The history of presidential nomination politics suggests that it's a mixed blessing for a candidate to be considered a front-runner by the national media heading into the primary and caucus season. Of course, it's better to be doing well in polls and fundraising, the usual metrics of pre-primary success, than to be doing badly in either. At the same time, front-runner status usually comes with expectations for a dominant performance in the early states. These expectations can produce waves of damaging news coverage for a candidate who fails to meet them, driving voters away and scaring off financial donors—while rivals who appear to "beat the spread" in Iowa or New Hampshire receive a major publicity boost. From Ed Muskie in 1972 to Howard Dean in 2004 to Hillary Clinton in 2008, pre-primary favorites have repeatedly suffered major damage from early-state results deemed by the shapers of conventional wisdom to be insufficiently impressive.
But something's different in 2020. Joe Biden is the Democratic front-runner by media consensus, and for understandable reasons—he's a former two-term vice president who's consistently led the national polls. Yet journalists and commentators don't seem to be treating Biden as especially likely to win either Iowa or New Hampshire. This is an unprecedented situation in the modern (post-1968) nomination era; there have been previous races without a single clear pre-Iowa favorite, but none in which a widely-acknowledged front-runner isn't assumed to enjoy an advantage in at least one, and usually both, of the first two states. Only South Carolina, the fourth and final pre-Super Tuesday contest, is by general agreement a place where Biden needs a victory (and probably by a double-digit margin) to avoid a serious media backlash.
There are a few reasons for this unusual state of affairs. One element of pre-election expectations-setting is poll numbers, and Biden hasn't had a consistent lead in either Iowa or New Hampshire since the early fall, which has helped lower the perceived benchmark for him in both states (though a few recent polls, especially in Iowa, still show him narrowly ahead). Another reason is demographics. Influential media voices have become increasingly sensitive to the fact that the racial composition of the Democratic Party in Iowa and New Hampshire differs significantly from that of its national membership, and are well aware that Biden runs better among non-white voters than he does among white liberals. Finally, the 2016 election offers what seems like an instructive parallel: Hillary Clinton failed to meet expectations in both of the first two states, barely defeating Bernie Sanders in Iowa and then losing New Hampshire to him by 22 percentage points, but she quickly managed to rally in Nevada, South Carolina, and the southern Super Tuesday states. If Biden loses the first two states to Sanders, it will seem to many analysts more like a rerun of the last Democratic nomination race (with Biden in the ultimately successful Clinton position) than a clear indicator of an imploding candidacy.
As my political science colleague Seth Masket notes, some Sanders supporters are frustrated that the media isn't currently giving their candidate a better chance of victory. Of course, the logic of nomination dynamics suggests that being underestimated at this stage is actually a strategic advantage, so perhaps it would be savvier for them to stifle their complaints for now.
Still, they have a point. Sanders is in a kind of inverse, but complementary, position compared to Biden: expectations for his performance in Iowa and New Hampshire are higher than his perceived chances of actually being the Democratic nominee. He therefore needs to win New Hampshire, and probably Iowa too, to convince the media that he has a shot at winning a majority of national delegates. But if he can claim those early victories—and this week's polling in both states suggests that it's quite achievable—the electoral terrain quickly shifts to South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states, where it will be much easier for Sanders to "overperform" (and thus impress the media) than for Biden to exceed what will be rising expectations on his own side. Sanders is also extremely well-funded for the quasi-national campaign that Super Tuesday requires. And if he can break through in California and Texas, there will be a fair number of delegates in his pocket after the first week of March, plus the potential for a self-subsidized Michael Bloomberg candidacy to cut into Biden's advantage with party moderates.
While Biden and Sanders have both been able to keep media expectations in check despite favorable polls and fundraising success, the rest of the field faces a tougher challenge. It's quite possible for one or more of them to outperform their current polling numbers in either of the first two states. But for midwesterners Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, anything short of a first-place finish in Iowa will raise the question of where they can win if they can't win there, and the same logic will be applied to New Englander Elizabeth Warren in the New Hampshire primary the following week. It can seem strange that a nomination contest that began with more then 20 active candidates might narrow to a functional two- or three-horse race after a handful of state contests, but the number of serious contenders in this election who didn't even make it as far as Iowa demonstrates how effectively and unsentimentally the sequential nomination process culls the field before most voters get the chance to register their preferences.