Familiarity Is Driving Bernie Sanders’ Strong Push in New Hampshire
The state made Bernie a contender in 2016. His campaign is betting it can deliver again in 2020.
The two canvassers huddled briefly on a tiny cement stoop. “Do you want to take this one, or should I?” a lawyer named Duncan Edgar asked his companion. “Yeah, sure,” David McDermott answered, “I got it.” He gave the door a sharp rap, shattering the daytime stillness in this neighborhood of vinyl-siding ranch homes in Portsmouth, on New Hampshire’s foggy sea coast.
The two made a funny pair. Edgar, 33, is slim, bespectacled, and fastidious. McDermott, 64, is white-haired, with a sturdy build and a gregarious manner. Edgar practices civil litigation; McDermott works three jobs, one of which is chauffeuring well-to-do clients around New England. They might not outwardly have much in common, but there they were, brought together on an overcast February day by a shared conviction: Bernie Sanders must be the Democratic nominee for president.
An older woman answered the door. “Hi ma’am,” McDermott began, “We’re out here with the Bernie Sanders campaign, just checking in to make sure we can count on you — ”
“Yes,” the woman cut in firmly. “I’m supporting Bernie. Thank you.”
It was clear she wasn’t interested in making conversation. As McDermott mumbled through a response, Edgar pressed a pamphlet of information — when to vote, how to register as a Democrat (New Hampshire is one of 21 states to offer same-day voter registration), and in case anyone forgot, what Bernie will do for America — into the woman’s hand.
“Just in case,” he said.
The woman smiled and closed her door. Edgar and McDermott shuffled away from her house, back out into the cold and gray of the wintry afternoon.
In 2016, the New Hampshire primary transformed Bernie Sanders from a beloved Senator and well-known regional curmudgeon into a national presidential contender. He trounced Hillary Clinton, capturing both the largest percentage of the vote and the largest margin of victory in the state primary since 1960, when John F. Kennedy beat businessman Paul Fisher, inventor of the Space Pen.
Now Sanders stands poised to win the New Hampshire primary once more, according to the final pre-primary Monmouth poll, which shows him with 24% support, followed by Pete Buttigieg at 20%, former vice president Joe Biden at 17%, and Elizabeth Warren with 13%.
In 2016, it wasn’t just that New Hampshirites liked Sanders, who has represented the state of Vermont since 1991 — they also couldn’t stand Clinton. “He was the only other viable candidate in the race,” explained Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire and Granite State political observer.
Four years later, Sanders is no longer the only establishment alternative. Warren is running on a similar progressive platform, and even Buttigieg, who effectively tied with Sanders for first in the Iowa caucuses, has made a habit of highlighting his outsider status. Yet Sanders continues to hold a healthy lead over the competition — a fact that speaks to the value of having done this whole thing once before and the power of his unchanging message in an independent-spirited state that cast its votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 GOP primary.
“There’s a lot of small towns and working-class folks in New Hampshire who feel like the Democratic Party and the Republican Party don’t represent them,” said Scott Siebel, the outreach director at electoral advocacy group FairVote and Sanders’ 2016 field director in New Hampshire. “I think Bernie was speaking directly to them, and that’s why he resonated with those types of folks.”
And while Sanders will certainly lose some progressives to Warren and other anti-establishment voters to Buttigieg, he also appears to have avoided losing too much working-class support to the former vice president’s campaign, which was once viewed as a huge threat. “He’s making inroads, at the cost of Joe Biden, with white working-class voters without a college degree,” Scala said. “I suspect that he’s speaking to their economic insecurity in a way that others are not.”
Renny Cushing, a progressive Democrat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and one of Sanders’ surrogates in the state, observed that while other Democrats might have adopted more progressive politics over the years, Sanders has been advocating those policies for decades. And people in New Hampshire know it because they have seen him in action for decades. “Bernie’s been a constant in any pickle. He was a perennial speaker at the New Hampshire AFL–CIO breakfast,” said Cushing. “He was kind of an auxiliary voice — a way to access a progressive voice — in Washington, D.C., from the region.”
“The strongest aspect of Sen. Sanders is his authenticity,” added Andru Volinsky, another Sanders surrogate and member of the state’s executive council. “There are people who might agree or disagree with him on a particular issue—but they trust him.”
In 2016, the New Hampshire primary transformed Bernie Sanders from a beloved Senator and well-known regional curmudgeon into a national presidential contender.
Others in the Sanders orbit seemed to agree. “He has a very long and consistent track record,” said Adrian George, a 65-year-old engineer I met at a Bernie-sponsored climate event hosted in the basement of Nashua’s public library. “Bernie’s been an advocate for this for a long time.”
“Sanders seems to be someone the people can trust,” said Christian Stack, 25, a mechanic’s assistant who also lives in the Nashua region. “He’s an honest, hard-working American.”
That sense of authenticity is something Sanders’ backers like to dwell on. They recount the story of his participation in the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights; his decades-long history of lobbying for single-payer health care; and his push as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s to keep the city’s waterfront open for public use. Cushing gushed over this last point: “Thirty years ago he was taking on the greedy speculators who were going to wall the waterfront off for the city of Burlington,” he said. “Bernie’s focus has been on the issues that he cares about.”
Bernie Sanders cut the ribbon on his first New Hampshire field office in Manchester, in March 2019. Since then his campaign has opened 16 others and swelled its staff size in the state to over 150 (Buttigieg has 15 offices and 75 staffers). The campaign recruited thousands of volunteers from across New England, many of whom are self-described “Bernie Journeyers,” bussed in across state lines. All told, the campaign says it’s knocked on about 471,000 doors in New Hampshire. Sanders himself has also crisscrossed the state, speaking at more than 50 events before the Iowa caucuses even started.
He’s also spent and reserved $2.1 million in TV ad time in the state — more than any of the other frontrunners. Scala spoke highly of Sanders’ advertising strategy. “Sanders is more interested in advertising the stories of the working-class and individual stories than he might’ve been four years ago,” he said. “I think he’s doing a good job of just showing people who are struggling to pay bills.”
Inside his campaign, the organization is as sincere and disheveled as the senator himself. His office in Hudson sits in a barren strip mall and is flanked by a Great Clips hair-cuttery and a pizzeria, its interior walls marred by a rushed paint job that apparently forgot to apply the blue paint about a foot from the ceiling molding. (At least the two murals of Bernie and the Ben & Jerry’s cows remained pristine.) The office was humming on the morning of my visit. The turnover was intense: Within a matter of minutes, the out-of-town volunteers were given a quick tutorial on canvassing, offered some free coffee and pastries from Dunkin’ Donuts, and sent out to preach Sanders’ dogma.
Canvassing is tedious work, but it’s effective. Research shows that direct voter communication helps boost support and turnout, and person-to-person interaction still ranks as the single most effective form of engagement. Little wonder, then, that politicians will take volunteers wherever they can find them.
Luckily for Sanders, he doesn’t need to look too far. “New Hampshire is such an important state,” said Nels Carlson, 31, who came in from Wellesley, Massachusetts to canvass.
Out-of-staters were also being trained in the Manchester office, a nondescript space whose walls were bare save for some Bernie signage and posters naming the different workstations. (Two garish Italian-style columns plastered to a wall provide the room’s only real flourish). Nazneen Patel, a 34-year-old from New York, said she made the five-hour drive to New Hampshire simply because “Bernie has to win. Actual life and death is on the line.”
The Portsmouth office — done up in various shades of gray — was similarly thronged, but with local volunteers. It was there that I met Edgar and McDermott.
Driving through Portsmouth not even an hour after we’d met, McDermott introduced me to his four-pronged canvassing philosophy: Beware of dogs; don’t stand too close to whoever opens the door; have a friendly and open attitude to everyone; and obey all “no solicitations” signs.
That final mantra would prove relevant almost immediately: On one of the first houses that McDermott and Edgar approached, a modest structure with eggshell-colored siding, a piece of computer paper was posted above the front door. On it, in big lettering, was a plea for solitude: “Thanks for not disturbing,” it read, “We WILL vote!”
They left a pamphlet on the front porch and soldiered on.
Voters in New Hampshire say they care about the same issues as voters across the country. A poll conducted last summer by New England radio station WBUR listed health care, immigration, the economy, and climate change as respondents’ biggest concerns — which wouldn’t be so different from those of the Iowa caucusgoers who gave Sanders a top-of-the-field tie (or win, depending on which day you’re looking at the results).
There are other pain points, too: paid family leave, gun control legislation, minimum wage, voter suppression, and perhaps most importantly, a sense that Trump has reneged on his campaign promises. In a state that Trump only narrowly lost to Clinton in 2016, where undeclared voters make up about 42% of those registered, the Democratic Party needs a candidate who holds a broad appeal.
“There are people who might agree or disagree with Bernie Sanders on a particular issue—but they trust him.”
“Donald Trump campaigned here on a variety of issues, from addressing health care to draining the swamp,” said Holly Shulman, the spokesperson for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “He specifically made these promises here in New Hampshire when he was campaigning, and he’s just simply left a trail of broken promises for voters.”
Candidates’ platforms around these talking points vary, but they’re generally aimed in the same direction: better health care, greener regulations, looser immigration laws. (That’s why the debates are such a chore to watch.) If it’s true what they say and all politics is indeed local, then the biggest thing separating one candidate from another is the disciples who trumpet their gospel.
It was a Saturday and knock after knock went unanswered as Edgar and McDermott continued their get-out-the-vote mission in Portsmouth. Then, finally, at the 15th door of the day, they met Phillip Ballew.
Standing on the front stoop of his home, a faded Bernie Sanders sign in the front lawn, and clad in a white T-shirt, jeans, sunglasses, and no shoes (the temperature had at this point dipped to 37 degrees), Ballew’s gruff voice skipped from one issue to the next at a breakneck pace. He spoke at length about the country’s stagnant economy (“I lost my job to the communist Chinese!”), his disgust with the military (“For 20 years, I was a hired killer for this country!”), his dislike of Trump (“They should have hung that SOB, period!”), and, of course, his support for Sanders (“I never gave up supporting him. It was the fanatics of the democratic bureaucracy who chose Hillary over Bernie!”).
McDermott appeared genuinely moved. Perhaps it was because Ballew said he was a disabled veteran — McDermott had told me what a disservice this country is doing for its veterans — or perhaps it was just because he too felt so frustrated with what the United States had become. Standing a few feet from Ballew, McDermott pulled out a Bernie pin — a token, in his mind, of gratitude.
“You deserve this,” he told his new ally. “I only had one in my pocket.”
Ballew good-naturedly fastened it to his T-shirt. They stood there, two old men united by another old man, grinning sheepishly and exchanging a few more remarks.
There will be an infinite number of attempts to decode Sanders’ strong numbers in the state but really it comes down to this: The gulf between the haves and the have-nots is wider now than it has been in a long time, and people here are convinced that Sanders, for any flaws he might have, actually gives a shit.
Later, when we’d left the neighborhood and were driving back to the Portsmouth field office, I asked Edgar if there had been anything unusual about that day, anything that might stand out in his mind a week or a month from now. “That was actually pretty typical, I’d say,” he said.
What about Ballew, specifically — was he an anomaly? Did they meet many people like him? McDermott chose his words carefully. “Well, to have someone be as … as agitated as he was … I mean, he’s obviously very … I don’t want to call it angry, but he’s — ”
“I say strongly opinionated,” Edgar interjected.
“Very strong in his opinion,” McDermott agreed. “I would say that his voice and his attitude was that of somebody who feels very patriotic towards his country because of his service, and he’s also very in tune with what being middle-class is all about.”
A moment later, we pulled into the field office parking lot. McDermott and Edgar went inside for a bathroom break and to maybe grab a quick coffee. Their next canvassing shift would start in 30 minutes.