The political headlines out of New Hampshire this weekend bear an eerie resemblance to those of September 1999: an underdog senator overtaking a prohibitive front-runner in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In that case it was then-Sen. Bill Bradley surging ahead of then-Vice President Al Gore. Today it’s Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) making life difficult for former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Sixteen years ago, Bradley could not hold his lead. He lost to Gore in Iowa and then narrowly in New Hampshire, which washed away his hopes of winning the nomination. The challenge for Sanders as summer turns to fall is to try to avoid the same fate here in 2016.
An NBC-Marist poll released Sunday showed Sanders leading Clinton 41 percent to 32 percent in New Hampshire, with Vice President Biden included among the list of candidates. It was the third poll showing Sanders ahead there and the nine-point advantage is his biggest yet. Without Biden in the list of candidates, the NBC-Marist survey showed Sanders leading Clinton by 11 points, 48 to 37 percent.
Bradley moved ahead of Gore at almost exactly this same time in 1999. The analyses of that race read very much as they do now, with the underdog catching fire and the favorite criticized for missteps and an inability to generate real enthusiasm among grass-roots activists.
It is not entirely surprising that Sanders, like Bradley, has found a receptive audience in New Hampshire this far in advance of the primary. The Granite State often hectors front-runners, at least for a time, and its demographics provide a political petri dish for an underdog insurgency like the campaign Sanders is running.
The state’s electorate is relatively better educated and more affluent than in some other states. Independents — or non-declared voters — are allowed to vote in whichever primary they choose and often play a significant role in determining the outcome. The fault lines have defined other races in New Hampshire: Walter Mondale vs. Gary Hart in 1984; Howard Dean vs. John Kerry in 2004. Barack Obama vs. Clinton in 2008.
The NBC-Marist poll of New Hampshire Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents highlighted the existence of those same fault lines today.
Sanders leads Clinton among college graduates but is essentially tied with Clinton among those without college degrees. Clinton holds a tiny lead among those with incomes of below $50,000; Sanders has a bigger lead among those with incomes above $50,000. Clinton leads among women; Sanders has a bigger lead among men.
Clinton leads among self-identified Democrats; Sanders has a huge lead among independents. Sanders has a sizable lead among those who identify themselves as liberal or very liberal. Clinton trails but does better among moderates.
Having taken a lead in New Hampshire, Sanders must now try to hold it. He is fortunate in one respect. His campaign team includes Tad Devine, who was a senior adviser to Gore in the 2000 campaign, as well as Mark Longabaugh, who served as Bradley’s New Hampshire coordinator. Both have been schooled on that experience and are thinking now about how to prevent Clinton from doing to Sanders what Gore did to Bradley.
Devine sees one structural shift that he believes will play to Sanders’s advantage. The New Hampshire electorate, he said in an e-mail, is likely to be more liberal than it was in 2000 or 2004. That’s true of the ideological leanings of self-identified Democrats nationally, but more surveys are needed to see how much that has changed the New Hampshire electorate. Nonetheless, Devine said, “I think that primary electorate has moved left and I think that helps,” he said.
Sanders also will need the support he currently enjoys among independents to hold up until February’s primary. In 2000, many of New Hampshire’s independents cast ballots in the Republican primary, fueling Sen. John McCain’s stunning upset of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the establishment front-runner. Had more independents voted in the Democratic primary, Bradley might have won narrowly. No one knows yet which New Hampshire primary will attract the most independents.
One key to Gore’s success was his ability to change the dynamic of the race during the fall of 1999 by aggressively attacking Bradley. Gore accused Bradley of running away from battles with Republicans in the 1980s and 1990s and sought to eviscerate Bradley’s health-care plan as one that would shred the social safety net and eliminate the projected budget surpluses.
As my colleagues Philip Rucker and John Wagner wrote this week, so far Sanders and Clinton have avoided attacking each other, each choosing to run a campaign on themes of their choosing. How long that will last is anyone’s guess. Devine insists Sanders will continue to avoid a mud fight with Clinton. “We . . . have to not allow our opponent(s) to dictate the terms of the debate the way that Gore did to Bradley,” Devine said.
That, however, could depend on Clinton and how threatened she feels by Sanders’s rise. Her team has worked since the spring to build organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire strong enough to overcome any serious challenge.
She also can look to recover from a possible loss in either Iowa or New Hampshire to later primaries where the composition of the electorate — particularly where the size of the minority vote is significantly larger — could play to her advantage. But there’s no guarantee that she will stay on the high road in the face of Sanders’s rise.
Clinton got a head start on Sanders in organizing, but Devine said the Vermont senator’s operations have been augmented rapidly. He said the New Hampshire paid staff has grown from just four people in early August to 37 today and that the paid staff in Iowa now totals more than 50. By way of comparison, Clinton’s campaign currently has 36 organizers in New Hampshire and 78 in Iowa.
Sanders has two other factors to consider as he looks to spring an upset in New Hampshire. First, the Granite State has been good to the Clintons — unlike Iowa. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign was rescued after a scandal-driven meltdown by a second-place finish in the primary there. In 2008, Hillary Clinton claimed a surprise victory over Barack Obama when she appeared on the brink of a second straight loss. Both Clintons love New Hampshire.
The second factor is the role women play in New Hampshire politics and Democratic primary elections. Unlike Iowa, which only last year elected its first woman to Congress (Republican Sen. Joni Ernst), New Hampshire has a history of supporting women. Currently, the governor, both senators (one Democrat, one Republican) and one of two House members are women.
Clinton’s victory over Obama in 2008 was powered in part by her support among women in New Hampshire. She lost to Obama among men by 11 points but won among women by 12 points. More significantly, women made up 57 percent of the electorate in the 2008 Democratic primary.
In the NBC-Marist poll, women accounted for 52 percent of the sample, a smaller percentage than in any of the last three Democratic primaries. If history is a guide, Sanders could be at a gender disadvantage come February and will have to find ways to blunt Clinton’s strength among female voters.
Devine offered this shorthand for the months ahead. “Build the campaign on the ground in [Iowa and New Hampshire] and elsewhere; keep on message; use resources wisely (don’t play their game of attrition); and keep focused. We’ll see what happens.”