MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — It would be easy to mistake the feverish activity in New Hampshire over the past week for excitement. The state has been abuzz with Democratic presidential campaign events, armies of canvassers knocking on doors, curious voters from neighboring states coming to get a look at the candidates, and here in Manchester, swarms of reporters and camera crews.
But when you talk to voters, the overarching feeling isn’t excitement or optimism, but anxiety. Having gotten a close look at the candidates, Granite State Democrats are worried none of them can beat Trump.
They have good reason to worry. Between his powerful State of the Union address, the impeachment acquittal, rising approval ratings, and the Democratic debacle in Iowa, last week was arguably the best of Trump’s presidency. The economy is strong, approval of the Republican Party is the highest it’s been since 2005, and the two Democratic frontrunners are a 78-year-old avowed socialist and a gay 38-year-old former mayor of a small midwestern city.
All of this has not escaped the notice of New Hampshire primary voters, who go to the polls tomorrow in the first presidential primary election of 2020. That’s one reason so many of them I spoke to just days before the election were still undecided.
At an Elizabeth Warren campaign stop in Derry last week, I spoke with three New Hampshire women, Mary Bishop, her sister Nancy, and their friend Sue Dickinson. They were so shocked and disturbed by Trump’s election in 2016 that they decided to get involved and see as many candidates as possible this year, and they’ve seen them all. “The important thing is to pick the person who can beat Trump,” says Nancy. “It isn’t clear yet who that is.”
This was typical of what I heard again and again from voters. Whether it was concern over Bernie Sanders’ radical views, worries about Pete Buttigieg’s youth and inexperience, or misgivings about Joe Biden’s general baggage and lack of energy, everyone had qualms—even about their top choices.
It’s not just New Hampshire Democrats who feel this way. I spoke with three friends, retirees living in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, who traveled to New Hampshire together for a kind of candidate-scouting trip. I ask them how they feel about the Democratic field in general, after having seen all the candidates in person. There’s a pause as they glance at one another. Then one of them, Jonathan Hayes, a retired executive from Southport, Connecticut, says, “We’re nervous.”
“We haven’t seen anyone who can beat Trump,” says his friend John Stockton, a retired attorney from Harrison, New York. What about Mayor Pete? “He’s bloodless,” says Hayes. What about Joe Biden? “He’s not even here, he’s got no signs, no presence,” says Stockton. The third friend, Henry Van Kohorn from Princeton, New Jersey, nods silently in agreement. None of the candidates, says Hayes, has the kind of “rockstar” energy Obama had, and that concerns them.
Despite Media Enthusiasm, the Democratic Field Is Weak
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The 2020 Democratic presidential field was supposed to be the most talented, diverse, and accomplished group of candidates we’d ever seen. For more than a year the media assured us that it was, even as the candidates’ manifest weaknesses became more apparent. Many of those who seemed so promising early on—Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker—dropped out one by one before Iowa, victims of their own awkward leftward lurches and woke pandering.
And then came Iowa, where the putative frontrunner, Biden, simply collapsed. Biden came in a distant fourth, earning barely 15 percent of the vote in a caucus with lower than expected turnout. It was confirmation of what should have been obvious from the beginning: Biden is a terrible candidate who might not make it through the primaries.
Despite leading in most polls over the last year—probably as result of name recognition more than anything else—Biden has displayed a remarkable lack of energy on the campaign trail and a growing penchant for gaffes and lashing out at voters. (On Sunday, he called a woman who asked a tough question about Iowa a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier.”)
Complaints about Biden seem to be ubiquitous among voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire. One self-described working-class man I spoke to said he couldn’t believe it when Biden told a roomful of people the economy is only working for the top 1 percent, not the working class.
Another man, a Sierra Club volunteer I spoke to in Manchester, said his wife voted for Biden by absentee ballot because she’ll be out of town for Tuesday’s primary, but she immediately regretted her vote when the Iowa results came in. A 23-year-old black woman told me she won’t vote for Biden because of his treatment of Anita Hill in 1991, and that she doesn’t believe his apology.
No wonder I didn’t meet a single Biden supporter in Iowa aside from one poorly attended campaign stop.
As Biden fell, Buttigieg surged, basically fighting Sanders to a draw in Iowa (Buttigieg narrowly edged out Sanders in the delegate count while Sanders beat Buttigieg in the popular vote). His unexpectedly good showing brought a polling and fundraising boost. On Friday, Buttigieg said his campaign had raised more than $4 million in as many days, and his polls numbers have been rising, with one New Hampshire poll showing him in within the margin of error versus Sanders.
Buttigieg is now styling himself as the reasonable alternative to leftists like Sanders and Warren in an attempt to fill the moderate lane that once seemed to have room only for Biden. Indeed, Biden’s candidacy forced out a slew of actual moderates like former Maryland Rep. John Delany, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, all of whom failed to gain traction in Biden’s shadow.
The irony is that Buttigieg is no moderate. On nearly every issue, from health care to abortion to immigration, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is far to the left of both Biden and Barack Obama. He also wants to abolish the Electoral College and, unlike the farther-left Sanders, pack the Supreme Court. But of course the media won’t cover Buttigieg as anything but a moderate, as if citing religion to justify late-term abortions of disabled children somehow fits that description.
For now, Buttigieg might be able to hide his radicalism behind meaningless verbiage (see below) but in a general election it would become increasingly difficult to pass himself off as a moderate, especially among more socially conservative black voters.
Indeed, his unpopularity with black voters might be Buttigieg’s biggest liability as the Democratic nominee. As a Politico report noted recently, Buttigieg has spent millions over the past six weeks advertising in South Carolina, where a majority of Democrats are black, but has failed to increase his poll numbers there, hovering at 2 percent support among black voters—about the same as his support among black Democrats nationally.
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) February 7, 2020
Bernie Sanders Is Haunting The Democratic Primary
Buttigieg’s momentum notwithstanding, the most likely headline to emerge from the New Hampshire primary is a Sanders win. The Vermont senator won the 2016 primary here by 22 points and has consistently led in polls (RealClearPolitics polling average shows Sanders with a 4.8-point lead in the state).
In that case, the Sanders campaign will claim back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, setting up for a strong showing in Nevada, where the Democratic electorate is heavily working class and Hispanic, and tends to be influenced by the results of Iowa and New Hampshire.
More so than any other Democratic contender, Sanders has worked hard on Hispanic outreach, which might play a decisive role as the primary season drags on. In Iowa, his campaign was sending out Spanish-language literature to Hispanic voters as early as last July, and while Sanders was stuck in Washington for the impeachment trial, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was stumping for him in Iowa. Mitch Henry, the former political director for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and a Democratic precinct chair in Des Moines, told me political engagement among Iowa’s Hispanic population has exploded.
“It’s all because of Sanders’ outreach,” he says. “And when you have someone like AOC advocating, that just draws people in like nothing else.”
If Sanders pulls off a win in both New Hampshire and Nevada, he’ll be the undisputed frontrunner heading into South Carolina, where Biden will more or less have to win, and win decisively, to keep raising money and stay in the race.
This of course scares the daylights out of Democratic Party leaders, whose feelings about a Sanders nomination were best summed up by longtime Democratic strategist James Carville last week, first in a rant on MSNBC that went viral and then a follow-up interview with Vox.
WATCH: James Carville has some thoughts about what is happening in Iowa, and across the country, for Democrats. pic.twitter.com/W9KuEeFvcO
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) February 5, 2020
“We have candidates on the debate stage talking about open borders and decriminalizing illegal immigration,” Carville told Vox. “They’re talking about doing away with nuclear energy and fracking. You’ve got Bernie Sanders talking about letting criminals and terrorists vote from jail cells. It doesn’t matter what you think about any of that, or if there are good arguments — talking about that is not how you win a national election. It’s not how you become a majoritarian party.”
Later, Carville called Sanders an “ideologue” who’s “never been a Democrat.” Democrat or not, Sanders is poised to become the frontrunner in a still-crowded primary field. Usually, a winnowing takes place after Iowa, but the ensuing chaos and days-long wait to get a final vote tally from the Iowa Democratic Party ensured that no one, not even Andrew Yang, who got only 1 percent, dropped out before New Hampshire.
So who will save the Democrats from Sanders? Billionaire Mike Bloomberg would like Democratic voters to know he’s waiting in the wings. The day after Iowa, encouraged by the muddled results, he announced he was doubling his ad spending in Super Tuesday states, having already spent north of $300 million, and doubling his campaign staff to 2,000. In an ironic twist, it could be that in its desperation to avoid a Sanders nomination, the Democratic National Committee turns to a Wall Street billionaire with no natural constituency who only decided to run for president three months ago because he wasn’t impressed with the field.
New Hampshire Democrats won’t get to weigh in on Bloomberg, not yet anyway. They’ve got enough to consider as it is. To hear them tell it, the fate of the country rests on their decision here Tuesday. They feel like they have to get it right, they have to pick the candidate who can beat Trump. With the hours to primary day ticking down, many of them still don’t know who that might be.