PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — Senator Bernie Sanders recalled how in the late ’90s, he took a busload of constituents to Canada, where medication cost a fraction of what it did in their home state of Vermont.
“The bus had mostly women, working class women, many of whom are dealing with breast cancer,” he said Thursday in cannon bursts of speech punctuated by his Brooklyn accent. “These were women who were fighting for their lives.”
Sanders’ story might have been about the cost of prescription drugs, but he was talking directly to a key bloc of voters in New Hampshire: women. They proved pivotal to Hillary Clinton’s victory in the state’s 2008 Democratic primary and could once again play a deciding role in the Feb. 9 contest between her and Sanders.
The underlying message from Sanders: I might not be one of you, but I am with you.
It was a message many women inside the packed gymnasium already had received.
“He has a stand and a plan for everything,” Katrina Yurenka said. Clinton is a phenomenal candidate and a woman, which “actually makes me feel a little guilty,” the 67-year-old said.
But not guilty enough to change her vote, saying the contrast in their personalities tips her scale in Sanders’ favor.
Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist who was once thought of as a long-shot candidate, now has a commanding lead over Clinton in New Hampshire, where voters head to the polls to vote in the first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 9. To win, Sanders must ensure that he does not lose ground with female voters.
“He certainly has room to grow among women,” Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos said. According to a poll released Friday by Suffolk University’s Political Research Center, Clinton maintained her grip on women despite trailing Sanders, 50 percent to 41 percent. Among women, Clinton leads Sanders 54 percent to 37 percent, according to the poll.
In 2008, women comprised more than half of New Hampshire’s Democratic primary, and they voted for Clinton over then-US senator Barack Obama by a 12-point margin, according to exit poll data. In the wake of her two-point victory, many women attributed their support to the vulnerability Clinton showed in the final day of the primary, when she choked up responding to a voter’s question.
In her 2016 campaign, Clinton has shown she is not willing to concede that base of support. The former secretary of state campaigned in New Hampshire over the weekend, speaking Friday at the NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire’s anniversary dinner of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that allowed legal abortion. Her campaign — and the women’s political groups who endorsed her — have criticized Sanders, who last week referred to groups like NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and the Human Rights Campaign as “establishment” special interest groups.
But it is Sanders’ antiestablishment talk that helped sway Anne Fischer.
“I actually started out supporting Hillary,” the 57-year-old resident of Sharon, N.H., said. But her friend, Merry Stockwell, started talking up Sanders’ position on Wall Street, campaign finance reform, and the criminal justice system. Then, Fischer heard him speak.
“It was the first debate that changed my mind,” Fischer said. “I realized I liked what she had to say less and less. She’s part of the establishment. I trust him.”
Fischer didn’t like the fact that Clinton has accepted money from “the banks,” saying it “was indicative of being bought or being bought by the system.”
Sanders has criticized Clinton for accepting speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and campaign donations from major financial institutions.
Stockwell, a 72-year-old retired director of religious education, said Sanders doesn’t “tap dance around the issues.” And despite the fact that he might not be as refined and suave as some people might like, he is the person she feels most “confident” to have “represent us on the world stage,” she said. “I think foreign leaders would see what the rest of us see: He’s the real deal.”
Still, there are those women who remain unsure.
“I’m someone who goes back and forth between Sanders and Hillary,” said Sharon Monahan, 60, of Peterborough.
Sanders’ “revolutionary statements” are overdue, but she worries that he might be too devout in his beliefs, she said. “I don’t anticipate him creating a bipartisan effort,” she explained.
Anne Driscoll managed to snag a seat in the last row at Sanders’ event in Peterborough on Thursday with the hope that listening to him speak in person would give her clarity on whom to choose. But when it was over, Driscoll said she remained torn between her head and her heart.
Sanders’ message of fighting climate change, lowering prescription drug costs, making college affordable, and raising the minimum wage “speaks to the heart of what everyone cares about,” she said. But she fears that he wouldn’t win in the general election.
Clinton, on the other hand, is an experienced leader who knows Washington and has “managed to survive in what is kind of an old boys club,” the 46-year-old said.
“Do you hedge your bets or do you go with what your heart really wants?” she wondered. “It’s really tough.”