In Unity, N.H., Obama-Clinton bond was born
UNITY, N.H. — Seven years ago, on an elementary school soccer field, Hillary Rodham Clinton started on a path to become the most dominant nonincumbent candidate for president in American history.
On July 27, 2008, thousands came to a rural town of 1,700, miles from interstates and airports, to witness the first joint campaign appearance between Clinton and her rival for the previous 16 months, Barack Obama. Clinton had conceded the race just days earlier, and now she found herself trying to bring unity to the party in a town by that name.
“We may have started on separate paths,” Clinton said onstage that day, “but today our paths have merged.”
The message was encouraging to supporters of Obama — and in New Hampshire, those good feelings have lingered.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that the reason a big chunk of the Obama coalition is with Hillary today is because Hillary was with Obama in Unity and afterward,” said Jim Demers, Obama’s most prominent supporter in New Hampshire. “I see it in the phone calls to Obama supporters I make every day.”
In 2016, Demers is backing Clinton and encouraging other Obama supporters to do the same. He said that when he talked with Clinton during her first trip to the state, he mentioned the Unity event as a key reason why.
The idea for the Unity summit came from Maggie Hassan, who was a state senator and a Clinton supporter at the time and who is now New Hampshire’s governor. In addition to the made-for-Hollywood name of the town, she noted that Obama and Clinton had tied for votes there — 107 apiece — in the New Hampshire primary.
Hassan mentioned the Unity tie to Demers. Demers fired off an e-mail to Obama’s campaign manager, who responded he was very interested in doing something in Unity after the contest wound down.
The primary campaign had been as grueling and nasty as it was historic. Among the tense moments: Bill Clinton suggesting Obama was playing the race card; Hillary Clinton angrily saying “Shame on you, Barack Obama” in Ohio after accusing him of distorting her record; Obama telling a Nevada newspaper Bill Clinton’s presidency wasn’t “transformational.” There was even a heated tarmac exchange between the candidates.
The Unity event helped the party turn a corner, according to Clinton, who devoted nearly a full page in her recent book, “Hard Choices,” to the event. She described meeting Obama in Washington, flying to Manchester, N.H., and then taking a two-hour bus ride with Obama to Unity.
“Barack and I sat together talking easily. I shared some of our experiences raising a daughter in the White House,” Clinton wrote. “The rally itself, on a big field on a gorgeous summer day, was designed to send an unmistakable message: The primary was behind us and we are now one team.”
It was an all-day event for most who came, including Clinton and Obama. The town is difficult to get to, and there wasn’t even parking. Those attending the summit had to be shuttled in. The local Kiwanis club sold water and hot dogs to raise money. A local band, the Popgun Seven, entertained the crowd.
Former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan, who was one of the Clinton campaign’s co-chairs in the state, remembers that while many Clinton supporters were sad that day, most were also happy to be there.
“It was one of the biggest days in New Hampshire politics,” Sullivan said. “That event really set a tone that helped Obama win two general elections in the state and is helping Hillary today. Past presidential primaries in the state have ended with a rift, but this prevented that. Everyone was just happy.”
“It was a very symbolic moment,” Demers said recalling the day. “When Hillary stood there and told her supporters she was on the same team, it was a moment that Obama supporters began to see Hillary in an entirely different light.”
And it appears that unlike during the 2008 campaign, Democrats are now comfortable with the idea of backing Clinton as the Democratic nominee. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 92 percent of Democrats nationwide could support Clinton for president should she become the party nominee.
Not every Obama supporter in New Hampshire is backing Clinton. Two of his four co-chairs are with Clinton, but two others are not. One of them, Mary Rauh, endorsed former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley this month. The other, state Senator Martha Fuller Clark of Portsmouth, remains neutral.
Still Fuller Clark recognizes the importance of the Unity event both in 2008 and in 2015.
“It was a healing moment for the Democratic Party,” Fuller Clark said. “Without Unity, Clinton may not have even been secretary of state, and who knows if she would even be running for president today, much less in the strong position she is in.”