It was a typical summer Friday night. Beer and cocktails flowing freely under a temporary tent. Guests grazing on a buffet of watermelon and mixed greens, corn and sliders. People complaining about their idiot bosses. And because it was New Hampshire in the early days of a presidential primary season, there were young staffers cajoling passers-by into supporting their preferred candidate.
Organizers with the New Hampshire Young Democrats had sold 400 tickets at $25 apiece for the evening of politics and pints at a local brewery in Portsmouth, N.H. There were sign-up sheets to volunteer and codes to text to receive New Hampshire-specific updates from the candidates. Many of those milling around wore stickers slapped on their gingham shirts or tees emblazoned with their candidates’ slogans.
But what emerged from all the activity was an approximation of the state of play here in the state that will host the lead-off primary in a little over six months’ time. “It feels really early,” said state Rep. Matt Wilhelm, who represents downtown Manchester and is backing South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “But we are all here because we all want to beat Donald Trump.”
Trump’s election has boosted Democrats here as it has across the country. Membership in the New Hampshire Young Democrats grew from hundreds to more than 7,000 since November 2016. Democrats in New Hampshire picked up 67 seats in the state House last year and another four in the state Senate, giving the party control of the state Legislature. Many of those young activists now have plugged into the quickly growing campaign machines springing up in New Hampshire and competing for resumes. With some two-dozen serious candidates, it’s a tough fight for staff talent.
Most activists, regardless of their candidate, say that Sen. Elizabeth Warren has the largest and most formidable political footprint in New Hampshire. Her campaign isn’t publicly commenting on their numbers, but her rivals speak with admiration about what she has built, despite polling that has seemed stuck in the single-digits. Last week, the Massachusetts senator staged an 800-person showing in 6,300-person Peterborough, N.H., while her campaign fundraising suggests she remains formidable and CBS News’ polling model for delegates gives Warren backers plenty of reason to be optimistic.
Warren for years has collaborated with her neighboring state’s Democratic Party, laying the groundwork to tap into activists. Many members of her inner-circle worked in recent years for New Hampshire candidates, and she can now turn their experiences to her ambitions in 2020. For instance, the operative leading Warren’s efforts in New Hampshire served as Hillary Clinton’s political director for New Hampshire in 2016 and then became a special assistant to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
Polling leader and former Vice President Joe Biden is widely seen as having the third-largest organization in New Hampshire. Aides say Biden has just under 40 people, slightly behind the 45 that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont claims. Sanders’ standing, though, seems firmly parked in second place in the state and he’s done little to patch up his feuds with local Establishment-minded Democrats. For instance, his campaign registered for the Merrimack July 4 parade as an independent so he didn’t get lumped in with the other Democratic campaigns.
There remains an uneasy sense among even Biden’s supporters that his polling advantage may be working against him. “He’s got a giant target on him now,” says one unaffiliated Democratic strategist in New Hampshire.
Biden, himself, gets it.
“The good news about being the front runner is you’re the front runner. The bad news about being the front runner is that everyone is behind you,” Biden told guests at a campaign stop during a stop in Dover, N.H., on Friday. “The last thing we need — to use Barack’s phrase — is to form a circular firing squad.”
It is still anyone’s game in New Hampshire. Hours before Biden spoke to about 200 people in Dover, Buttigieg turned out 841 people. In polls, Biden has a 3-to-1 advantage.
“People here have seen and heard Biden before,” said Andy Smith, a political scientist and pollster at the University of New Hampshire. “The others are new and New Hampshire voters take their role seriously.”
But momentum counts. Sen. Kamala Harris was on the receiving end of serious questions about whether she would write-off New Hampshire in favor of more diverse states like South Carolina, Texas and her home state of California. Then, she attracted a 1,500-person crowd during a snowstorm in Portsmouth, N.H. in February —widely accepted as the largest single event of the cycle in New Hampshire so far.
Harris has about 30 hands on the ground in New Hampshire, now including a top aide who last year ran the gubernatorial campaign of the Democratic nominee. Last week, Harris announced an endorsement from a former state party chairman. And on Sunday, she was in Gilford, N.H., at a house party hosted by former state Rep. Lisa DiMartino and so large it had to move to the backyard. It’s a typical model and one that may pay dividends if her post-debate buzz is sustained.
Still, it’s too early to write off the lesser-polling candidates. After a slow start, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas is ramping up a machine in the state, led by an aide who previously ran state operations for Sen. Maggie Hassan. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has a five-year veteran of New Hampshire politics running his Granite State campaign, which spent the weekend taking an RV tour of the state and knocking doors for Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, who faces re-election this fall. Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohioan who went to law school in New Hampshire, has the backing of three of Manchester’s 14 aldermen.
“Hillary [Clinton] was up over us by double-digits right up until the week of the primary in 2008,” said one former Obama aide who is neutral in the race so far. “She ended up beating us by under 3 [points]. New Hampshire voters aren’t going to decide until the last possible minute. The only thing you can do is to build a campaign in case lightning strikes late.”
To varying degrees of success, that seems to be the playbook the 2020 contenders are following. But the pre-season summer of New Hampshire organizing can be a grueling test. Gone is the excitement of the first weeks of campaigning, and still long away are the final weeks’ urgency. That’s why New Hampshire Democrats are anticipating a ramped-up schedule of visits from the candidates in the coming weeks. The political machines don’t just happen overnight.