MERRIMACK, New Hampshire — By Thursday morning it became clear that both Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders can plausibly claim victory in the Iowa caucus, Sanders having narrowed Buttigieg’s lead in the delegate count to just 0.1 percent and surpassed the former South Bend mayor in the popular vote by more than 2,000.
These vote totals—along with claims of victory from both campaigns—came out Thursday just as Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez demanded a recanvass of the Iowa results amid confusion about the Iowa Democratic Party’s caucus system and growing tensions between the Sanders campaign and the DNC. Whatever the final vote count, Buttigieg far exceeded expectations in Iowa and arrived in New Hampshire this week riding high as a frontrunner, or a co-frontrunner with Sanders, for the nomination amid the fading prospects of Joe Biden.
Sanders is considered the favorite in New Hampshire, and has led in polls here for the past month, including a Monmouth University poll released Thursday that showed him with a 24-20 lead on Buttigieg among likely voters, with Biden coming in at 17 percent.
But Buttigieg has by far the most visible presence of any Democratic contender in the state, where the first presidential primary is set for Tuesday. Signs for “Pete” abound across the southern part of the state, and the campaign boasts 15 field offices in all 10 New Hampshire counties and 75 paid staffers.
There also seems to be growing interest in Buttigieg from voters here. At a campaign stop at the American Legion in Merrimack, New Hampshire, on Thursday afternoon, two lines, one for the press and one for attendees, snaked across a parking lot that was full an hour before the event despite an icy drizzle.
Campaign organizers had clearly underestimated the size of venue they could fill in this small town about 50 miles northwest of Boston, and directed press and attendees to park at a high school across the street. With the exception of a class of undergraduates from Rhode Island College who are touring the state this weekend as part of a political science class assignment to see all the candidates in person, everyone waiting in line I spoke with were from New Hampshire.
Typical of New Hampshire primary voters, most of them hadn’t made up their mind about who they’ll be voting for in less than a week, and they wanted a closer look at Mayor Pete.
Bruce Peterson, 68, describes himself as a “liberal Republican” who voted reluctantly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and doesn’t want to “vote a negative” again in 2020 just to beat Trump. Ron White, a 64-year-old Air Force retiree, says he’s “supported Pete from the beginning,” when he ran for the Democratic National Committee chair in 2017. He’s also a 2016 Clinton voter and says the party “needs some youth,” that Biden “doesn’t have the juice to take on Trump”—a sentiment I heard repeated all day long.
Others weren’t so sure about Buttigieg but nevertheless wanted to hear him out. Joann Root and her husband Carl were standing in line with their three kids, whom they’d taken to see Andrew Yang the night before in an effort to educate them about the political process (later in the day, I ran into them at an Elizabeth Warren rally down the road). Joann isn’t sold on Buttigieg but says it’s “hard not to like” him—noting that she was so disillusioned with her choices in 2016 that she wrote in her husband Carl for president, inspiring a few friends to follow suit. “I actually got a handful of votes!” he says with a laugh.
By the time Buttigieg pulls up in a black SUV—coming from an appearance on ABC’s “The View” earlier in the day where he defended late-term abortions of disabled children—most attendees are seated inside the American Legion, which looks like it could hold a couple hundred people at most. About 20 attendees and dozens of member of the press (including me) are stuck outside.
Buttigieg hops out of the SUV and briefly address the supporters who didn’t make it in, apologizing to them and in his characteristically earnest tone explaining how his campaign wasn’t quite ready for such “overwhelming support” in New Hampshire. He implores them to let him “earn their vote” and come to another campaign event in the coming days, and then he’s hustled into the hall.