What the heck is going on in the New Hampshire primary?

We just came off a nightmare of an Iowa caucus. We still don’t have an official winner. The final results are going to be so close, and so scrutinized, there will likely never be full agreement on who won. Yet even as we try to move forward from that mess, we’re seeing conflicting headlines about what’s really going on in next week’s New Hampshire primary.

The controversy in New Hampshire today centers around who’s actually ahead in the polls. As generally tends to be the case, the polls aren’t the problem here; the problem is the people reporting on the polls. Of the five new major New Hampshire polls released over the past few days (source), four of them show that Bernie Sanders is still in the lead. One of them, the Boston Globe poll, shows Pete Buttigieg having climbed into the lead. The thing is, it’s an outlier poll.

What is an outlier poll? When you have five polls and four of them say that Bernie is in the lead, but one of them says that Pete is in the lead, that fifth poll is an outlier. Either it’s wrong and all the other polls are correct (which is usually the case), or it’s correct and all the other polls are wrong (which happens on occasion). Because the Boston Globe poll shows a surprising result and a potential change in the lead, it’s getting most of the headlines today. The trouble is that much of this reporting is failing to include the fact that all the other recent New Hampshire polls say the opposite.

So what’s really going on here? Only two takeaways matter from these poll numbers. The first is that while only one of these new polls shows Pete in the lead, four of them show Pete gaining ground over the past week or two (the fifth poll, from Monmouth, is conducted far too rarely to track any movement). The second takeaway is that, despite Pete’s climb, the average of these polls still has Bernie in the lead by 4.2 points.

The final polling averages usually prove correct – at least within the stated margin of error, which is usually around three points. So no one should be shocked if Bernie Sanders wins New Hampshire, by one to seven points. That said, Pete Buttigieg’s poll numbers in Iowa turned out to be way off, and he significantly outperformed them, suggesting that pollsters have been mistakenly under-sampling his support base in the results. So no one should be shocked either if Pete outperforms his polls again in New Hampshire and wins the state. The only shocker would be if either of them wins by a double digit margin, or if some other candidate wins the state.

At least New Hampshire should deliver an undisputed result. Either way we’re likely to come out of New Hampshire with Pete and Bernie each able to claim that they finished first or a close second in both states. But then things get far trickier for them both. Very little polling has been done in Nevada, so it’s difficult to put it into any context. Then comes South Carolina, where the latest polling averages say that Bernie is fourteen points behind Joe Biden, and Pete is twenty-five points behind Biden (source). If Bernie or Pete wants to be the nominee, they’ll have to do far better with black voters than these South Carolina numbers suggest, because no Democrat survives Super Tuesday without significant support from black voters.

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