DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism are bringing more than 20 reporters to New Hampshire to cover the week leading up to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Most of our reporting will be done in service to the public, and we encourage readers like you to tell us what you think candidates should be addressing by responding to our simple survey at binjonline.org/manchesterdivided. For now, here is some ace horse race and policy proposal analysis from Patrick Cochran, who has been on the ground meeting voters in Mass and New Hampshire for months.
Last September, about 60 people filled the Thomas Menino room at the now-closed Doyle’s Cafe in Jamaica Plain for a Democratic debate watch party hosted by JP Progressives.
There was no officially backed candidate for the event, but it was clear which hopefuls had captured the crowd: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I ranked Sanders first and Warren second,” one attendee told me.
Another had the flip take.
“I liked Warren and Sanders,” said Viviane Shalom. “I think I’m going with Warren.”
As with pretty much any function hosted by and for rank-and-file Democratic voters, the room routinely erupted in cheers as Sanders and Warren hit classic choruses on issues like health care, wages, the environment, and fighting the excessive inequalities of American society.
“That was fun,” Shalom said.
Less than a year out from the 2020 elections, and weeks away from the dawn of the Democratic Party primaries, the race for the presidential nomination has been whittled down to four “top tier” candidates and a swath of longshots desperate to make late breakthroughs.
The frontrunners include Warren, whose insurgent campaign launched her candidacy from a question mark to a bonafide contender. The others are former Vice President Joe Biden; Sanders; and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Limited polling has shown Warren and Biden jostling for the top delegate haul in Massachusetts. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly won the Bay State primary in a two-way race against Sanders. But the narrative of the 2020 primary will be radically altered by the time the contest has moved through the first four states and into Super Tuesday, when Bay Staters cast their ballots.
The state that gets all the attention in these parts is New Hampshire, the so-called first-in-the-nation primary (after the Iowa caucuses a week earlier). And for volunteers and activists in nearby states like Massachusetts, campaigning in the Granite State is the top task at hand.
“Folks from Massachusetts have been phone banking and canvassing every weekend,” said Jared Hicks, a Sanders volunteer from the Boston area who recently became a staff member for the New Hampshire operation.
While representing just a miniscule fraction of the delegates needed to win the nomination, early states like New Hampshire act as bellwethers that can jolt, or end, a campaign. Wins for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Sanders in 2016 helped prove a level of viability, enabling them to sustain campaigns through the four-month process. In 2004, victories in Iowa and New Hampshire sparked a cakewalk to the nomination for John Kerry.
“New Hampshire is obviously very important,” said Maine state Rep. Benjamin Collings, who is directing the Sanders campaign in the Pine Tree State. “People in Maine played a big role in winning New Hampshire last time.”
In late November, a campaign swing through New Hampshire brought Sanders to Salem, a border town in the Merrimack Valley. A mixed crowd of New England supporters crammed into the Derry-Salem Elks Lodge to see Sanders riding a wave of momentum in the wake of an October health scare.
“I’ve never felt so confident that he would win,” Hicks said. “The energy is electric, his voters are diverse, he’s raised the most money. If he’s any other candidate, then he’s the presumptive frontrunner.”
Nearly four years after Sanders notched one of his most significant and convincing victories of the 2016 primaries, doubt and worry have shrouded his campaign to the north (at least from the outside). Last month, Reid J. Epstein of the New York Times observed that “the magic” of Sanders’ New Hampshire campaign “hasn’t fully returned.”
“The crowds here are smaller, key endorsers remain on the sidelines and his supporters, after three years of stewing about what many believed to have been a rigged primary contest, are wondering why he’s not doing better,” Epstein wrote.
But a tight race in the Granite State this time around says more about the different dynamics of the 2016 race vs 2020.
By the time voters went to the polls in the first primary of 2016, there were just two candidates on the Democratic ballot, and effectively only two viable choices the entire campaign season. This time, primary voters could have over a dozen choices, with more than 20 candidates running for the nomination at one point.
A key advantage from 2016 has also been neutralized. Candidates from neighboring states have long found success in New Hampshire: John Kerry, who has endorsed Biden this time around, won the state in 2004, and Mitt Romney won the Republican primary in 2012. In 2016, Sanders was the only candidate with strong regional ties.
Warren’s presence in the 2020 primary eliminates that advantage, and their closeness on the issues destine the two candidates to battle for at least a portion of the same voters. (Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld will be on the Republican ballot, though it’s unclear if or how his candidacy will impact the Democratic side.)
To have a real shot at the nomination, conventional wisdom says Sanders needs to win at least two of the first four primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Anything less than that will likely either damage his campaign’s viability or propel at least one of his opponents.
In Iowa, the Caucus system heavily favors the organizing aspect of campaigning, which those in the Sanders camp consider an advantage. In 2016, Sanders beat Clinton in 10 of the 12 caucusing states, but Biden’s name recognition and the surging campaigns of Warren and Buttigieg have the state wide open. Nevada is similarly up for grabs. And Biden, despite a recent poll showing Sanders making a push, appears to have a stranglehold over South Carolina.
That makes New Hampshire as close to a “must-win” as it gets, and while the campaign would never put all its chips on one state, the importance of winning the nation’s first primary is not missed.
“It gets harder if we don’t win New Hampshire for sure,” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir told the Associated Press.
But as the campaign plows toward the primaries, the prospects of Sanders winning New Hampshire for the second straight time is becoming very real. In mid-December, his campaign held the largest rally of any candidate in the Granite State in Nashua.
“In this small state, as you all know, New Hampshire plays an outsized role in terms of the primary process,” Sanders said to a crowd of roughly 1,400. “You are the first primary state in the country. … So what you do here, who wins here in New Hampshire, is of enormous significance because it will play a role in what happens in Nevada, and South Carolina, and California, and other states. So this state is enormously important. … We win those states, we have a path to a victory.”
Warren’s path to victory is similar. If she falters early, it will be a struggle to rebound in time for Super Tuesday. Like Sanders, Warren has been polling strongly in California, the biggest delegate haul of the 2020 primaries. But Super Tuesday also includes much of the Deep South, where a decided advantage goes to Joe Biden and his strong support among African American voters. While Sanders has made inroads in picking up support from minority communities after disastrous results in 2016, Warren has struggled to pick up nonwhite voters.
It boils down to the same conundrum: If candidates on the left don’t run away with the early progressive states, it’s all but certain that Biden will clean up in the South, like Clinton in 2016 and Obama in 2008.
While their paths to victory are nearly identical, Warren has run a distinct campaign. Sanders burst onto the national stage in 2015 pushing for a “political revolution” to overthrow a corporate establishment strangling American democracy; but while Sanders hovers between the “progressive” and “democratic socialist” labels, Warren has firmly entrenched her political figure as a progressive who is a “capitalist to my bones.”
Short of calling for a revolution, Warren’s campaign mantra of the need for “big structural change” has translated to a bid for the White House that not only calls for a stark restructuring of the political and economic systems in America, but is also accompanied by a concise and accessible list of plans she would push for once elected.
“Our country has reached a crossroads and in 2020, voters in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary will help determine where we go from here,” Warren said at a recent campaign event at St. Anselm College in Goffstown.
On the campaign trail, Warren’s events have mirrored the town hall-style rallies she hosted across Massachusetts in her 2018 reelection bid. Contrasting the massive Sanders rallies, Warren has typically stuck to the smaller, more intimate settings (though she’s had her share of big rallies, too), allowing her to connect with voters.
A typical Warren event includes her stump speech, drawing on her humble upbringing and lauding a society that at one time saved her family from financial ruin. From there, she describes the rightward shift over the past 40 years that would have made her story impossible today, and which is creating a massive gap between working class people and the economic elite. She finishes with an extended Q&A session with the audience before posing for photos with hundreds of attendees.
“[Warren]’s very clear and concise,” said Joyce Flagg, a Democratic voter who attended a Warren event in Exeter, New Hampshire. “She really speaks for the people.”
It seemed to have worked, at least for a while. By the fall, Warren’s campaign had been propelled to the front of the pack. She had effectively captured solid chunks of the progressive wing of the party, as well as the rank and file Democrats who had backed Clinton last time around.
Since then, she’s dipped in polling but hasn’t lost her status as a bonafide contender for the nomination. Her decline in support has come from a number of factors. The ascension of Buttigieg has robbed Warren of some of her middle-of-the-line Democratic support, and the resurgence of Sanders following an October heart attack has chipped away her left flank. But policy, where she has excelled as a candidate, likely bears some responsibility as well.
Rolling out a convoluted plan to get to a “Medicare for All” single-payer health system has sharply coincided with Warren’s downtick in the polls over the past two months. Unlike Sanders’ plan to push for single-payer legislation from day one, Warren’s takes incremental steps. In an ideal world (i.e., one where the Democratic Party controls both houses of Congress and the presidency), Warren says she would push for Congress to pass a public option (a government-run health care service that would compete with private insurers) and sign it into law in her first 100 days in office. The program would automatically enroll every uninsured American under 18 and people making less than 200% the federal poverty level. It would also make every American over 50 eligible to enroll in Medicare. Americans outside those groups could opt in to the public option, paying a premium that cannot exceed 5% of their income.
It wouldn’t be until year three of Warren’s presidency when she would advocate for a full single-payer bill that would eliminate the private health industry.
For people who closely follow US election results or those who have been skeptical of Warren’s devotion to “Medicare for All,” this has been interpreted as her giving up on the single-payer system.
Even if Warren does roll into office with majorities in the House and Senate, they will almost certainly be slim, forcing her to pass her public option plan through a parliamentary procedure known as reconciliation. (Through reconciliation, legislation can be passed with a bare majority, rather than a super majority.) Assuming that she’ll have the votes by year three means Warren’s banking on her presidency being so successful that the Dems will either win even more seats in the 2022 midterms or her plans being simply too popular for Republicans to vote against.
But the chances of this happening are nearly nonexistent. The passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) only galvanized conservatives in their opposition to the Obama presidency. And since World War II, only twice has a president’s party made substantial gains in midterm elections (they typically represent a backlash against the sitting president).
From another angle, it’s hardly problematic that Warren offered a lofty plan for passing big legislation. In a primary that has seen ideas spanning from eliminating all student debt, to confiscating firearms, to passing a “Green New Deal,” to giving every American $1,000 a month for life, ambitious goals haven’t turned off voters. With the current political structure in the US, it seems less than likely that even the most conservative ideas are destined for failure in the short term.
The issue with Warren is that, unlike Sanders, the left has long been wary of her devotion to these ideas. And the seeming backtrack on healthcare has made some realize those fears. Warren’s not going all in on the left. That has been clear from the start. On messaging, she is running a traditional progressive Democratic campaign, which seeks to significantly improve the lives of working people, but through a series of significant tweaks to a crooked system. It’s an effort to rally voters behind popular ideas while not alienating longtime Democratic backers wary of a left-wing “political revolution.” That may be off putting for some, but not all.
“I think she has a better understanding of more issues,” said Stephen Soldz, a Dem voter who prefers Warren to Sanders but supports both. “I worry Sanders’ style might make it hard to get support.”