Six months until the 2020 New Hampshire primary, the largest field of presidential candidates in history has morphed into two camps: the vast majority of Democrats who, at this point, appear to have little chance of winning — and a smaller group, any of whom may have a shot.
Traditionally, Iowa and New Hampshire — the states that come first on the presidential nominating calendar — have winnowed the field of contenders. But the unprecedented primary field of two dozen Democrats has presented a unique situation to voters who, until recently, have been eager not to count anyone out of the race just yet.
This weekend, six candidates will fan out across New Hampshire: former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Kamala Harris of California, former representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, and Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. In all, there are 25 presidential campaign events in New Hampshire over three days this weekend.
But interviews with two dozen Democratic activists and campaign staff on the ground this week identified a top tier of as many as six contenders who operatives say are pulling in front of the pack.
There’s “this great sorting out between people in contention and those who aren’t, and where you draw the line,” said Ned Helms, a Democratic activist participating in his 13th presidential primary.
Helms said this week that he’s backing Biden, but that he also considered supporting Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Buttigieg, or Harris — and that anyone in the top tier could win the primary, which is scheduled for Feb. 11, 2020.
Insiders put that top tier somewhere between three to six candidates.
“It’s a range because while everyone agrees that it is basically down to three or four candidates, everyone has a different mix as to who those three or four people are,” said Billy Shaheen, the state’s Democratic National Committeeman and husband of Senator Jeanne Shaheen.
Polling, so far, has been scant in the state, but most of the operatives interviewed agreed that the top three includes Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Warren. Depending on whom you ask, that trio could expand to include Harris, who has gained ground since the last debate but has invested little on the staffing and organization in the state; Buttigieg, who is also seeking to build his campaign in the state; and Booker, a leader in the local endorsement race who is struggling in polls and fund-raising.
In addition, operatives gave kudos to Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota for trying to develop a campaign in New Hampshire, as well as accolades to the O’Rourke campaign for the quality of its local organization. However, local operatives said, neither has caught on or shown any signs that they might in a significant way.
And among the very top tier, everyone has an argument on why they are the best positioned to win.
Sanders has the highest baseline of support, bolstered by his backers from his 2016 victory in the state. This week, his staff boasted their organization was the largest in New Hampshire, saying they have more campaign offices than any other candidate.
But no top candidate has visited the state more frequently this year than Warren, who also has a sizable staff presence in New Hampshire and has been buoyed by a recent rise in national polls.
In the few recent polls of the state, Biden has the lead. A CBS News/YouGov poll taken in early June, for example, showed him with 33 percent, Sanders with 20 percent, Warren with 17 percent, and Buttigeg with 10 percent.
But in more recent national surveys, the gap between Biden and other contenders has shrunk since the first set of debates in late June. Biden can still count some of the state’s biggest endorsements, and those run the political gamut from moderate former governor John Lynch to progressive firebrand and former representative Carol Shea-Porter.
Compared to other recent primaries, this contest among Democrats feels like more of an open scrum than a race with a clear front runner, said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala. The state’s 2016 Democratic primary, for example, appeared early on to be a lock for the establishment’s favored candidate, Hillary Clinton, but Sanders went on to win by 22 percentage points.
“Biden is not Hillary,” said Scala. “There was early speculation that [the] Hillary experience would drive older female voters in flight to safety to Biden, but so far they are giving Warren and Harris a big look.”
Indeed, many candidates are still getting a look from voters. Although a top set of contenders has emerged, even lesser-known candidates can still draw a crowd in New Hampshire. Last Saturday, for example, 90 people showed up at a house party for author Marianne Williamson in New Castle — around the same time that 100 people attended a meet and greet with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York in Tamworth. Both candidates are polling around 1 percent in the state.
Louise Spencer, the cofounder of the New Hampshire-based progressive group Kent Street Coalition, said most of their members are hesitating to jump on any campaigns just yet.
“There are members who are looking at a few different candidates, but most are really focused this summer on making sure certain issues get into the mainstream of conversation,” said Spencer. “I don’t see this changing anytime soon.”
But time is not on the side of many candidates.
The field could be cut in half in the next few weeks as it becomes clear who qualifies for September’s debate, when the threshold for inclusion is much higher than earlier in the summer.
“The number one thing we want is a candidate who can beat Trump,” said Shaheen, who has pledged he won’t endorse anyone until fall at the earliest. “At this point we have an idea who can’t do it, but we just aren’t sure yet which is the best one that can.”