MANCHESTER, N.H. — In the first week in August, two things happened to US Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. For the first time, a poll showed Sanders leading former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in the Granite State. Secondly, the campaign hired a state director to oversee a four-person staff in a dingy Concord office.
A lot has changed for Sanders in the eight weeks marking his swift ascent to New Hampshire’s front-runner. Six straight surveys of the state’s first-in-the-nation primary have put Sanders ahead of Clinton. Today, the Sanders campaign has more than 40 aides working out of eight offices in the state — filling them in rapid fashion and closing in on Clinton’s already built-out staff of 50 in the state.
The growth of Sanders’ New Hampshire operation has happened with breathtaking speed — for better and for worse. The extra staffing will help Sanders compete with Clinton — but the quick expansion has also forced the self-described socialist to streamline an operation rooted in grass-roots enthusiasm.
Until recently Clinton’s campaign and many New Hampshire Democrats struggled to understand how Sanders became the state’s front-runner. Sanders’ team has grappled as well to assemble arguably the fastest-growing campaign in a century-old primary. That transition has been challenging — as it was for nearly every liberal insurgent who has tried to forge the same path.
“It has been a whirlwind,” said Julia Barnes, Sanders’ New Hampshire state director. “But it is sort of like a puzzle: You know what it is supposed to look like in the end, and you are just trying to get all the pieces in the right place.”
The style of the campaign Sanders is trying to run — turning grass-roots enthusiasm into an organized operation — is hardly a new concept for Democratic presidential candidates. New Hampshire primary history is filled with insurgents who tried to take on the party’s establishment pick with a passionate liberal base, starting with Gary Hart’s victory in 1984. In the contests following, there was always a more liberal alternative in the state’s Democratic primary, whether it was Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1988, former US senator Bill Bradley in 2000, or former governor Howard Dean in 2004.
None of them became their party’s nominee. Only one liberal insurgent candidate can claim that title — President Obama in 2008 — and it’s largely thanks to his campaign’s deft turnout operation in Iowa, where his primary competition, Clinton, proved weakest. For Sanders, the challenge is different: He must win in his neighboring state where Clinton has run the strongest primary operation.
Though, as Clinton proved here in her remarkable win in 2008, the way to win New Hampshire is not with television advertisements or fancy data turn-out programs. It’s by tapping into the established grass-roots networks of activists willing to write e-mails and make multiple phone calls in the critical last few days before the primary.
For Sanders, capturing this momentum and building out a campaign organization that can do this is vital to maintaining his front-runner status — and winning in February.
“The best argument that Clinton has right now is her organization in the state,” said New Hampshire AFL-CIO President Glenn Brackett, whose organization is currently neutral in the primary. “For Sanders, the next phase is for them to build an organization that can match Clinton.”
Former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Michael King oversaw the early campaign infrastructure for Dean. Today King, who has not backed a candidate yet, sees the Sanders’ campaign as having the inverse approach to Dean’s operation.
Under King, Dean started running years out by attending a small, intimate house parties that would eventually multiply and build to big rallies. For Sanders, the big rallies came first — and the attendees’ names were collected for smaller house parties.
“I am not saying their approach is the wrong one,” King said. “It is just certainly different. To be fair, I am not sure they expected the crowds they are getting to happen so quickly.”
In New Hampshire, the crowds follow Sanders where he speaks. On Saturday, more than 100 people watched him open his Manchester office. Later that day, Nearly 1,000 people began to line up for a town hall meeting in a Saint Anselm College room that seats roughly just 400 people. On Sunday, 600 people who showed up to see Sanders in the small town of Seabrook — during a New England Patriots football game.
The Sanders’ campaign’s favorite headline of the weekend came from The Washington Post: “Two days later, Sanders draws five times as many people as Clinton to event at same university in N.H.”
Indeed, 600 people showed up to attend a Clinton rally where she received an endorsement from Governor Maggie Hassan. Clinton’s event marked the first time a sitting New Hampshire governor endorsed a candidate in a competitive presidential primary in 16 years.
Sanders had 3,000 show up to hear him speak, according to the Post.
“I will be honest: I don’t know how all these people showed up,” said Barnes, who said the campaign only sent an e-mail and posted the event on social media.
Despite his increased staff and growing available campaign cash, volunteers still make up much of Sanders’ ad hoc field operation — although that is changing.
Caroline French of Dover makes homemade Sanders baseball caps. Mark King of Nashua began going door-to-door in his hometown to talk up Sanders long before a campaign told him where to go.
“It is nice that there is a campaign now that can organize all of us and tell us the best way of helping the effort,” said King, a librarian. “In the summer that really didn’t exist, and now it has taken off.”
Similarly, Carroll County Democratic Party Chairman Eric Tolbert has been impressed with how quickly the Sanders campaign has grown.
“The Sanders campaign has grown like a startup job,” said Tolbert, noting even in his rural Republican-leaning county, Sanders has one staffer on the ground, while Clinton has two.
“But what they are building on the ground is legit,” he added.