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Ground Game

4 takeaways from the 2020 Democratic town halls in New Hampshire

Associated Press/AFP/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders said anyone in prison should have the right to vote, including a Boston Marathon bomber. Pete Buttigieg disagreed.

Elizabeth Warren said she wouldn’t be “Hillaried” because she defeated Scott Brown after a fellow Democratic woman lost to him in the previous election.

Amy Klobuchar argued her Minnesota roots mean she can best win over swing Midwestern states — even if she had to ask for applause after making her point.

Kamala Harris said as president she would give Congress 100 days to do something to address gun violence and if they fail to act she would use executive orders to institute sweeping gun control changes.


All five Democratic presidential candidates participated Monday in five hours of back-to-back town hall meetings at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., co-sponsored by Harvard’s Institute of Politics and aired on CNN. Only college and graduate students were invited to attend and ask questions, many of which were related to younger voters.

Throughout the five hours of television there was a little news, in the form of Sanders’ stated belief that even “terrible people” should retain the right to vote, he said, “because the right to vote is inherent to our democracy.”

But there were four larger takeaways from the evening that might be more incisive to just how the budding Democratic presidential campaign will play out over the next year.

1. Cable news channels directly competing with the early presidential primary states for clout

For nearly a half century, would-be presidential candidates have devoted considerable resources to Iowa and New Hampshire, believing that they were the launching pads to the White House.

Over the years these states vigorously guarded their roles in the process against other states that tried to move up in the presidential primary calendar. But as Monday night put on display, New Hampshire was a backdrop to the national town hall meetings.


CNN selected the questions that were asked, the sequencing of the candidates, (e.g. Sanders was given the best time slot) and the candidates gladly agreed to fly anywhere CNN wanted the town hall meeting to be, believing that these town halls versus a traditional untelevised campaign event in New Hampshire was the way they could take off.

And the evidence of this theory was obvious: Buttigieg launched himself into the top three candidates in polls from nowhere because of his performance in a previous CNN town hall meeting.

2. Impeachment is the issue of the day in the presidential race

Every candidate was asked about if the Democratic-controlled US House should move forward with impeachment proceedings for President Trump in the wake of the release of the redacted Mueller report last week.

With their answers, the candidates seemed to represent their political styles and ideologies. But even for Warren and Sanders, who largely agree on most issues, the topic highlighted an area where they disagree.

“There is no political inconvenience exception in the US Constitution,” Warren said.

Sanders said that following through on impeaching the president could be a distraction and that he worries the process “works to Trump’s advantage.”

Harris said that Congress should take steps towards impeachment, but that she doesn’t believe Senate Republicans would seriously listen to the impeachment charges so “we have to be realistic about that.” This was a shift in her position from over the weekend, when she simply said that she wanted to Mueller to testify.


Klobuchar wouldn’t say whether or not Trump committed impeachable offenses because as a member of the Senate she would effectively be in the jury.

While it is understandable that this is a topic in the week after the 448-page report was released, there is nothing these candidates can actually do about it if they are elected to be president.

3. Warren is leading the policy debate

Sanders might be providing the intellectual framework for many of the big ideas of the 2020 Democratic campaign, including Medicare for All and free tuition at public colleges and universities. But over the course of their five hours, it was Warren leading the policy debate, as evidenced by the fact that all four other candidates were asked about Warren’s ideas and not the other way around.

To be fair, earlier in the day Warren released a new student debt plan that includes a significant amount of debt cancelation. All of the other candidates were asked about her plan. And if Warren had not come out so strongly for impeachment over the weekend it is possible that the issue may not have been such an important topic during the night.

4. Buttigieg didn’t get tripped up

Buttigieg, 37, has been having a moment for well over a month now, effectively sidelining former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke, who had been the “it” thing in American politics following the midterms.


But while Buttigieg has raised significant money and is rising in the polls, he had not faced such pointed questions in such a high-profile setting. The rookie could have struck out under the pressure, but held his own.

In one key exchange, Buttigieg was asked to respond to a snarky tweet from the US Ambassador to Germany about the back and forth between Buttigieg and Vice President Mike Pence, who are both from Indiana.

“I am not a master fisherman, but I know bait when I see it and I am not going to take it,” Buttigieg declared.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp