to enlist.
He said that in 2008 when he was canvassing in Iowa for Barack Obama’s campaign he was sent to one of the poorer regions of the state. And he was struck by what a high percentage of households there had military veterans. He confessed that it was nothing like his own experience growing up in South Bend, Indiana as a faculty brat (my term, not his), where almost nobody he grew up with even considered joining the military.
He joined the military, he said, because he wanted experience living and working as a peer with people of all economic and diverse strata. In the Armed Forces, he said, especially in war zones like where he served, one has to depend on others to survive and at those moments it didn’t matter whether one was a Republican or a Democrat, gay or straight, or if one’s race or other demographic identity was different than the others’. All that mattered at those moments to him was that person’s ability to do his or her job, and all that mattered to his fellow and sister soldiers was that he be able and ready to do his.
I sensed that a lesson he learned he learned in the military was the primacy of competence and preparation, and the duty of responsibility not just for one’s self but for those on the same team.
Buttigieg did not, last night, stray far out of his role after that brief glimpse into what makes him tick. But it was a revelation for me. Having grown up in an era when many gay and lesbian people I knew were in the closet, who had to be for safety and career alike, I could see how he came to be such a guarded, non-emotive, person, in public.
Even back when, months ago, he was under fire as mayor of South Bend for racism problems in his municipal police department, I was impressed and maddened both by how unmoved he seemed by the whole dustup. He said he felt badly about it all but didn’t let on if he really meant it or not. And yet he did it in such a way that, at least for white voters, provided him with an armor of Teflon and as such the controversy did not hurt his campaign’s chances – as was demonstrated Monday in Iowa.
That man, I said to myself, has ice running in his veins.
And then it struck me. This is, at least for my understanding of Mayor Pete, perhaps the single most illuminating observation I have come to yet about Buttigieg’s role in the 2020 primaries.
Both Buttigieg and Sanders are actors on stage, playing roles that they’ve allowed to encase around them. Having a beer with either of them would likely be tedious. The role Mayor Pete is playing, in white American society, is that of the “alpha male.” And there lies his singular threat to Senator Sanders’ continued standing in the 2020 campaign.
When I compared how Buttigieg and Sanders each send those signals (so glaringly obvious in Sanders’ case that daily on social media one sees references to “Daddy Bernie” from his supporters), they’re like those baboons on the Discovery Channel seeking to become the silverback – the dominant male – of the troop.
And yet with Buttigieg, because he has the experience of a gay man in Indiana, the alpha male role-playing has a different perspective or angle of where it comes from.
The light bulb went on over my head and my inner buzzers began to sound, ding, ding, ding! Of course he knows how to play that role! After all, a gay man who had once been closeted in America has likely made a cold and rational study of heterosexual American masculinity much more observantly than most hetero men ever could, because he can watch us from a distance.
Oh. My. God. I thought. Bernie’s been doing that alpha monkey schtick for four years now and here comes the young buck to take his leadership away. Hoo, Lord, this is going to be one battle to watch.
And after the Iowa victory, it’s already underway. It’s like having the Smithsonian Channel turned on in real life. Watch tonight’s debate with that image in mind – the young challenger coming for the long-in-the-tooth patriarch of the troop – and make sure your popcorn is warm, because “Mayor Pete” is gunning for “Daddy Bernie” and he’s coming in hot.
The Battle of the College Town Mayors
It is with no small amount of comedic and tragic irony that I note that the top two finishers in Iowa, and polling as such in New Hampshire, launched their political successes as college town mayors. I roll my eyes because I’ve lived in college towns – Amherst and Northampton, Massachusetts – and organized in others, including in Burlington.
Burlington, Vermont, where Sanders was Mayor from 1990 until his 1992 election to the US House is 85 percent white. It has 62,000 residents, 13,000 of which are University of Vermont students, two thirds of them from out of state. Burlington also counts with another 2,000 students at Champlain College. The colleges are the economic engine of the city and the region. Another 1,700 faculty members and 2,000 non-faculty university employees work at the university and another 7,500 work at its UVM Medical Center. A full one-third of the city either studies or is directly dependent on the university for income.
A college town, in a sense, is a factory town, where the university is king. It buys up acres of prime property and housing. Its faculty and employees have disproportionate influence in local government. All other institutions, from newspapers, radio and TV stations on down, depend to no small degree on the university to survive.
In the 1980s, when Sanders was mayor, Burlington’s population was a smaller 39,000 but with 8.000 students and a similar ratio of faculty and employees: same dynamics then as now.
South Bend, Indiana, is a bigger college town, with 102,000 residents. Fourteen percent of the city’s population are students: 9,100 undergrads at Notre Dame and its Holy Cross campus, and another 5,000 at the local University of Indiana.
When I see today’s eruption of “woke” culture wars online and watch people who seem to think it is something new, I remember my time as a lad of 18 and 19 years old in the No Nukes movement of Western Massachusetts, volunteering out of the local Clamshell Alliance chapter in Amherst, the Alternative Energy Coalition.
Even back then, Amherst – home of UMass, Amherst and Hampshire Colleges – had, in the late 1970s, a food coop, farmer’s market, women’s consciousness raising groups, men’s consciousness raising groups, every kind of pamphlet-passing activist and protester we still have today. Some of the first Women Take Back the Night marches against male violence were held in nearby Northampton and women’s self-defense classes in martial arts were very popular.
On the University of Massachusetts campus was the Che Lumumba School – named for guerrilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara and for Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader who fought against Belgian colonial rule, was imprisoned for it, and in 1960 became the first prime minister of an independent Congo. Both men had been executed by soldiers backed by US foreign policy and covert operations.
Headquartered in New Africa House, a four room structure with a restaurant, Yvonne’s place, downstairs, the restaurant would close an hour or so each day so the school children could eat there. Che Lumumba was the social and political center of the infinitesimal black and latino population in overwhelmingly white Amherst.
According to the book, Brooklyn Dreams: My Life in Public Education by Sonia Nieto, who worked closely with the Che Lumumba school, there were fierce debates involving parents and faculty over whether the school would integrate racially.
“Some, including White parents who had children of color in the school, argued against enrolling White children,” wrote Nieto. “Others, including parents of diverse backgrounds… argued for enrolling White children whose families had progressive politics and wanted a different kind of education for their children.”
There were all kinds of debates and discussions at the school over what would be allowed an what not. Nieto remembers that one was over whether Woody Guthrie’s radical anthem, “This Land Is Your Land” would be allowed to be sung.
I never knew that! In 1979, while organizing in the No Nukes movement, I would support the work with spare change I made from singing on the street, guitar case open, in downtown Amherst and sometimes got paying gigs, say, at the local Unitarian-Universalist Church or at a coffee house. I sang for school students, at protest rallies, anywhere they’d have me. And I learned that if I showed up at Yvonne’s place at lunch hour and sang union ballads, civil rights spirituals and No Nukes songs for the kids, they’d give me a free meal. I’m pretty sure I must have sang, “This Land Is Your Land,” blissfully unaware it had ever been controversial there, but nobody ever objected to it.
What people call “woke” culture today was already well underway in the 1970s college town. A local “men’s group” once set a member to meet with me to deliver their message. “We think you are getting too much attention in the media for the No Nukes movement.”
“What do you mean, ‘too much attention?’” I asked. “Isn’t that what we’re trying to do?”
I had recently been arrested at the Yankee Atomic plant in Rowe, Massachusetts, had spent four days in jail refusing to pay bail, and refusing to eat food or drink water. That generated some news stories. I was brought to court and the judge kicked me out. Apparently doctors and nurses had besieged him with medical advice that someone who doesn’t drink water or eat can die within four days. “Your honor,” I said, some local news media reporters were in the courtroom, “if you release me I won’t come back for trial.” He did so anyway, setting a court date for the following month.
On the court date, I called a “singing press conference” in front of the Alternative Energy Coalition office during the hours when I was supposed to show up in court. I was 19 and theatrical and wrote a song special for the judge. Not much news goes on in Amherst, Massachusetts, so it was well covered. That was the event that trigged the local men’s group to send their representative to tell me I was getting too much attention.
“So let me get this straight,” I asked the emissary. “You want me not to sing? What fun would there be in that?”
“We just think you are getting attention that others could also get,” he said. “And that’s patriarchal.”
“Do you know any other singers who want to sing with me at the next singing press conference? It was a big hit and I’d invite them to sing, too!”
Those were the sorts of “woke” discussions and debates that went on in the 1970s college town! And some people think “woke” politics is new!
Another time the same men’s group came to me and said it needed a favor. “Am I allowed to sing?” I asked, tongue in cheek.
“Yes! That’s what we want you to do this time.”
“Wouldn’t I be getting too much attention then?”
The emissary explained to me the situation: At a highway rest area near Easthampton in I-91, State Police had started arresting gay men who were using the woods alongside the rest area to meet and have sex. They were typically economically poor men, maybe who lived with their families, and had nowhere indoors to hook up. The men’s group – mainly straight men – wanted to hold a protest in solidarity with them. It was a time when the actress Anita Bryant, who represented the Florida orange juice industry in TV ads, had launched a televised crusade against open homosexuality in the US. Gay rights organizations launched a boycott of Florida orange juice in response.
A movement songwriter in Connecticut, Charlie King, had penned a snappy song about it all: “Thank you Anita, ya couldn’t have been sweeter, you brought us together like never before, thanks to your lesson, it’s now your obsession not mine anymore.” The song had verses from the point of view of “the gay one afraid of the straight ones,” and “the straight ones afraid of the gay ones,” but now thanks to Anita Bryant everybody in the song was “hangin’ loose, boycotting orange juice, long as you’re on the loose, we’ll sing this song.”
I agreed to join them with my guitar at their protest. A TV camera from Springfield channel 22, the local NBC affiliate, showed up, and I sang the song with maybe a dozen young counter-cultural mainly straight men standing there with me at a highway rest stop singing the gay rights anthem. That night, the scene was on the evening news and, somehow, I, a straight guy, became, for a day, the TV face of gay men in the Pioneer Valley. My gay and lesbian friends and I thought it was hilarious, since everyone knew that same cute, straight 19-year-old was, like most musicians, a notorious flirt.
Anyway, that’s what college towns were, and are, like. If you’ve ever spent time in one, you know it already.
In the city of Springfield, where my mom had grown up, the TV report was scandalous. And there I was, the face of men having sex in the bushes at a highway rest stop. But in Amherst, it was considered a good thing to have done. Such is the parallel reality of college towns juxtaposed with so much of the rest of America.
The white activists in the area, when they went to Yvonne’s, seemed to get all excited about being in the presence of black and latino people. Too excited. There were so few in Amherst. The white activists were so performative, and sometimes visibly nervous, behaving differently in the presence of people of color. I was a Bronx-born New Yorker who had begun political life at age ten in the Spanish-speaking South Bronx. It occurred to me that for many of my white activist friends, they had very little experience being around anybody who wasn’t white, much less in the revolutionary milieu of the Che Lumumba school. And there were regular scenes of black and brown activists “calling out” white activists on their racism, including about how they often put them on a pedestal.
No, sirree, woke activist culture is nothing new. But the white college-town version of it has the scent of revolutionary tourism and anthropology in its deepest DNA.
This is the milieu that Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg’s political careers were forged in. Is it any wonder that the one quality their campaigns most share is the inability to gain real traction among African-American voters?
But here they are, the two white college town mayors, the Iowa winners, and at present the expected winners in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
Mayor Pete Is Coming in Hot Tonight
Joe Biden doesn’t have the difficulties that Sanders and Buttigieg have with black voters. He leads overwhelmingly in polls of that demographic. Often cited is his loyal service for eight years under President Obama. That’s a very real dynamic that will face its first measurement in the February 29 South Carolina primary. Biden could not have won that good will had he tried any alpha male crap as vice president! Biden is self-confident, commanding, but he is not trying to be the kind of “alpha” in this contest that Sanders is for his zealots and Buttigieg now comes to take away for white Democratic primary voters.
In the age of Trump and the often-errant perceptions of “electability,” the fear among Democratic voters of losing again to Trump is palpable. The anxiety it produces could be seen in the indecision of many Iowa Democrats heading into the caucuses on Monday and even at the caucuses.
A friend who is a retired university dance professor and who sometimes is invited on cable TV news as an expert on politicians’ body language told me this week what a former student of hers, an Iowa precinct captain for Elizabeth Warren, had told her about the caucus she attended. Voters, she said, were so undecided right up until the last minute that in candidate groups that didn’t make threshold and had to then choose a second option, seemed frozen in their tracks. The precinct captain reported that the overwhelming tendency was simply to join the viable candidate group most geographically adjacent to their own in the hall. That proved easier than having to choose.
I saw similar things watching some caucus sites live on TV Monday night. Democratic voters like multiple candidates and live in fear of not making the right decision. And fear is the home turf of aspiring alpha males. The entire “electability” bugaboo could very safely be defined as a kind of primal urge on the part of some to seek out one supposed “alpha of the left” to beat the other side’s “alpha,” which is Donald Trump.
But while Trump, like any CEO, has been the alpha of his companies, before being president he never enjoyed that status in New York. Other businesspeople and celebrities mostly shunned him, thought him boorish and uncouth. And they were right.
The same fate met Bernie Sanders once he left his role as the “alpha-leftist” of the college town he governed and arrived in Congress. Fellow US House members would have none of his behavioral tendency toward seeking that same status among them. That’s what Hillary Clinton meant when she recently said, “nobody likes him.” Sanders was no “alpha” when he lost his first campaigns for office with, say, four percent of the vote. He stumbled upon the role as mayor and grew, dare I observe, addicted to it. But he lived it for a time as Burlington mayor. And the 2016 campaign trail brought it back with a fury. And so many of today’s self-avowed “progressives” who see old man Bernie as “the only true progressive,” guess where they formed their political selves? In college towns! Getting their liberal arts degrees! “Daddy Bernie” is a natural fit for that particular mythology of what a leftist leader should be.
Enter Mayor Pete. The multi-lingual, uber-talented musician and Harvard grad, faculty brat extraordinaire who grew up in the college town milieu and whose rebellion from it was to join the military, where he learned another way to be. I don’t get the impression that Buttigieg has an ego investment in being the “maximum leader” the way Sanders and Trump seem hung up on it. Something different is going on with him.
Pete Buttigieg, as an outsider to heterosexual male culture, one who at a very young age had to hide at times and detour around it at others, made a study of that culture. And he cracked its code. Later, he went into the military and paid very close attention to that same culture there. He picked up the discreet nonverbal and body language signals of the hetero male leader in America. And learned in politics that playing that role will get him far. It already has.
Buttigieg, by his own admission, learned another important lesson in uniform. The word he uses is “competence.” That, and his study of military strategy and tactics – imagine what it must be like for a Harvard grad to be in the middle of military culture for so long and be able to study it up close – plus his youth and vigor compared to those of Sanders and Trump, make him a much more fitting “alpha” for the role that some white voters seem to think is necessary to play to beat Trump.
And that right there – along with his campaign’s ace attention to the competence necessary for the field organizing of Iowa – allowed him to stomp Biden and draw even with Sanders (who had won half its vote four years ago but only half that on Monday).
The complaints about Buttigieg taking the stage and claiming victory Monday night miss a key dynamic: that’s exactly what one gunning for his position in the primaries needed to do! Get out there, with all the swagger and testosterone one can muster, and claim victory, Bill Clinton-style (another natural alpha, in the American context of the concept). Sure, it ruffled feathers and rubbed many the wrong way. But for that cohort of white voters who, in fear, look to one imagined alpha to beat another imagined alpha, it was pure gold.
By having pawned Bernie Sanders in Iowa – and have that prolonged for days during the delayed vote count – Pete Buttigieg robbed from Sanders the one thing that was working in his favor: his role playing as the finger-wagging alpha dude in the Democratic primaries.
And the newest polling data out of New Hampshire may just be confirming this theory I’ve laid out here.
How to Read a Tracking Poll
Bernie Sanders, in 2016, won 60 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote. It was when many started to see the chaos that ensues when, in a fight for leadership, a white man in America starts sending those “alpha” signals in a competition with a woman, Hillary Clinton, and the rampant misogyny it unleashed.
There are two New Hampshire tracking polls out since Iowa that have now reported their second day of results: that of Boston Globe/Suffolk and that of Emerson.
Emerson has had a “house effect” leading up to the primaries that had overestimated Sanders’ and Biden’s standings and significantly underestimated Buttigieg’s, Warren’s and Klobuchar’s. Its final Iowa poll, taken the three days prior to the Iowa caucuses, had Sanders at 28 percent (he got 24.8 percent, three points less, on the first ballot) and Buttigieg at 15 percent (he got 21.3 percent, six points more, on the first ballot). Emerson had Warren at 14 percent (she got 18.8 percent, almost five points more, on the first ballot) and Biden at 21 percent (he got 15 percent, six points less, on the first ballot). Emerson also under-polled Klobuchar at 9 percent (she got 12.7 on the first ballot, almost four points more).
(There was some interesting chatter on a Twitter thread last week when the two math data wizards, two of the best, collided: Rachel Bitecofer asked Nate Silver why he took Emerson’s results seriously. The strong implication was that she does not.)
In its New Hampshire tracking poll, Emerson’s latest numbers have Sanders at 32 percent, Buttigieg at 23 percent, Warren at 13, Biden at 11, and Klobuchar at 9. Compared to its previous day’s tracking poll, Sanders was up one point, Buttigieg up 2, Warren up 1, Biden down 1 and Klobuchar down 2. In a moment, if you don’t know already, I’ll share a little secret in how to read a tracking poll.
In the Globe Suffolk NH tracking poll, Sanders has 24 (-1 from the previous day), Buttigieg 23 (+4), Warren 13 (+2), Biden 11 (-1) and Klobuchar 6 (same as day before).
In a tracking poll there is a rolling result. In a four-day tracker, once the new day is added, the first day of polling is then lopped off the average. If it’s a poll of 500 respondents, 125 are polled the next day, each day. To move the needle one point, there would have to be a four-point differential between the last and the first day’s polls. In a three-day tracker of 500 respondents, 167 would be polled each day, and to register a one point change, there would have to be a three day differential.
Thus, for example, the Globe/Suffolk poll’s results yesterday, when Iowa results became clearer, suggest that in Thursday’s sample it was, if a four-day tracker, Buttigieg 36, Sanders 21, Warren 19. If a three-day tracker, that would suggest Buttigieg 28, Sanders 22, Warren 18.
If today’s sample measures much the same or captures the same downward trend for Sanders and Biden tomorrow, and upward trend for Buttigieg and Warren (that would make sense, given the former fell from Iowa expectations while the latter beat theirs) we may be watching Buttigieg running away with New Hampshire and Sanders at risk with plunging into third place, behind, gasp, Elizabeth Warren.
If that happens, we would enter a very new primary dynamic, especially in the “progressive lane.” All Warren has to do to survive New Hampshire is beat expectations, but imagine what would happen if she tied or bested Sanders there.
Keep in mind that a single day’s result is too small a sample size to deliver a clear snapshot on its own. It would have to be echoed by subsequent tracking day results to show a true trend. But the ingredients are there.
Elizabeth Warren Is Very Much Still in the Game
If you’ve spent much time watching those Discovery Channel videos of what happens to the chimpanzee or baboon alphas once they have been bested by the younger challenger, many of their previous male backers bolt from the old alpha and are the first to embrace the leadership of the new one.
For that part of Sanders’ expected voters who were with him because he seemed like the electable “alpha” to beat Trump, it seems highly possible that Buttigieg is taking votes from Sanders now – post Iowa – off the top while Warren, already in competition for his voters, would be taking them off the bottom. That’s the “pincer dynamic” that threatens Sanders from above and from below, picking off two ends of his previous voters.
Look also at where the campaigns are focusing their energy in New Hampshire. Warren’s surrogate army – US Senator Ed Markey (and No Nukes hero in the historic anti-Seabrook nuke struggle), Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (a high school basketball star hailing from Hampton, NH, on the Seacoast), US Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Warren herself are all focusing their time on the Seacoast in the coming days, where Sanders built up some of his biggest 2016 margins over Clinton. That tells us that the Warren campaign sees weakness in a key Sanders base area that it has targeted to exploit.
Meanwhile it’s in central NH, the city of Manchester and suburbs, where polls show Buttigieg taking votes from Sanders. The “pincer effect” hits Sanders from two geographic population centers, and he may end up squeezed for votes.
If Iowa repeats itself and Sanders doesn’t win New Hampshire, particularly if he loses to Buttigieg, it will be as devastating for his chances going forward as losing the “electability” sheen has been for Biden, at least among white voters, for which the “white primary” of Iowa-then-New-Hampshire is our first indicator got the white rural vote and especially men in it.
None of what happens in either state shows us how other demographics of the Democratic coalition will vote. This is only about white people. But that’s Sanders’ base. If he bleeds enough support there his campaign will have huge problems going forward, no matter how much money he’s raised.
Women voters – even a significant number of white women voters – are not as cowed by the “alpha” positioning as many white male voters apparently are. After 2016, many have their antenna tuned to see it and go the other way as a result.
So, when watching the debate tonight, watch the unspoken battle for alpha male status in the primary – not just at Buttigieg and Sanders, but also at Biden – but also watch the women, Warren and Klobuchar (and whether they have any of the team up moments they shared during the last debate).
Tonight’s debate is likely the last shot any of them have to get a new breakout moment. Even without that, there are hints of a trend that favors Buttigieg and Warren while disfavoring Sanders and Biden.
We’ll be watching – and I’ll be offering live commentary for public view – tonight at 8 p.m. ET on ABC and abc.com – tonight’s Discovery Channels! – and hosting our regular live debate party at OrganizeAndWin.com with backstage commentary by logged-in subscribers. See you there.
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