Democratic voters fret over unsettled primary as Trump grows stronger

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

EXETER, N.H. — Gwen English was sitting in a coffee shop next to Hillary Clinton in 2008 when Clinton began to tear up in response to a question from a voter during the height of that year’s presidential campaign.

That iconic moment where Clinton’s stoic mask slipped for just a moment to reveal some sense of emotional vulnerability helped her rebound from a surprising loss that year to Barack Obama in Iowa. She won the New Hampshire primary days later, leading to a protracted battle with Obama for the Democratic nomination that she ultimately lost. 

English, a retired teacher, loved Clinton. But she contrasted Clinton’s reserve with the more engaging personality of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., after watching Klobuchar speak to a packed crowd here on Monday.

“I think Amy relates to people more easily [than Clinton],” English said.

English liked what she saw from Klobuchar, who is enjoying a surge ahead of Tuesday’s primary vote in New Hampshire, where Democrats will weigh in on the party’s quest to choose a nominee.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar at a campaign event on Monday in Exeter, N.H. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

But English is anxious, like just about every Democratic voter here in the Granite State, about whether her party is on track to unify around a candidate who can defeat President Trump in the general election this fall.

“It’s total fear,” English told Yahoo News. “I was in tears on Nov. 9, [the day after] Trump got elected. It was one of my saddest birthdays.”

Klobuchar’s late momentum is in some ways a sign of the Democratic Party’s conundrum. There are so many candidates in the Democratic field that voters are nonplussed, split, conflicted and, in some ways, discouraged from even voting.

“Everybody’s so afraid that they’re not able to pick the right person that they’re actually demotivated to go out of the door to vote,” said Laura Korvinus, 21, an art history student from the Netherlands who traveled to New Hampshire with a group to observe the primary.

Korvinus and others in her group have knocked on doors in recent days for the campaign of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, and found many New Hampshire voters overwhelmed by the multiplicity of choices on the Democratic ballot.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez take the stage Monday night at the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore Center Arena. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

“They were so confused. They see that their front is so divided. What is the identity of the Democrats? That’s their problem,” Korvinus said.

Sanders is expected to finish near the top after winning the popular vote in Iowa and finishing just behind Pete Buttigieg in the delegate count there. But many Democrats think Sanders would lose to Trump because he identifies as a socialist.

Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden have both been frontrunners over the past few months, but have lost considerable momentum of late. But even if they both fade, two billionaires are vying to scoop up voters in their wake: hedge fund manager Tom Steyer and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, Trump’s political fortunes are on the upswing. The Senate acquitted him last week on the two counts of impeachment brought against him by the House of Representatives. The economy is healthy. The Gallup tracking poll gave him the highest approval rating of his presidency — 49 percent — during the last two weeks of January.

Ahead of Trump’s rally in Manchester, N.H., on Monday night, hundreds of the president’s supporters lined up outside the SNHU Arena in the rain and cold to get in.

“The economy’s great,” said Shannon Folscroft, a 40-year-old CPA, who showed up before noon to get in line with her 12-year-old son, seven hours before Trump took the stage. The president, she said, is “following through on trying to keep the border safe.”

Meanwhile, the sense of urgency among Democrats could not be greater.

President Trump at a campaign rally on Monday in Manchester, N.H. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

“Right now, each one of us is living a nightmare,” said James Carville, the former adviser to Bill Clinton, at an event for Sen. Michael Bennet on Saturday afternoon in Manchester. Bennet, a Democratic senator from Colorado, is a long-shot candidate who has failed to gain traction in the polls, even as Carville described him as best qualified to be president.

The 2020 election, Carville said, “is a war as big as any we have fought. … We cannot take four more years of this.”

Trump looms large in the imaginations of Democratic voters, who look ahead to the presidential debates this fall — where their eventual nominee will stand alone with Trump on a stage — with a sense of dread.

“How will you fight this viper who goes for the jugular?” asked Catherine Caldwell, a 64-year-old lifelong Democrat who attended a Biden event on Sunday in Hampton Beach, on the coast. “I have been consumed by this since the moment [Trump] got elected.”

Caldwell teaches English as a second language to public school students outside Boston, but worked for an airline in a previous career. (In fact, she was onboard a commercial airliner in 1986 — TWA Flight 840 — when a bomb planted by a terrorist group exploded, blowing four passengers out of the aircraft to their deaths. Because the flight was in its descent, it was able to land without further loss of life, and Caldwell and the other passengers survived.)

Caldwell said she is “like all the Democrats.” It’s all about “electability,” she said.

That’s why figures like Carville have emerged this week to warn against nominating Sanders, even as he has begun to emphasize his own ability to beat Trump in a one-on-one matchup.

Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, right, with political commentator James Carville at a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., on Saturday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

“Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who can beat Trump,” claimed actor Tim Robbins, at a rally for Sanders at Keene State College on Sunday evening. The crowd of roughly 2,000 Sanders supporters burst into a chant: “Bernie beats Trump! Bernie beats Trump!”

Judith Hyde, a 73-year-old Maine resident, came to New Hampshire to see Sanders speak in Manchester on Monday morning in an indoor baseball training facility. Hyde said she voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in 2012 and 2016, and would write Sanders in if he failed to win the Democratic nomination.

“The corporate Democrats are going to be just like Trump,” she said. She sees little difference between Trump and the Democratic candidates other than Sanders.

“I think that he could win the presidency,” Hyde said of Sanders. “But I don’t think the Democrats will let him be the nominee, because they have too many donors that they have to keep happy.”

Buttigieg and Klobuchar, by contrast, appeal to Democratic voters who think their party needs a more moderate nominee to win over general election voters.

At Klobuchar’s event on Monday, she mixed personal stories about her father’s struggles with alcoholism with a detailed list of policies she would enact, but avoided the technocratic vibe that voters say they sometimes get from Warren. Klobuchar ran through a stump-speech litany of things she would do in her first six days but then capped it with a self-effacing joke.

“And on day seven we will rest,” she cracked.

A few moments later Klobuchar told a joke about climate change that she knew would elicit groans. “We have to build a fridge to the next century,” she said. And then she poked fun at herself. “OK, it’s really hard to make climate change jokes because they’re not that funny.”

Amy Klobuchar at a campaign event in Exeter, N.H., on the eve of the state’s primary. (Elise Amendola/AP)

English, the retired teacher, was one of several voters who appreciated Klobuchar’s wit.  

“I think having a sense of humor is very important,” English said. “She’s confident enough in herself to make fun of herself.”

English was impressed with Klobuchar’s level of knowledge and experience as well.

“I like her enthusiasm. I believe she can do what she says she can do. I think she will work well across the board with everybody,” English said. “I think I am decided now.”

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