Hillary Clinton is way behind in New Hampshire, and she is running there like a candidate prepared to cede the first-in-the-nation primary.
As polls show Sen. Bernie Sanders continuing to hold a sizable lead here, Clinton strategists are positioning their campaign to weather a loss here, shifting their focus to holding Latino voters in Nevada, which votes Feb. 20, and then win in South Carolina, with its large black population, the following week.
One of Clinton’s most valuable campaign assets with voters in New Hampshire — her husband — is thousands of miles away in Nevada instead of working the coffee shops and union halls where the primary takes place Tuesday. Daughter Chelsea, another key surrogate, is also elsewhere. And even Clinton’s hearty corps of volunteer door-knockers, who were out in force braving the wintry mix that hung over the region Friday, seemed less than sanguine about her New Hampshire prospects.
“There is one thing about Hillary: She is realistic. So am I,” said Irene Natividad, 67, a longtime Clinton loyalist who drove up from Washington, D.C., to volunteer. Natividad said she knew better than to predict victory in New Hampshire.
“What we can do here is narrow the gap,” she said. “Going from here, we are going to win. We are going to win anyway. Here, the goal is just to get as many people as possible to change their minds.”
While Clinton continued to express hope that a victory is possible in this state, where voters are prone to wild shifts in opinion up until election day, she isn’t working the state the way she did in 2008 when she pulled off an upset victory. By Friday, former President Bill Clinton had already been dispatched to Las Vegas to headline events aimed at organizing voters to turn out for the Nevada caucuses, which are taking on increased importance as a must-win firewall for his wife. The campaign released its first Spanish-language ads Friday, which it will start airing in Nevada.
As the focus shifts, senior strategists for the campaign were talking about New Hampshire in language Clinton operatives never would have used in 2008, when the candidate was in a do-or-die position.
“You know, there’s a lot of states,” said campaign manager Robby Mook. “This is a delegate race. We’re not looking to win every single contest, every single time. We have a strategy and a plan for the long term.”
The big event the Clinton campaign held on Friday, a rally of volunteers at which several prominent female senators showed up along with New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, appeared designed as much to motivate voters elsewhere as those here.
Clinton seemed to suggest she might have had the option of skipping New Hampshire, although that was never in the cards in a state that not only resurrected her campaign in 2008, but her husband’s, in 1992.
“People kind of opine: ‘OK, you won Iowa, but you know you’re running against a neighbor.’ In New Hampshire, neighbors seem to win,” she said, deflating expectations for Tuesday. “And I say, look that’s neighborly; I have no problem with that, but I’m going to make my case with the people of New Hampshire.”
But she’ll also be flying out of the state two days before the election, a rare move for such a prominent candidate behind in the polls
here. Clinton will be visiting Flint, Mich., to meet with the mayor about the drinking-water crisis that continues to grip that largely African American city. The visit will likely impress Democratic voters in New Hampshire, but the message of racial justice Clinton is sending through the trip is sure to resonate even more in South Carolina, where African Americans dominate the Democratic primary vote and Clinton remains popular.
The trip to Flint came together quickly. Campaign staff had been visiting the city earlier in the week, and the mayor extended an invitation for Clinton to visit this weekend.
“We’ve got the schedule built so she can be here every day,” Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, said after the candidate debate Thursday night in Durham, N.H. “But the mayor asked her to come, and she wants to go and learn more,” Palmieri said.
Some veteran New Hampshire campaigners are not ready to count Clinton out.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H), who has been involved in campaigns in the state since Jimmy Carter’s presidential run, pointed to a University of New Hampshire pollster’s analysis that voters may be deciding even later than normal this year.
“I think this race is going to close,” she said. “Now how much, only the voters can decide. But Hillary is working very hard, and she’s going to keep working very hard.”
As the Clinton team moderated expectations, Sanders worked eagerly to seal the deal with voters in his neighboring state.
As heavy snow fell, Sanders first spoke to a crowd turned away from his event in Exeter by the fire marshal. The Town Hall, where the event was being held, was already filled to capacity. He declared that the supporters’ commitment to turn out even in poor conditions was “what momentum looks like.”
“I hope very, very much that on Tuesday there will be a large voter turnout,” he said to those inside the historic building. “And I hope that in the first primary of this campaign season that the people of New Hampshire stand up loudly and proudly and say that, yes, we are going to take on powerful special interests; yes, we are going to move this country in a very new direction.”
Times staff writer Cathleen Decker contributed to this report from Manchester, N.H.