The front-runner’s supporters want a bigger course correction, but Brooklyn says it’s too early to panic.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign is preparing to ramp up operations in New Hampshire to halt Bernie Sanders’ advance and rescue a lead in a state so many Democrats had thought would be an easy win for the front-runner.
According to people inside and near Clinton’s brain trust in Brooklyn as well as her New Hampshire operation, this next phase starts Saturday, with a Women for Hillary program in Portsmouth that puts Clinton on stage with the state’s popular senator, Jeanne Shaheen. It also includes new policy proposals relevant to New Hampshire voters.
But some of her backers argue it won’t be enough to claw back the gains Sanders made this summer as Clinton’s email controversy has dragged on. Sanders has now tied Clinton in New Hampshire and leads according to some polls, with a primary vote only five months away.
“How do you pick up the pace when everyone’s stuck on one issue? Give me an answer on the server and the emails. They don’t get it, they’re so disconnected from the people,” said Arnie Arnsen, a former state legislator and now a liberal radio host in New Hampshire.
Indeed, to some of Clinton’s donors and supporters, the campaign’s reluctance to make a more aggressive move against Sanders in New Hampshire reflects the same tone-deafness they had been worried about for months in her approach to the email saga that has had a measurable effect on voters’ views of her trustworthiness.
And while Clinton’s team asserts its strength against Sanders, privately donors and strategists aligned with the camp concede Sanders could take New Hampshire, even if most publicly maintain that it remains unlikely.
This is not how it was supposed to be.
A third-place finish in Iowa stunned Clinton in 2008, followed by a come-from-behind win in New Hampshire that temporarily pumped life back into her bid. Coming off that experience, Clinton launched her 2016 campaign by driving immediately to Iowa.
“Months ago, you would have always looked at the caucus state of Iowa as much more difficult for getting a large turnout like New Hampshire’s,” said campaign fundraiser Jay Jacobs. “But from the very beginning, everybody understood — from Hillary to her top team — that they were not going into a nominating process that would just be a piece of cake.”
Sanders’ entry, however, complicated Clinton’s calculus.
The senator from neighboring Vermont started drawing considerable crowds in New Hampshire as soon as he launched his campaign in May, and the eye-popping number of people who flocked to his speeches across the country simply amplified his popularity, surprising Democratic campaign operatives who expected Martin O’Malley to be Clinton’s main rival.
Sanders was pulling around 18 percent support compared with Clinton’s 47 percent when he announced his candidacy in late April — he is now at roughly 44 percent to Clinton’s 40 in the Huffington Post pollster average.
Clinton backers say they think the Sanders phenomenon will begin to fizzle in the fall, and that theory is what’s driving their dismissal of any suggestion that a course correction is needed.
“If you’re familiar with New Hampshire, you know there are ups and downs,” said Mike Vlacich, Clinton’s state director. “And Hillary herself knows this better than anybody. She’s lived the New Hampshire ups and downs, and that’s what positions us so well. She is well equipped to go through tough times but also to not get ahead of ourselves during down times.”
Her upcoming weekend appearance with Shaheen is being billed as a show of political strength to kick off the fall season, when they say the national spotlight will be even more intensely focused on the front-runner and less on Sanders’ momentum, largely because the novelty of Sanders’ crowd sizes will wear off.
“It’s an organizational muscle-flex that Sanders is probably not going to be in a position to replicate,” said a 2008 aide to Clinton.
But so far, Clinton’s greater organization and muscle has done little to minimize Sanders’ influence in New Hampshire.
The campaign already has opened eight field offices there and sent Clinton to towns near the Vermont border. It dispatched surrogates from Sanders’ home state, including Gov. Peter Shumlin and former Gov. Howard Dean, as well as Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy to talk about issues her team sees as weaknesses for Sanders, such as gun control.
And in that time, Sanders gained around 30 points on Clinton.
Clinton aides and backers insist Sanders’ relative success in next-door New Hampshire was predictable.
“If you look at candidates from neighboring states running in the New Hampshire primary, whether it’s John Kerry, Howard Dean or Paul Tsongas, I don’t think any of them has ever finished lower than second, so that’s definitely a factor,” said a 2008 aide involved in Clinton’s New Hampshire victory.
One factor that could play to Clinton’s advantage, however, is engagement — many New Hampshire voters haven’t yet tuned into the 2016 contest. Plus, polling is especially unpredictable in New Hampshire, where independent voters can choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary.
But the campaign’s inability to get a credible read on Clinton’s support in New Hampshire is unnerving to some supporters.
“It wasn’t Clinton Territory until the night before” said another 2008 aide who traveled with the campaign between the early states, knocking down the idea that Clinton has any inherent advantage in New Hampshire. “The Clintons are really good at spinning this shit. Bill Clinton did not win New Hampshire! And then Hillary won in a total surprise.”
To Clinton’s closest allies and staffers, the tough road they’re traveling in New Hampshire validates what they’ve been saying for months — the primaries would not be the cakewalk others predicted.
“I’m actually surprised,” former New Hampshire House speaker Terie Norelli said of the Democrats now shocked by the Sanders challenge, “that they’re surprised.”