SALEM, N.H. — Waiting for autographs after a Joe Biden event in this town near the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border, Liz Duck and Katy Kramer kept returning to the same word to explain their support for the former vice president: electability.
The two Democrats, friends both in their 70s, sing together in a community choir in the Manchester area, but on this day in late January they sounded like regular political pundits as they sized up the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
Their conclusion: Biden, who they just saw speak to a couple hundred supporters packed inside a small elementary school gym, gives Democrats the best shot to beat President Donald Trump. And Sen. Bernie Sanders, the candidate many call the frontrunner to win the Granite State? Too far to the left.
“I’m looking at electability,” said Kramer, a college writing instructor. She touted Biden’s experience before pivoting to the democratic socialist from Vermont. “(Sanders is) progressive. I like what all those people are saying. I really do,” But she added: “If you want someone who is, I think electable,” then Biden is your guy.
New Hampshire — which treats its role as the first-in-the-nation presidential primary just as seriously as Iowa takes it with the first-in-the-nation caucuses — has a reputation for flexing its independence, with a recent history of going i a different direction than Iowa, which caucuses a week before.
The state’s motto is “Live Free or Die.” Old-fashioned retail politicking and taking tough questions from voters tend to go a long way toward victory. If you don’t meet a candidate in someone’s kitchen, people here say, don’t vote for them.
But in interviews with nearly two dozen voters, Democratic insiders and longtime New Hampshire primary observers, many say this year’s presidential primary feels different. Despite a year full of diner stops, town halls and meet-and-greets, voters are waiting longer to decide who to support as the Democratic standard bearer.
With the Feb. 11 primary less than two weeks away, Democrats here say the race is in greater flux than usual. The outcome in Iowa could have a bigger impact than recent cycles. Voters here are an anxious bunch. Their hesitation is not from comparing health care plans or environmental agendas but answering the existential question facing the party in 2020: Who is the candidate who can defeat Trump?
“I’m a moderate kind of a gal,” Duck, a retired nurse, said at the Biden event. She formed her choice for Biden only recently over several other Democrats she likes. “I think we need the black vote, we need the women’s vote and we need the swing voters. Amongst the field, I think (Biden) is equipped to pull the swing voters.”
And yet even Duck admitted it could be a tough climb for Biden in her state. She could think of only two people supporting his candidacy — herself and her friend standing next to her.
“I think Bernie’s going to run away with it, myself,” she said of New Hampshire. “But we’ll see.”
‘A fluid situation,’ congresswoman says
New Hampshire was long ago circled as the battle between the two candidates from neighboring states, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, given the state’s history of backing fellow New Englanders. Warren, who has seen her polling numbers fade nationally and in New Hampshire, will face enormous pressure to win here if she does not carry Iowa.
Former U.S. senators from Massachusetts Michael Dukakis (1988), Paul Tsongas (1992) and John Kerry (2004) each carried New Hampshire in presidential primaries, with an exception being Ted Kennedy, who lost to Jimmy Carter in 1980. That next-door advantage carried on to 2016, when Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton by a wide 22 percentage points.
This year, Sanders, who is polling out front in Iowa and New Hampshire, could be in position to pull back-to-back victories to start the primary process. Every Democrat who has won both Iowa and New Hampshire has gone on to win the party’s nomination.
Despite the close proximity of Sanders and Warren, New Hampshire has been a four-way race with Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the mix as well. Sanders has started to distance himself from his opponents in recent polls — he has an 9.5-percentage point advantage according to the most recent Real Clear Politics average of New Hampshire polls — but few are willing to crown him just yet.
That’s because many Democrats view the race in New Hampshire as unsettled.
U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, whose 2nd congressional district includes the western half of the state bordering Vermont, said typically by this time voters have moved past the “persuasion phase” to the “get-out-the-vote phase.” But she pointed to a recent campaign event at Peterborough, New Hampshire, for Buttigieg — who she endorsed in January — where she said about half the 100 who showed up were still undecided.
“The difference this cycle that’s different than anything I’ve seen is the incredibly high percentage of undecided voters,” Kuster said. “It’s a very, very fluid situation. So the closing days, these last two weeks, are going to be critical for any campaign.”
Kuster said she decided to back Buttigieg in part because she believes he gives Democrats the best opportunity to expand the party’s base, calling him someone who can not only win the White House but lead to more seats in Congress and Democratic control of the Senate.
Jim Demers, a New Hampshire lobbyist and longtime Democratic strategist, called this year’s New Hampshire primary “very different.” He recently came out in support of Biden after his first choice, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, dropped out.
“I hear a lot of people saying they’re totally undecided,” Demers said. “They’re going to wait as long as they can to figure this out and they’re voting their head, not their heart this time. They want Donald Trump out so badly they are assessing which candidate really has the strongest chance of beating him and they’re putting some major issues aside.”
Independent voters could help decide New Hampshire
For years, New Hampshire was considered solidly Republican but now it’s seen as slightly left of center as the Northeast has become a dominant area for Democrats. Kuster called it a “purple state.” The state’s governor, Chris Sununu, is Republican while both U.S. senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, are Democrats. Both Congress members, including Kuster, are Democrats as well. But the state nearly went to Trump in 2016, with Clinton winning by less than 3,000 votes, 46.8 percent to 46.5 percent.
Trump’s reelection campaign has made no secret about targeting New Hampshire in the 2020 general election. Trump held a rally in Manchester in August and has planned another on Feb. 10 — eve of the Democratic Primary.
To vote in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary, a voter must be either registered as a Democrat or undeclared, which includes self-identified independents. New Hampshire has 275,252 registered Democrats, and 288,524 registered Republicans. But many more — 413,593— are registered undeclared.
“As an independent you may go and decide you’re going to participate in the Democratic Primary even though you may lean a little bit to the right,” said Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.
Dianne Martel, a resident of Bedford, New Hampshire, is among this camp, having never voted for a Democrat in her life. Yet there she was at Biden’s event in Salem.
“I’m shopping around but I think I’ve decided on Biden,” said Martel, 65. “He has the gravitas and the experience. I was a Republican and the day they nominated Trump, I left the party.”
Around 80 percent of the state’s populations lives in the southern part of the state near the Boston media market. Demers said he’s viewed the New Hampshire primary as two races — one between the two neighbors, Warren and Sanders, and another between the rest of the field.
But Levesque called it a “complete misnomer” that voters choose to support a candidate just because they live in a nearby state. He noted that former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s late-bid for president has struggled to take off in New Hampshire as did U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton’s bid.
“New Hampshire voters, particularly Democrats, are taking this election very seriously because they want to defeat Donald Trump,” Levesque said. “Are they going to vote for someone who can do that or are they going to vote for someone because they’re from the neighboring state of Vermont? I firmly believe that they are going to choose someone that they believe would be a good president and can win the election, not necessarily that they can drive to their house in a day.”
Tight polling among top 4 candidates
A recent poll from the University of New Hampshire and CNN found Sanders with support of 25% of likely New Hampshire Democratic voters with Biden in second at 16%, followed by Buttigieg at 15%, Warren at 12%, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar at 6%.
Despite last weekend’s swing through New Hampshire, Biden only recently launched television ads in the state. Some observers have downplayed Biden’s chances in the state compared to his outlook in Nevada, where polls have shown him narrowly ahead, and South Carolina, where strong support among black voters has given him a commanding lead. The Biden camp hopes to use a strong performance in South Carolina as a springboard into “Super Tuesday” in March.
Biden told a New Hampshire television station recently that New Hampshire is not a “must-win” but he added: “I think I can win in New Hampshire. I think I will win New Hampshire.”
Biden enjoys support of much of New Hampshire’s longtime Democratic establishment including Shaheen, the former governor-turned-senator, former Gov. John Lynch, former state party chair Ned Helms and Terry Shumaker, a former ambassador under President Bill Clinton. Warren has the most endorsements among New Hampshire’s state legislature.
“You’ve got to get this one right,” said Bill Shaheen, a New Hampshire attorney and husband of Jeanne Shaheen, who recently endorsed Biden. “So I think a lot of New Hampshirites, like myself, have been sitting it out watching the game and seeing how each candidate had advanced themselves. There was some really great ones in the beginning, but they faded, and so you’re looking at the ones who are standing. And Joe’s still swinging.”
Shaheen said Biden can “bring our country together and also get rid of Mitch McConnell in the Senate,” before adding: “I’m voting with my head, not my heart. I want Trump out of there.”
But Andru Volinsky, a Democratic member of the Executive Council of New Hampshire, who supports Sanders, came to a different conclusion to the same question about electability, arguing the enthusiasm of Sanders’ voters is a key ingredient to beat Trump.
“I think Bernie beats Trump, and that’s on a lot of minds,” said Volinsky, who is a candidate for governor in New Hampshire. “That’s a big consideration, particularly as the impeachment proceedings are ongoing…
“A lot of what Sen. Sanders does is expand the electorate. Biden is kind of an old school: Here’s what the electorate is and I’ll get the larger percentage of it. Bernie’s approach is to expand the electorate, and that works to everyone’s benefit.”
Volinksy predicted Sanders would win New Hampshire but probably by only 3 to 5 percentage points this time.
Not just activists at the polls
Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, described Democratic voters in New Hampshire as predominantly upper-class and highly educated, not blue-collar. He said he expects high turnout, about 45 percent of eligible voters to take part in the Democratic Primary.
“It means it’s not activists,” Smith said of the electorate. “It’s not policy-wonks that are voting. It’s just regular folks who can’t really tell the difference between one person’s health care plan and another person’s health care plan.” He said most voters will make up their minds on other criteria like personality and whether they can beat Trump, not policy.
Whoever win Iowa will head into the nation’s first primary with momentum, but New Hampshire can be a wild card. It’s the state that famously made Bill Clinton the “Comeback Kid,” when he finished second place here amid a turbulent period for the campaign. New Hampshire also voted for Hillary Clinton in 2008 after Barack Obama won Iowa.
It means a surprise could be in store that could reshape the rest of the primary.
“Historically, no one has ever won the nomination without winning either New Hampshire or Iowa,” Smith said, “and nobody has ever won the nomination without finishing first or second in New Hampshire.
“It’s still a wide open race, and I don’t think there’s any prohibitive favorite in this race at all.”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.