US presidential election: Democrats battle for New Hampshire

Elizabeth Warren now the leading Democrat in this key state in the nomination process

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren: her  gradual but steady rise has changed the dynamic of the campaign

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren: her gradual but steady rise has changed the dynamic of the campaign

 

Sixteen kilometres north of the Massachusetts border, it’s festival weekend in Milford. Hundreds of people have flocked to the pretty New Hampshire town for the 30th annual pumpkin festival. Along the street, food carts sell toffee apples and pulled pork sandwiches. Just in front of the local war memorial, locals line up for photos beside giant pumpkins.  

New Hampshire, a rural state bordered by Canada to the north and Vermont to the west, is one of a handful of states that may determine the next Democratic candidate for president of the United States.

Like Iowa and South Carolina, New Hampshire is an early voting primary state – it will hold its primary on February 11th – one week after Iowa which holds a caucus rather than a primary. As a result, New Hampshire, a state of just 1.3 million people, plays an outsized role in the presidential election.

Warren is running – and has built her political career – on an unapologetically left-wing platform

While winning New Hampshire is not essential – Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 but still became the party’s nominee – most candidates need to chalk up victories in early primary states to get on the ballot.

“The road to the White House runs through New Hampshire,” says Holly Shulman of the Democratic Party in New Hampshire. “The first in the nation primary is an important opportunity for candidates to be tested. They have to talk to voters, they have to face questions, shake hands. It’s a unique experience.”

Some of the top polling candidates in the Democratic primary have had teams in place in New Hampshire for almost a year, mindful of the importance of the state in the nomination process.  

Evidence of a vibrant ground game is plain to see on the streets of Concord, New Hampshire’s small state capital located further north from Milford.

Pride of place on the main street is the New Hampshire headquarters of Marianne Williamson. The self-help guru who has said she would “harness love” to conquer Donald Trump has quite a few supporters in the granite state. Her office space is one of the most impressive of all the candidates’ ground operations here, though a sign on the wall reminds visitors that this is a “heart-quarters” not a headquarters.

Across the street, in a second-floor office next to a yoga studio, Joe Biden’s team are making calls to potential voters.  Signs on the walls remind those working the phones to stay on message – “Be friendly”, “Don’t spend too much time on one phone call” – while a friendly sign with the words “cup of Joe” directs staff to the coffee station.

One of the volunteers tells me she worked for the Bernie Sanders team during the last election, but didn’t like the atmosphere in his campaign. This time around Sanders and his team are in a four-storey Victorian building just off the main street, one of several campaign offices the veteran senator from next-door Vermont has opened across the state.

With four months to go until the New Hampshire primary, and a year out from the US election, it’s all to play for in the Democratic race for president.

The past few weeks have witnessed something of a sea change in what is one of the largest ever Democratic fields ever, as more than 20 candidates battle it out to take on Trump in next year’s presidential election.

Having consistently topped the polls among Democratic voters since entering the race in April, Biden was overtaken for the first time by Elizabeth Warren last month.

Earlier this month a poll of polls, by data aggregator Real Clear Politics, showed Warren ahead for the first time, albeit by a small percentage, commanding 26.6 per cent of the Democratic vote compared with Biden’s 26.4 per cent.

The two front-runners are now virtually neck-and-neck in most polls, though a Quinnipiac poll released on Monday showed Warren leading Biden by 30 per cent to 27 per cent among Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents.

Warren’s steady rise in the polls has been accompanied by an impressive fundraising haul. She raised $24.6 million (€22.12m) in the third quarter, slightly behind Sanders who raised $25.3 million (€22.74m).

Ground strategy: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden visits a New Hampshire coffee shop. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty
Ground strategy: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden visits a New Hampshire coffee shop. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty

Biden in contrast brought in $15.3 million. Like Sanders, Warren has refused to take money from corporations and big donors, and has instead relied on small, mostly online donations.

Warren’s gradual but steady rise has changed the dynamic of the campaign, and unnerved those in the Biden and Sanders camp. This was evident in the fourth Democratic debate in Ohio on Tuesday, during which Warren came under sustained attack from the other candidates, a sign of her front-line position.

The 70-year-old senator held her own, but came under pressure from more moderate candidates such as Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and her senate colleague Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who queried how she planned to finance some of her signature plans, such as public health insurance for all.

At this stage of the campaign, I think voters are not looking for a 20-page white paper on every issue

Warren is running – and has built her political career – on an unapologetically left-wing platform. Having risen to fame for her work highlighting the illegal activities of big banks and their impact on consumers, she has vowed to take on big business if elected president.

Her supporters also note that she has a folksy appeal – she was born in Oklahoma, working her way up to become a professor at Harvard – and often speaks of the challenges of being a working mother.

But with the election still a year away, is she really a serious contender for the nomination?

“Yes, I think she is one of the most likely candidates,” says John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics. “One of the reasons is that her support has transcended generations whereas at this point two of her main competitors have been overly-focused on a more narrowly-focused cohort – Bernie Sanders on young voters, and Joe Biden on older, and particularly older African-American, voters.”

He says that Warren’s message resonates with a lot of voters. “The fundamental reason she has been so successful is that she calls attention to large, systemic problems that most Americans face – access to healthcare, to capital, dealing with the inequality that pervades our political and economic lives.”

He says that while far more needs to be understood about her policy prescriptions, at this stage in the campaign voters are beginning to acquaint themselves with the candidates, and priorities are different.

“At this stage of the campaign, I think voters are not looking for a 20-page white paper on every issue,” he says. “They are looking for which candidate aligns with their values, and [which] choose to spend time talking about the major issues that concern them on a day-to-day basis.”

Nonetheless Warren is not without her flaws. She has so far managed to deflect attention from her decision to take an ancestry test to prove her Native American heritage early in her campaign, following taunts from President Trump calling her “Pocahontas”.

The move, which showed a distant Native American heritage, was widely seen as ill-judged, serving to annoy the Native American community as well as failing to quash conspiracy theories that she used ethnicity to further her career. In recent weeks she also faced criticism for a stump-speech claim that she was fired from a teaching job in the early 1970s because she was pregnant, with critics arguing that records from the time suggest otherwise.

The other main challenge facing Warren is the argument – and real concern among Democratic strategists – that she is too left-wing to win the national vote in next year’s presidential election. Some have suggested that, if nominated, she should select a centrist running mate to assuage concerns. Others believe that only a candidate like Biden, or a younger moderate such as Buttigieg (37), could win back swing-states like Ohio and Pennsylvania that fell to Trump in 2016.

But even on this issue, there is positive news for Warren. While Biden has consistently cited the “electability” argument – that he is the candidate most likely to beat Trump in the national election – recent polling suggests Warren is beginning to overcome this hurdle.

While 48 per cent of voters still think Biden is the best candidate to beat Trump, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll, the percentage of Democratic voters who think she is best-placed to take on Trump has risen to 21 per cent, from 9 per cent in August.  

The latest poll of polls show Warren slightly ahead in New Hampshire. Biden’s strategists privately believe that ultimately Sanders and Warren will split the New Hampshire vote, which could work in the former vice-president’s favour.  

At the pumpkin festival in downtown Milford, local residents are used to the national attention that is focused on their state every four years, and on the whole are very engaged with the political process. But there is far from a consensus on who is best-placed to take on Trump.

Local residents Elizabeth and Lisa are selling pumpkin bread and cookies at a stand to raise funds for their local church, the Church of Our Saviour. Like many in the town they appear slightly underwhelmed by the candidates who have been making whistle-stop tours through their state in recent weeks in a bid to drum up support.

“I’m sorry to say it but he’s too old,” says Elizabeth of 76-year-old Biden, “and I say that as an old person myself,” she smiles. Lisa agrees. She says Buttigieg is the person she is excited by at this point. “He’s young, and not very experienced, but I think he’s impressive,” she says of the military veteran who would be the first openly gay president if elected. Nonetheless, she says she will vote for whoever Democrats’ pick. “Anyone to get rid of Trump.”

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