N.H. primary winners tend to be moderate, except for Bernie Sanders. Can lightning strike twice?
From backing free college to supporting Medicare for All, reparations, the Green New Deal, and the decriminalization of illegal border crossings, the 2020 presidential field shows a party that has moved decidedly to the left in recent years.
But if history is any guide, New Hampshire Democrats won’t be interested. In the state’s past first-in-the-nation presidential primaries, their winners have almost always been the more moderate candidates in the party: Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, Al Gore, John Kerry, and, in 2008, Hillary Clinton.
The exception? Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who defeated Clinton by a wide margin in 2016. And as the Vermonter returns to the state Monday for a two-day swing, one of his tasks will be to figure out how to once again defy history — especially with several other progressive candidates in the race.
The week ahead in New Hampshire will highlight the challenge in a dramatic way: Elizabeth Warren, who slightly trails Sanders in Granite State polls as both battle to be the progressive alternative to front-runner Joe Biden, will hold events in the northern part of the state one day after Sanders.
“Sanders was able to be the exception to the rule in 2016 because of a unique set of circumstances in which he could fuse the party’s progressive wing with its anti-Clinton and anti-establishment voters,” said Judy Reardon, a longtime Democratic activist in New Hampshire who backed Clinton in 2016 and has endorsed Kirsten Gillibrand in this primary.
“Obviously there are many more candidates who are competing for different wings of his previous coalition,” she said.
It’s not just Warren. Several candidates have adopted planks of Sanders’ platform, such as his support for Medicare for All and increasing the minimum wage, as well as his opposition to free trade agreements. One of Sanders’ most high-profile endorsements of his 2016 campaign, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, is running herself.
Mark MacKenzie, former New Hampshire AFL-CIO head and Sanders campaign steering committee member, said that while Warren and others have no doubt made the path to victory more difficult, the candidate’s 2016 win was no fluke.
“Bernie really woke up Democrats that what has normally been going on is not working for them,” MacKenzie said. “He has a group of people very committed to that idea, and while we saw some people looking at other candidates, they are starting to come back.” For example, former state Senator Burt Cohen said last week he will endorse Sanders again after meeting with other candidates, including hosting a Marianne Williamson house party last month.
But the same poll found that, once again, a moderate establishment candidate was leading in the state: Biden. The former vice president had 21 percent, and Sanders and Warren had 17 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
“What is keeping Biden in the lead is that no one is even competing with him among older voters, union households, and moderates,” said David Paleologos, the director of the Suffolk poll. “Sanders really needs Warren out of the way and vice versa, but neither appear to be going away.”
The same survey found a split among likely Democratic primary voters in the state: 51 percent call themselves moderate, conservative, or very conservative, compared to 45 percent who say they are liberal or very liberal. (The poll of 500 likely Democratic primary voters was taken Aug. 1 to 4)
Beyond the presidential race, a moderate Democrat has won every statewide primary for governor or US Senate in the last 15 years.
“There is no question that there is a moderate establishment running local Democratic politics in this state that have made it very hard for more progressive candidates to get a foothold,” said Paul McEachern of Portsmouth, who lost the Democratic nomination for governor to a more moderate candidate, John Lynch, in 2004. (McEachern supported Sanders in 2016, but he is backing Warren in this race).
McEachern attributed much of this dynamic to his own former campaign manager, current US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, the state’s most senior elected Democrat. If Shaheen, a more moderate Democrat, endorses a candidate or gives them her approval, the contender is in a much better position to raise money or recruit talented staff in the state, he said.
As Shaheen and all of the Democratic establishment backed Clinton in 2016, they were rebuked by Sanders supporters. Shaheen was even booed by Sanders supporters at a large state party dinner named after her just days before the presidential primary.
By then, polls showed Sanders with an advantage. His victory became a blowout, as he defeated Clinton by 22 percentage points, catapulting Sanders into a two-person showdown with the former US secretary of state that lasted for months.
Last year in New Hampshire, the establishment struck back.
More moderate candidates who had the backing of Shaheen, US Senator Maggie Hassan, and Representative Annie Kuster won both the Democratic nomination for governor and a key congressional race: In the primary to succeed retiring Representative Carol Shea-Porter, one of the party’s most liberal members, moderate Chris Pappas defeated a number of challengers who ran as Sanders supporters — including Sanders’ own son, Levi.
Shaheen has said she will not endorse anyone in the 2020 presidential primary, saying she needs to focus on her own reelection.
And in 2020, according to Peter Burling, a former state senator and former Democratic National Committeeman, internal party jousts will take a back seat to the greater mission: New Hampshire Democrats are just looking for a winner.
“The common theme in New Hampshire Democratic politics in the last few decades has been pragmatism,” said Burling, a progressive who backed former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley in 2016 and is uncommitted so far in this primary.
Burling said that when he talks to local Democrats at his house parties for presidential candidates, they say defeating Trump remains the top priority.
And in New Hampshire, while voters size up their options, the stakes will be clear in their backyard. Trump will hold a rally in Manchester on Thursday.