Less than six months before the New Hampshire primary, presidential candidates are visiting the state increasingly often, with more than a dozen Democrats — plus President Trump — making trips over last week and this one ahead.
Welcome to the part of the campaign that political scientists call “the invisible primary.” Historically, long before voters cast their ballots, campaigns are jockeying to compete in polling, fund-raising, staff organization, and local endorsements.
Granted, some of these metrics of early success have changed for 2020. For example, campaigns are focused on unique individual contributions instead of the total sum raised, because that’s one of the Democratic National Committee’s thresholds to participate in debates. And, separately, thanks to technological advances, a campaign needs fewer boots on the ground because of the increasing pervasiveness of social media.
But some of the more traditional metrics still matter at this stage in a campaign, including showing up in the early nominating states, building a strong campaign organization, and the ability to lure independent voters (an X-factor in New Hampshire, where primaries are open to them). There’s also the candidates’ home-state advantage, as well as how they fare in what Democrats have said is their No.1 criteria for a nominee — someone who can defeat Trump.
The latest Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll found a top tier of candidates had emerged in the New Hampshire contest: former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. And then there is everyone else (yes, all 20 of them).
With that in mind, here is how those three candidates stack up in New Hampshire in each of these key metrics.
Since candidates must rack up their unique donations to make the debate stage, White House hopefuls are traveling to states that have never before received attention from presidential campaigns at this stage of the game.
Still, showing up in New Hampshire, home of the nation’s first primary, matters a great deal, given the state’s long tradition of wanting to meet and vet the candidates personally.
And there are side benefits for campaigns: Inviting a Democrat to an event keeps the campaign on their radar, even if that person doesn’t attend. The event can bring local news coverage, and in between public appearances, there’s an opportunity to schmooze with the party’s poobahs backstage.
Among the top-tier, Warren is the most frequent visitor to the state. According to New England Cable News, she’s done 36 events in New Hampshire, compared with 26 for Sanders and just 14 for Biden.
Advantage: Warren. Indeed, some New Hampshire Democrats said that it seems like Warren is in the state all the time (it doesn’t hurt that it’s only about an hour by car from Cambridge to the border). Both Warren and Sanders had multiple appearances in the state last week, but it’s worth noting that Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is also a frequent visitor to New Hampshire and is scheduled to return on Monday. The former vice president is due in the state at the end of the week.
Honorable mention: Former representative John Delaney of Maryland. Although Delaney is still polling at either zero or 1 percent in the state, the same NECN tracker shows he has done 111 different events, more than anyone else in the field.
Campaign staff and organization
Technological advancements aside, campaigns still need people to run phone banks, write letters to the editor, and help run campaign events. That’s where a strong infrastructure and staff comes into play.
In terms of big-name endorsements, Biden has them, including two former New Hampshire members of Congress, a former governor, a state senator, and a former US ambassador.
But he doesn’t have the passionate supporter base that Warren and Sanders can claim. Warren has largely built her team from scratch, while Sanders, the 2016 New Hampshire primary winner, started with a base of supporters who have remained loyal and organized since the last primary. At a recent Sanders event in the Lakes Region, for example, many of those attending said they had been devoted followers of the candidate for years.
Advantage: Sanders. Although Warren is making a lot of strides in building her organization, Sanders still has the advantage here. He has the largest staff, number of campaign offices, and volunteer committees.
Honorable mention: Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. He is punching well above his weight with local endorsements, including Jim Demers, who guided Barack Obama through the state in 2008, plus there are two state senators and eight state representatives on the New Jersey Democrat’s team. That list of supporters in the Legislature is more robust than any other Democrat running for president.
Luring independent voters
One of the biggest factors in the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primary will be voters who don’t even consider themselves members of the party. Independent (technically undeclared) voters make up 43 percent of the state’s electorate and can choose to take a Democratic or Republican ballot in the February primary.
These independent voters helped fuel Sanders’ win in the 2016 primary, but so far polling suggests they are going elsewhere.
Advantage: Biden. The Suffolk/Globe poll had Biden winning this group with 19 percent, compared with Sanders at 15 percent and Warren with 13 percent.
Honorable mention: Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld has struggled in his primary challenge to President Trump, but if he could persuade Republican-leaning independent voters to cast their ballot in protest of Trump, he could be an outsized factor. In 1992, for example, Pat Buchanan’s Republican primary challenge to President George H.W. Bush may have altered the outcome on the Democratic side due to the number of independents who opted to cast ballots in the GOP race.
Six out of seven times that a candidate from New England has run in the New Hampshire primary, they have won the contest. But in 2020, there will be two major candidates from neighboring states: Warren and Sanders.
The last time this happened was 2004, when Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts defeated Governor Howard Dean of Vermont. The win set Kerry off to the nomination, and Dean never recovered. (The only local loser of a New Hampshire primary was Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, when he ran against incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980.)
Advantage: None. It’s a tie between Warren and Sanders. It should be no surprise polls show Warren does better among voters along the state’s Massachusetts border, and Sanders fares better among voters in the north and west near Vermont. And although there are more New Hampshire residents who are in the Boston media market, Sanders is already familiar with the state and the state with him.
Honorable mention: Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. The Salem Democrat represents a congressional district that borders New Hampshire. His future campaign schedule suggests he plans to double down on campaigning in the state. But he has yet to make a debate stage, so it remains unclear whether he will still be in the race by the time New Hampshire votes.
Selling their electability
Admittedly, electability is hard to quantify months before an election. However, when poll after poll finds this to be the No. 1 quality that Democrats want in a candidate, it’s also hard to ignore the role it will play in the primary.
Almost every candidate includes in their pitch why they can beat Trump. For example, while in Franconia last week, Warren told voters she could lure Trump supporters by focusing on economic inequality.
Indeed, the latest Suffolk/Globe poll says that Warren, at least for now, is doing the best job convincing voters of this. Among those respondents who said nominating someone who can beat Trump is more important that nominating a candidate who agreed with them on the issues, Warren leads the group with 20 percent support, compared to Biden at 15 percent and Sanders at 12 percent.
Advantage: Warren. This might be surprising given that Biden typically does better in this category in other polls and Warren has been dogged by the perception that she cannot beat Trump.
Honorable mention: None. Senator Kamala Harris of California and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg both had double-digit support among respondents who said the most important thing is finding a candidate who can beat Trump. It’s up for debate whether a pure outsider like New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang or Governor Steve Bullock of Montana, who has won three times statewide in a red state that Trump has won, can convince voters they have a better chance.