New Hampshire Hopes to Clarify Unsettled Democratic Contest

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) -
Town moderator Tom Tillotson shows an empty ballot box just before voting begins in the U.S. Presidential primary election at the Hale House at Balsams Hotel in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, Tuesday. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Democrats are hoping that voters in New Hampshire will reset the party’s presidential nomination fight on Tuesday and bring clarity to a young primary season that has been marred by deep dysfunction and doubt.

Since the chaotic Iowa caucuses failed to perform their traditional function of winnowing the race, it now falls to New Hampshire to begin culling the Democratic field, which still features almost a dozen candidates.

For Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the vote is an opportunity to lock in dominance of the party’s left flank. A repeat of his strong showing in Iowa could severely damage progressive rival Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who faces the prospect of an embarrassing defeat on her near-home turf.

While Sanders marches forward, moderates are struggling to unite behind a candidate. After essentially tying with Sanders for first place in Iowa, Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, begins his day as the centrist front-runner. But at least two other White House hopefuls — former Vice President Joe Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — are competing for the same voters, a dynamic that could delay the nomination contest if it continues.

More than a year after Democrats began announcing their presidential candidacies, Democrats are struggling to coalesce behind a message or a messenger in their desperate quest to defeat President Donald Trump. That’s raising the stakes of the New Hampshire primary as voters weigh whether candidates are too liberal, too moderate or too inexperienced — vulnerabilities that could play to Trump’s advantage in the fall.

During the final day of campaigning, many voters said they still hadn’t made a final choice. University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith predicted that as many as 20% of voters would make up their minds on Election Day with twice as many deciding over the last three days.

“Historically, New Hampshire is known to shift late,” he warned those with expectations.

New Hampshire’s secretary of state predicted record-high turnout on Tuesday. If that doesn’t happen, Democrats will confront the prospect of waning enthusiasm following weak turnout in Iowa last week and Trump’s rising poll numbers.

Trump, campaigning in New Hampshire on Monday night, sought to inject chaos in the process. The Republican president suggested that conservative-leaning voters could affect the state’s Democratic primary results, though only registered Democrats and voters not registered with either party can participate in New Hampshire’s Democratic presidential primary.

“I hear a lot of Republicans tomorrow will vote for the weakest candidate possible of the Democrats,” Trump said Monday. “My only problem is I’m trying to figure out who is their weakest candidate. I think they’re all weak.”

Another complication that could affect turnout: weather. Forecasts call for a light wintry mix or rain and snow in some parts of the state, which could make travel treacherous.

Biden — and the Democratic Party’s establishment wing — may have the most to lose on Tuesday should the former two-term vice president underperform in a second consecutive primary election. Biden has earned the overwhelming share of endorsements from elected officials across the nation as party leaders seek a relatively “safe” nominee to run against Trump.

But the distance between Democratic voters and their party leaders appears to be growing.

After finishing in a distant fourth place in Iowa, Biden acknowledged he would likely “take a hit” in New Hampshire. The dark prediction during Friday’s debate disappointed New Hampshire loyalists like state House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, who endorsed Biden less than a month ago but spoke about him over the weekend as if he were already eliminated from contention.

“I hope the vice president does well, and I hope he can move forward, but it’s hard to say,” Shurtleff said in an interview. “The sad thing for me personally is that he’s such a terrific individual.”

He noted that no Democrat has ever become the party’s presidential nominee without finishing first or second in New Hampshire.

Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, sought to cast New Hampshire as one small step in the path to the presidential nomination, with contests coming up soon in more diverse states that award more delegates like Nevada and South Carolina, where Biden hopes to retain his advantage among minority voters.

“We plan to be competitive, but the reality is we always said this was going to be a fight. We have to let this full process play out,” Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders said. “Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, we plan to move forward.”

The stakes were dire for Warren as well in a contest set just next door to her Massachusetts home. She has positioned herself as a mainstream alternative to Bernie Sanders but is suddenly looking up at him and Buttigieg as Klobuchar fights to peel away female support.

Warren sought to project confidence on Monday, telling reporters she’s “been counted down and out for much of my life.”

“You get knocked down,” she said. “You get back up.”

Buttigieg, young and with no governing experience beyond the mayor’s office, is trying to emerge as the leading Biden alternative for his party’s moderate wing. His team — with 75 paid staffers, 15 campaign offices scattered across 10 counties and roughly 300 trained volunteer leaders heading the get-out-the-vote teams — has added volunteers since Iowa, aides said.

Buttigieg has aggressively courted moderate Democrats, independents and what he calls “future former Republicans” as he tries to cobble together a winning coalition, just as he did in Iowa, where he finished in a near tie with Sanders for the lead.

In the days leading up to Tuesday’s primary, Buttigieg has come under increasing attack from Biden and Klobuchar, who seized on his lack of experience. And from the left, Sanders attacked Buttigieg’s reliance on big-dollar donors, which sparked jeers of “Wall Street Pete” from Sanders’ supporters.

Buttigieg seemed unfazed by the attacks. He barely altered his stump speech as he crisscrossed the state, calling on voters to “turn the page” to a new generation of leadership.

Sanders, meanwhile, has been one of the only candidates to explicitly predict victory in New Hampshire, where he defeated Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points four years ago.

Like Buttigieg, his confidence is connected to the strength of his organization. He proclaimed repeatedly in recent days that his team knocked on 150,000 doors on Saturday alone, a significant number given that the state expects fewer than 300,000 people to vote Tuesday in the Democratic primary.