It’s as much a tradition as the New Hampshire primary itself: If a New England Democrat runs in the first-in-the-nation contest, he wins it.
Think John F. Kennedy in 1960. Maine’s Ed Muskie in 1972. Michael Dukakis in 1988. Paul Tsongas in 1992. John Kerry in 2004, and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders in 2016. (OK, there’s one outlier: Edward Kennedy lost the New Hampshire primary to a sitting president, Jimmy Carter, in 1980.)
But what if several Democrats from New England run in the same year? In 2020, we might find out.
Senator Sanders — who won the state’s primary by more than 20 percentage points in 2016 — has not ruled out another run, and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has all but announced she’s going for it, setting up a battle for the party’s progressive wing in New Hampshire. Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick has said running for president is on his “radar screen,” and his former aides have set up a fund-raising committee to boost Democrats all over the country.
To a lesser degree, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut has generated some buzz about a primary bid, as has Representative Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts — although both have said they’re not interested in a 2020 presidential run.
And though not as definitive, Representative Seth Moulton, also of Massachusetts, has said he’s “not planning to run for president in 2020.”
If any of these Democrats run, the stakes — and expectations — could not be higher in New Hampshire.
“For any of these New England candidates, doing poorly in the New Hampshire primary will be a sign of real vulnerability,” said Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey Berry. “If you cannot sell it next door, then how can you sell it elsewhere? And the thing is, not everyone can win.”
Already some candidates are moving to plant flags in New Hampshire. In the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, a stream of hopefuls flooded to the state to campaign for local candidates.
Locally, Warren, who campaigned for candidates across the country ahead of November, has not crossed the border into New Hampshire for a public appearance since 2016. But she did send two of her aides to the state party weeks before she publicly acknowledged she would take a “hard look” at running for president after the midterms.
A political action committee run by Patrick’s former aides backed Representative Annie Kuster, who easily won reelection in New Hampshire, amid a couple dozen Democrats facing tough races. And in the days leading up to the midterms, Sanders headlined rallies for two get-out-the-vote events in the state hosted by organizations affiliated with him.
The region’s candidate collision course will be complicated by the sheer number of presidential hopefuls who may run in 2020. Some Democrats estimate that nearly two dozen politicians could seek the presidency — an unwieldy field similar to the 17 Republicans who sought the nomination in 2016. That year’s New Hampshire Republican primary result, of course, was splintered, allowing then-candidate Trump to win it with 35 percent of the vote and propelling him to dominate the nominating contest.
“This is the most wide-open Democratic presidential primary we have seen since 1992, and for many people this will create a lot of opportunities, even for those not from New England, who need a breakout moment,” said Mike Vlacich, a veteran Democratic strategist who ran Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign in 2016.
Among the other Democrats who have talked about a bid: former vice president Joe Biden; former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg; Colorado governor John Hickenlooper; former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe; Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon; and Representatives John Delaney of Maryland and Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who just lost a bid for Senate.
Think New England has a surplus of presidential hopefuls? Try California, where at least five Democrats are making moves to run: Senator Kamala Harris, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Representatives Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
“New Hampshire’s primary is still critically important, but for a number of reasons it will not be as decisive in 2020 as it has been traditionally,” said former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who competed in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. “That said, anyone who doesn’t do well there — particularly from New England — will do so at their own peril.”
The key for winning the New Hampshire primary, however, may lie a week earlier and hundreds of miles away in Iowa, where a strong finish — even if it’s not win — can boost a candidate through the primary calendar.
“The impact of momentum out of Iowa on to New Hampshire is huge,” said Joe Trippi, who managed Vermont governor Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004. “Dukakis was able to call his third-place finish in Iowa in 1988 a win, and that bolstered him ahead in New Hampshire.”
The last time three New Englanders ran head-to-head in the New Hampshire primary was 2004, when Kerry won, Dean finished second, and Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman finished fifth.
“Even though [former senator] John Edwards finished second in Iowa, heading into New Hampshire everyone saw it as this huge contest between two New Englanders,” said Trippi. “Iowa and New Hampshire always winnow the field, but in 2020 New Hampshire will likely be the make-or-break state for candidates from the area.”
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.