Hillary Clinton may campaign at times as if the Democratic primaries were but a speed bump to coast over on her way to the general election, but the front-runner still faces an unpredictable and dangerous obstacle that has a history of sideswiping such candidates: the New Hampshire electorate.
Voters here in the first-in-the-nation primary state have given no indication that they are poised to go all-in with Clinton, the establishment favorite, despite her family’s deep ties to the state and its role in reviving her last candidacy at one of its darkest hours.
That much was clear on a crisp New England morning a few days before Christmas as Gary Patton, a 78-year-old Clinton loyalist, put on a white hooded sweatshirt and hit the pavement with clipboard in hand.
Patton, a volunteer door knocker, is among thousands in an impressively regimented and precise operation that has been working the state for months.
The first voter Patton encountered in his nearly four-hour trudge embodied the bigger challenge confronting the Clinton campaign.
“I’m not sure,” said Nick Quinn, a 45-year-old Democrat who seemed eager to engage in a conversation about the state of the race when his doorbell rang, but was not eager to be pinned down on his leanings toward Clinton or her chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I kind of like what Bernie has to say,” he said. “She comes across more like she wants the position than she wants to help. I don’t know. That’s just a gut feeling I have.”
In every other early voting state, Clinton has gained a comfortable lead. In this state, she has been unable to replicate the formula. Instead, she is racing to catch Sanders, the independent from neighboring Vermont, a familiar Yankee offering a package of outsider policy prescriptions and cranky charisma that plays well in these parts.
The Sanders team sees New Hampshire as its ticket to redefining the race. It’s a well-used playbook in presidential politics, and has worked for some. New Englanders John Kerry and Michael Dukakis successfully used their home-court advantage in New Hampshire as a springboard to the nomination. Fellow New Englander Paul Tsongas used a New Hampshire victory as his route from obscurity to a brief stint as a household name before eventually losing to Bill Clinton when the campaign moved to the South.
Sanders aides point to the two successful cases.
“Once we show the nation Bernie Sanders can win in a state like this, the movement in the polls in the later states will be phenomenal,” said Tad Devine, a strategist for Sanders and a veteran of electoral combat in the Granite State. “I have seen this in many campaigns I have worked on.”
A voter skeptical of both leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, drywall contractor Robert David, said he was a fan of Bill Clinton. So die-hard Sanders volunteer Mark King responded by summoning the former president’s support of legislation that helped big banks:
“Clinton was the one who repealed Glass-Steagall!” he said.
The conversation went back and forth until David suggested the canvassers ought to move on before his ultra-conservative buddy, Phil, arrived. They took their chances, continuing to make their pitch. Finally, Phil’s red pickup truck turned into the driveway, abruptly ending the exchange.
At another house, the Democrat on their list was not home, but her Republican husband had some unflattering comments about Sanders’ embrace of socialism.
King couldn’t let that go. The two argued briefly about whether the United States was already a socialist country.
For King, a retired construction worker, the election is intensely personal, as it is for many other Sanders volunteers. He tells voters who express anxiety about national security -- the issue that came up most often in the hours of door knocking -- about his son, a former sniper for the Marines who did two tours of duty in Iraq.
“When he got off the airplane, one of the first things he said to me was what a big lie this whole thing was,” King told one voter.
“You add up everybody working on every campaign on the Republican side -- all, I think, 14 candidates -- and it does not add up to what just Bernie Sanders has here on the ground in New Hampshire,” said Ray Buckley, chair of the state Democratic Party, in an interview the day before the number of GOP candidates fell to a clean baker’s dozen.
FOR THE RECORD
9:08 a.m.: An earlier version of this article gave the name of the New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman as Ray Murphy. His name is Ray Buckley.
Neither campaign is getting overconfident. Trying to predict the outcome in New Hampshire is perilous. Voters are notoriously picky, and they are renowned for waiting until the last possible moment.
Some 17% of Democratic primary voters -- roughly 40,000 -- said they made their choice within 24 hours of primary day in 2008, the year Clinton was seriously trailing in the polls even as ballots were cast, but nonetheless won. The 43% of voters not registered with either party can choose to participate in either party’s primary, and they can pick at the last minute, leaving candidates and pollsters in the dark about whom to target.
Patton, the Clinton volunteer, had a tendency to nod politely, then warn that Sanders threatens to be the party’s next George McGovern, the liberal nominee who lost 49 states to Richard Nixon in 1972. Only Sanders would likely lose all 50, Patton warned.
That was not in the talking points distributed to volunteers by the campaign.
“I could sit down and listen to a Bernie speech and agree with every single thing he says,” said Patton. “But the question is, how is he going to get it done?”
Linda Martin, an undecided voter intrigued by Sanders, didn’t disagree as the two chatted among the array of potted plants on her small property behind the town library.
“I like that Bernie is bringing up these other issues,” Martin said. “I wish [Clinton] would pull in more of his stuff.”
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