Current Affairs

New Hampshire primary preview: the view from the ground

Today, the people of New Hampshire will head to the voting booths to decide which candidate their state will support for the Democratic presidential nomination in July. Preceding the primary, an army of volunteers and campaign field workers knocked on doors and made phone calls all across the state vying for votes for their candidate.

As Ben Davis delicately inched his way down an ice-covered driveway to talk to a potential voter, he questioned New Hampshire’s outsized influence as the second state to have a say in the next Democratic presidential nominee. Why couldn’t it be Florida or California, or anywhere without ice-storms? Davis is one of the thousands of campaign workers braving the cold to represent the candidate they feel has the best policies for Americans and the best chance at beating President Donald Trump.

Davis spent 10 days working for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign in the depths of the New Hampshire winter. He has knocked on doors all day and when it got too dark to do that, he spoke to potential voters on the phone. He had previously worked full time for Hillary Clinton in the run up to the 2016 presidential election, but he describes the experience of working for Senator Warren as a much more substantive one.

“It was nice to have a conversation with an undecided voter and talk through what their most important issues were to them. I really got to influence voters and that was something I really hadn’t experienced at all working in Virginia for Hillary. It was so focused on finding Hillary supporters and making sure they turn out to vote,” Davis said. “Having a long conversation about issues with voters that really matter to them and feeling like you influenced their decision, that was really special. I really enjoyed that.”

An ice storm left a slippery, thick layer of ice behind all across the state.

After delayed and conspicuous results from the Iowa caucuses, the usual momentum for candidates going into New Hampshire is diminished. Following their near-tie in Iowa, another close race between South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders appears to be unfolding again in New Hampshire. The latest poll by the University of New Hampshire shows Sanders with 29% of support, followed by Buttigieg at 22%. Both candidates pulled away significantly from Joe Biden and Warren recently, who are polling at 11% and 10%, respectively. Davis thinks the results from Iowa were too ambiguous to have a significant impact on the outcome in New Hampshire, but he was surprised to hear from many undecided voters that Buttigieg was high on their list of preferred candidates.

The vast majority of people Davis spoke to were undecided. Polling suggests that only half of potential voters have decided who they will be voting for on primary day. Many undecided voters were paralysed by the challenging task of trying to determine which candidate would fare the best against President Trump in the general election instead of evaluating the candidates based on their proposed policies.

“It was kind of frustrating honestly. A lot of people didn’t even care who the nominee is. They just wanted somebody who will beat Trump. I would ask them, ‘Which candidate do you want?’ and they would just refuse to answer it,” Davis said. “They would literally go through a list of candidates and explain why they were nervous for different reasons about each one. There was definitely nervous energy instead of excitement.”

Forests in rural New Hampshire

Electability has become a ubiquitous term among Democratic voters during the primary season. Davis noted that voters would talk about policies not in a personal way, but rather in one that was concerned with what moderate voters in other places might think. One example of this was the Medicare for All policy put forward by Sanders and Warren, which would universalise healthcare through a government system and step away from private health insurance.

Electability is just a code word for centrism for a lot of voters.

Ben Davis, campaign worker for Elizabeth Warren

“They would say they’re just worried that Medicare for All is too radical, and I would ask them if they personally liked Medicare for All and they usually did. This happened in 2016 as well. There were a lot of women that would say, ‘Well I just don’t think a woman could win (the presidential election), I’m nervous about that.’ When Medicare for All did come up, they talked about it in an electability frame like it was too extreme at the current time or that Trump would easily be able to rally against it,” Davis said.

To Davis, the most electable candidate is someone who engages people with new policies and creates high voter turnout.

“I think the most electable candidate is somebody who can really excite a lot of people. I don’t think non-voters are going to make the effort for someone who is very middle of the road,” Davis said. “People I spoke with think of independent voters and how to win over independents. People are very worried about bold progressive ideas because they think independent voters will vote for Trump instead of those ideas. Which in and of itself is probably not true. Electability is just a code word for centrism for a lot of voters.”

Grassroots campaigning takes an army of motivated individuals to talk to voters. They are a good way to spread name-recognition for candidates, accelerate turn-out by providing election day information (and sometimes transportation) to voters, and collect data on potential groups of supporters from the ground up.

Is this the type of support money can’t buy? Never has a race for the Democratic nomination been so wealthy. Michael Bloomberg has already spent $300 million on political adverts, whilst Tom Steyer, a hedge fund billionaire, has also entered the race. Bloomberg’s spend to date is already more than Clinton’s total spend in 2016, and if he secures the nomination, he is likely to spend more than $1 billion. Some polls have him ahead of Warren and Buttigieg before he has even stepped on the debate stage.

Despite the power that undoubtedly comes with money, Davis contends that the personalised canvassing experience is ultimately more effective in increasing voter turnout and persuading voters when choosing between candidates.

“I think early on (in the process) grassroots campaigning is important to find out who your supporters are, so come election day you can make sure that you have a good turn-out of all your supporters. That’s something that grassroots does that TV ads and YouTube ads can’t do. It’s ultimately a turnout game and in a contest as close as this, with Bernie and Buttigieg essentially tying in Iowa, I think having that turn-out edge with good grassroots organising can make a big difference.”

Today, New Hampshire Democrats will pick the candidate they think has the best chance of beating Trump in the 2020 election. The eventual nominee will not be decided until the Democratic National Convention in July.

“I think it’s going to be a long election process, which I don’t think is a great thing. I’m nervous,” Davis said. “I’m ready for this four-year nightmare to end. I cannot do another four.”