In this edition: How New Hampshire will be won, the fast-moving history of the Democrats' donor wars, and how impeachment didn't really change anything in the race for Congress.
Whatever else happens to us in 2020, there will be no more commercials for "Cats." This is The Trailer.
Also, this will be the last edition of the newsletter until the end of the year, when we'll recap what happened in a primary that, after losing nearly half its candidates, remains the most crowded in modern political history.
Tomorrow, the Democrats running for president will largely disappear from the trail until after Christmas. For them, Monday will mark 50 days to the New Hampshire primary, the most venerable and controversial tradition in presidential politics. It's gotten far less attention than Iowa's caucuses this year. It still has the power to scramble whatever Iowans just decided.
The Democrats' anguish about their primary system — Does it vet for the right qualities? Is it too slanted toward white voters? — is frequently directed at New Hampshire. By law, the state must hold its primary "seven days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election," which has stopped some more-diverse states from voting earlier. New Hampshire is 92 percent white, the least racially diverse of the early states, with most of its black, Latino and Asian voters concentrated in a few mid-sized cities.
New Hampshire has a semi-open primary, giving voters who have not registered with the Democratic Party their loudest voice of any of the first four states. Four years ago in Iowa, 78 percent of caucusgoers identified as Democrats. In Nevada it was 81 percent; in South Carolina, 82 percent of primary voters were Democrats.
But just 60 percent of New Hampshire primary voters who pulled a Democratic ballot were registered with the party. The independent streak helped Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) win by a landslide; he won registered Democrats by a single point and crushed Hillary Clinton by 45 points with independents. He won key local labor endorsements, too, especially helpful in the only early-voting state that isn't "right to work."
The victory in 2016 was the most lopsided in the 100-year history of the primary. Sanders won 60 percent of the vote and all but six of the state's 221 towns; Clinton had the endorsements of every major party leader, including the Democrats who now make up New Hampshire's all-blue delegation to Congress. All of them — Sen. Maggie Hassan, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Rep. Annie Kuster, and Rep. Chris Pappas — are neutral in 2020.
The last primary had an obvious direction and momentum that simply hasn't been replicated in 2020. By this point in 2015, Sanders led Clinton by eight points in New Hampshire and never looked back. This year, no Democrat has built a lead outside the margin of error since July, before the bounce from former vice president Joe Biden's announcement had faded. In an average of polls, the lead has switched three times since October, from Biden, to Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, to South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and back to Sanders.
In another year, Sanders's proven strength in New Hampshire could scare off some rivals. Something else is happening ahead of 2020. In a crowded field, Sanders has never come close to his 2016 strength, shedding more than half of his old support. Sanders remains the most personally popular candidate in New Hampshire, with 66 percent of voters in the last CNN/University of New Hampshire poll viewing him favorably.
But without a binary, who's-going-to-stop-Clinton contest to focus on, New Hampshire Democrats have been flitting more among candidates, and independents have joined them. Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld and former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh have repeatedly brought their Republican primary campaigns, but they poll in single digits, and independents have been more interested in the Democratic contest than in a protest vote against President Trump.
That's been tremendously helpful to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a onetime Sanders supporter who is now friendlier to conservatives (on abortion, on whether to impeach the president) than anyone else in the race. It's also been a solace to Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, who has focused more on the state recently, pitching himself as a president so pragmatic and low key that "you won't have to think of me for weeks at a time." There are plenty of voters here who aren't too liberal but will pull a Democratic ballot. Since January 2017, when the president was sworn in, Democratic registration has shrunk by 3,071 voters, Republican registration has shrunk by 15,554 voters, and 9,529 new voters have climbed onto the rolls with no party registration.
They're in high demand. This is a primary, after all, with none of the time or organizing demands of a caucus state. Late-breaking voters, people who maybe paid attention for only the final week of the contest, can change everything. It happened in 2008, when Barack Obama surged in polling over Clinton in the days after his Iowa win, but then key voters came back to her. (Both campaigns' internal polling had put Obama ahead.) It nearly happened in 2004, when Howard Dean, humiliated by a loss in Iowa, campaigned hard and cut John F. Kerry's lead in half. The reverse happened in 2016, when Sanders's overwhelming organization made the difference between a win in the high single digits and a 21-point rout that raised questions about Clinton as a "front-runner."
All of this happens in a state where most voters live within a 90-minute drive of one another. New Hampshire's tourism department splits it into seven regions, which don't quite overlap with its 10 counties. The vast majority of voters live south of Lake Winnipesaukee, away from the tourist towns, in small cities and suburbs around Boston's media market. There is plenty of political diversity in towns that otherwise look pretty similar; walking from Merrimack (pop. 25,660) to Amherst (pop. 11,201) means leaving deep-red Trump Country to enter a place that abandoned the GOP for Clinton.
Below, you'll find a quick guide to New Hampshire that can be hauled out again in a few weeks, when Iowa finishes voting and attention turns east. (Check out The Trailer's guide to Iowa here.)
The north country's population is shrinking, and few voters remember a time when it wasn't. Berlin, an old paper mill city, has lost half its population since the 1930s. Dixville Notch, which became famous for its unique midnight vote, may not have enough residents to hold it next year.
There are not many Democratic votes to win here, just 6 percent of the total usually cast, and just three candidates have opened local offices: Biden in Berlin and Buttigieg and Sanders in both Berlin and Conway. But there's relatively little campaigning here, even though it's the sort of rural, Trump-to-Obama place they highlight in other states. How much time should any candidate spend in a region with fewer Democratic votes than Manchester? There's a saying, cruel but often followed, that even reporters shouldn't go north of the White Mountains for candidates polling under 10 percent.
Berlin and Conway are the only major population centers here, but it's worth watching who turns out. Berlin, for example, cast 2,741 votes in the 2008 primary, and just 1,896 in the Clinton-Sanders race. If Sanders has been able to organize disaffected voters, it'll be seen up here; if a candidate like Andrew Yang has won over the people who gave up on politics or gave Trump a chance in 2016, he'll do well in Coos and Carroll.
2016: Sanders 63%, Clinton 35%
2008: Clinton 38%, Obama 35%, John Edwards 19%
2004: Kerry 39%, Dean 27%, Clark 14%, Edwards 11%
The Connecticut River Valley, a string of farms and college towns, is the most liberal part of the state. Sanders got his biggest margins here, Obama won even while losing statewide to Clinton, and Dean edged Kerry. Two of those candidates were Vermonters, which helped; Sanders's first campaign events here were long weekend road trips. But the electorate is usually looking for a left-wing candidate, even when it can't find a Vermonter.
The region casts roughly 19 percent of the state's Democratic primary votes, with the biggest pile coming out of Keene, a city whose isolation and low prices have also made it a beacon for libertarians. The three counties where most valley residents live have plenty of internal differences — Sullivan County is more rural and backed Trump over Clinton — but tend to vote as a unit in a Democratic primary. Sanders has four offices here; Warren and Buttigieg have one in each of its three counties. Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) have two local offices, in Grafton and Cheshire.
Center-left candidates tend to struggle here, and there are plenty of towns where Clinton, in 2016, didn't reach 25 percent of the vote. If there is a strong left-wing vote, but it splits, the map will probably show Warren performing strongly in other liberal parts of the state but Sanders dominant along the "Conn River."
2016: Sanders 68%, Clinton 30%
2008: Obama 42%, Clinton 33%, Edwards 16%
2004: Dean 38%, Kerry 32%, Clark 12%, Edwards 10%
Capitol cities tend to lean left, and Concord fits the mold: It backed Clinton over Trump by 25 points in 2016, helping her win a county that casts 12 percent of the state's Democratic primary vote. More telling was Bow, an example of the suburbs where Mitt Romney ran stronger than Trump was ever able to and where Clinton had come closest to beating Sanders. (He got the win by just 61 votes.)
Although the county has been politically competitive for years, Democrats now control two-thirds of the its state legislative districts, thanks to those same Trump-phobic independents and former Republicans. Warren, Biden, Buttigieg and Yang all have offices here, with plenty of Democratic voters within 30 minutes of the capitol in places such as Henniker, Hooksett and Franklin.
2016: Sanders 58%, Clinton 40%
2008: Obama 38%, Clinton 36%, Edwards 17%
2004: Kerry 38%, Dean 27%, Edwards 13%, Clark 12%
No region has less power in a Democratic primary. Dominated locally by Republicans, it casts just 4 percent of the Democrats' primary vote and gets relatively few visits. Nevertheless, Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg have opened offices here, in Laconia, and drawn big crowds from New Hampshire's surrounding lake country. It's distinct enough from nearby Merrimack County to resist being lumped in, with fewer votes, but it's a good place to watch for turnout patterns: No Democrat, not even the three who have won elections in a neighboring state, have an advantage here.
2016: Sanders 61%, Clinton 36%
2008: Clinton 37%, Obama 37%, Edwards 19%
2004: Kerry 38%, Dean 25%, Edwards 13%, Clark 13%
Connecting the sea coast to the lake country, Strafford casts 10 percent of the primary vote, and half of that comes from three towns: Dover, Rochester and Durham. The latter town includes the University of New Hampshire, which is enough to give it a big bloc of liberal voters but not enough to dominate the county. (It's the state's biggest university, and it enrolls less than half as many students as Iowa State.)
Biden, Buttigieg and Sanders have offices here, but nobody else does. The strong Democratic lean of the county can mean very different things with different primary lineups. In 2004 and 2008, Kerry and Clinton ran well ahead of their statewide numbers here, as active Democrats moved over to the candidates they knew best. But in 2016, Sanders blew Clinton away. A key city was swingy Rochester, which broke heavily for Clinton in 2008, then gave Sanders a 21-point landslide. Like Belknap, Strafford is a good place to monitor how much of the 2016 vote was an endorsement of Sanders's policies and how much was an anti-Clinton message vote that will be hard to replicate in 2020.
2016: Sanders 63%, Clinton 35%
2008: Clinton 41%, Obama 34%, Edwards 18%
2004: Kerry 40%, Dean 24%, Edwards 13%, Clark 13%
The biggest Republican margins come from some of these towns, close to Boston and easy places to escape high-tax Massachusetts. Democrats dominate the seacoast towns like Rye and Portsmouth, while Republicans win in suburban cities like Derry. What they often have in common is money, with a median income of about $90,000, the highest in the state, doubling the average income in rural Coos County.
A full 22 percent of New Hampshire's Democratic voters live in a county that gets most of its news from Boston, and plenty of its residents, too; former senator from Massachusetts Scott Brown moved to Rye before making an unsuccessful 2014 run for one his new state's Senate seats.
This electorate stands out because it's not been particularly interested in insurgent candidates or underdogs. Clinton ran strongest here, in both of her presidential bids, and ran farther ahead on the seacoast. (It was in Portsmouth, shortly before the 2008 primary, where she teared up at a question about how hard campaigning was, a show of emotion that helped her win.) Democrats who can afford it open offices in both the seacoast and somewhere along Interstate 93: Sanders has both, as do Biden, Warren and Buttigieg. Klobuchar, Yang and Booker each put down roots in Portsmouth.
2016: Sanders 57%, Clinton 42%
2008: Clinton 42%, Obama 35%, Edwards 17%
2004: Kerry 41%, Dean 23%, Clark 12%, Edwards 12%
The state's most populous county casts 27 percent of the Democratic primary vote; together, the Boston suburbs of the “southern tier” contain about half of all New Hampshire voters. Hillsborough has moved to Rockingham's left, though, with Democrats pushing the GOP aside in cities such as Manchester and Nashua. Just five years ago, Republicans sat in the mayor's office of both cities. Democrats now run both, with Republicans failing even to find a candidate in this year's Nashua elections.
In the primary, the electorate is much more centrist, rejecting left-wing candidates by the same big margins as Rockingham County. But there are far too many votes for any candidate to write it off: Every campaign that has opened an office in the state has one here, with the exception of Marianne Williamson, who has a small presence in nearby Concord.
Back in 2016, even though Sanders did worse in Hillsborough than in other parts of New Hampshire, he united every sort of anti-Clinton voter. She won just one big town, Bedford, and lost others by slightly smaller margins than her statewide numbers. Sanders pulverized her in the smallest towns and took Manchester by the same margin Clinton once won it by over Obama: 15 points.
2016: Sanders 57%, Clinton 41%
2008: Clinton 42%, Obama 35%, Edwards 16%
2004: Kerry 40%, Dean 22%, Edwards 13%, Clark 12%
After all of that, after eking out every vote from Salem to Pittsburg, New Hampshire offers more momentum than anything else. The state will send just 24 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention, the least of any early-voting state. But it is brutally effective at shrinking the field. In this century, no more than five Democrats have escaped Iowa with viable campaigns, and no more than three have gotten out of New Hampshire.
No Democrat from a neighboring state (Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont) has ever lost New Hampshire and gone on to take the nomination; even a weaker-than-expected win, like the ones Ed Muskie got in 1972 or Paul Tsongas got 20 years later, can start the clock running out for a local candidate. If both Warren and Sanders come out of Iowa strong, one of them will be expected to win New Hampshire, or be written out of the race. That might be hasty, but New Hampshire loves its traditions.
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ON THE TRAIL
It’s fitting, right before the Democrats break for Christmas, for their primary to devolve into arguments about money-changers and wine.
December was dominated by what started out as a fight over “transparency” and evolved into an argument about two specific fundraisers: a Napa valley event for Pete Buttigieg this month and a June 2018 event in Boston for Elizabeth Warren’s layup reelection bid.
Warren made the Napa fundraiser infamous, telling Buttigieg at Thursday’s debate that “billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.” Buttigieg hit Warren as a rich hypocrite, but there was no memorable material available to him until Sunday, when the AP’s Brian Slodysko reported on the 2018 fundraiser Warren held at Boston’s City Winery, part of a small chain of middlebrow music venues.
“For the top donors, those who could contribute or raise $5,400 per couple or $2,700 a person, there was a VIP photo reception and premium seating,” Slodysko wrote. “For them and others who gave at least $1,000, there was also a gift: a souvenir wine bottle.”
The point wasn’t which event was fancier; that round went to Buttigieg. The point was that, as Democrats exasperated by Warren point out, she conducted plenty of traditional fundraising before her February decision not to “spend too much time with wealthy donors.” Because she piled up money in 2018, before making that pledge, she kept her campaign afloat with funds that don’t meet her current standard.
Warren picked this fight, knowing her vulnerabilities. None of the leading 2020 Democrats could pass a no-fundraiser purity test; even Sanders held a few higher-dollar events in 2015. (He has rebooted those events in this campaign as massive, open-press parties with low buy-ins.) While Warren had always been a strong small-dollar fundraiser, all of the events she held in her decade of being a politician will face new scrutiny.
It’s worth stepping back to consider how new that scrutiny is. Until 2016, “big money” was not a defining issue in Democratic primary campaigns. Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 run against Lyndon B. Johnson was kickstarted by donations from a few dozen wealthy liberals. George McGovern’s 1972 campaign, still the only true left-wing insurgency to win the Democratic nomination, got 90 percent of its money from small donors but needed a few ultra-rich supporters to cut six-figure checks.
In 2008, for what turned out to be the final campaign before the Supreme Court legalized unlimited donations, the Democrats had a “purity test” that was easy to pass. John Edwards, whose personal wealth made his political career possible, told voters that he’d “never taken a dime from corporate lobbyists.” Obama couldn’t say the same, but he could draw a contrast with Clinton by saying he would lock powerful donors out of powerful jobs.
“They have not funded my campaign, they will not get a job in my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president,” Obama said in the 2007 speech that launched his winning Iowa caucus campaign.
It was a brilliant distraction from Obama’s fundraising operation, which made the candidate competitive with Clinton by vacuuming up money from big donors. It was also somewhat unworkable; in office, the Obama team had to grant embarrassing waivers to get past the lobbyist “rule.”
But it turned out that Democratic voters were comfortable with some level of hypocrisy. In 2008, Obama actually raised more than Clinton did from Wall Street. In 2012, he gave his blessing to a super PAC, Priorities USA, which slashed away the advantage Republicans were about to gain with big donors.
Everything changed in 2016, with Clinton, again, at the center. By the summer of 2015, she was the most commanding front-runner in recent Democratic Party history, with overwhelming interest from big donors. Sanders, who had never ingratiated himself with the party’s donor class — he’s not even a member of the party — emphasized that, asking voters to fund a grass-roots campaign that could compete with Clinton.
At the same time, the Democratic National Committee set up joint fundraising agreements with each campaign, Clinton and Sanders, allowing them to raise money for the party while doing so for themselves. The imbalance between the two candidates’ donor networks made a mockery out of the deal: Clinton had far more influence on what was going into the DNC, which led to a controversy that still hobbles the party, four years later.
By being so good at high-dollar fundraising, Clinton would ironically make it toxic. Sanders raised more than enough to compete with her, tying her focus on campaign money to the ways Democrats had failed to deliver on financial reform. Trump, who had self-funded the initial stage of his campaign, embraced traditional fundraising but had plenty of ways to portray Clinton as “crooked” and bought off. Clinton got more than Trump from the most lampoonable donor classes, from hedge fund managers to billionaires.
It might not have mattered, until Clinton lost. That cast a shadow on every decision she made, and the easiest decisions to attack were the ones that dealt with big donors. Would Clinton have lost momentum in August 2016 if she wasn’t stacking up money in the Hamptons? Would she have made a critical gaffe — “you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables” — if she hadn’t been getting seal claps for that line at big fundraisers? By early 2017, Biden, who had opted against running the previous election, was saying that no candidate could be seen as too close to big donors, or else the middle class would learn not to trust them.
Clinton's defeat reset the ways Democrats thought about campaign donations. At the end of this year's third fundraising quarter, the two candidates who refused to hold traditional fundraisers, Warren and Sanders, were raking in the most money. Biden's fundraisers, which he kept open to reporters, found him making small gaffes that seemed to undercut his campaign, like telling the wealthy that nothing would "fundamentally change" if he became president. The impeachment drama seemed to give Warren and Sanders a hook: A key figure, Gordon Sondland, had effectively bought himself an ambassadorship to the European Union by donating to Trump.
But there have been signs all year that Democrats miss the old deal they got on fundraising: grumbling from donors who felt shut out by Warren, no backlash for Biden when he abandoned his opposition to super PACs. It wasn't smart to spend too much time on it or to take just anyone's money. But Clinton had perception problems that were totally unconnected to her fundraisers and not shared by other Democrats. Trump had used her paid speeches as a weapon just as effectively as her donors. It was one thing for Sanders, whom many Democrats still don't see as a credible nominee, to attack the donor system. It was another for Warren, who could be taken apart with accusations of hypocrisy, to demand a litmus test.
"We're in the fight of our lives right now," Buttigieg said at Thursday's debate. "Donald Trump and his allies have … already put together more than $300 million. This is our chance. This is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump. And we shouldn't try to do it with one hand tied behind our back."
By Sunday, Warren was acknowledging that she had changed her position on fundraising and stuck to her argument from the debate: A bright contrast on donations would be a winner in a general election.
“I saw how the system worked and I decided when I got into the presidential race that I wanted to do better than that,” Warren told reporters in Iowa. “What matters is which way we’re pushing this thing.”
Marianne Williamson, “Like a Boss.” She has not made it to a debate stage since before the leaves changed, but she is still running and beginning a catch-all ad campaign that reintroduces her to a national audience. "Corporate media tells you that you shouldn’t take Marianne seriously," says one of the supporters who take over the work of narrating the spot; they focus on Williamson's history of philanthropy (which hasn't gotten much coverage) and her message of love (which has) as reasons to reconsider her.
Republicans for the Rule of Law, “These Witnesses Must Testify.” The remnants of #NeverTrump have released a series of ads aimed at taste-making voters who watch TV news; this hyper-specific ad urges concerned citizens to prevent the Senate from rocketing through a trial with no witnesses.
Impeachment (NBC News/Wall Street Journal, 900 adults)
If your member of Congress supports impeachment, would you be more or less likely to support them?
No difference: 34%
If your member of Congress opposes impeachment, would you be more or less likely to support them?
No difference: 38%
Democratic voters have been more antsy about supporting impeachment than Republican voters have been about opposing it. That's been visible in the polls that show any swings in impeachment opinion; independents have stayed fairly positive about impeachment, while Democrats have backed away after bad news cycles. But Democrats hold a line on how their members of Congress vote. Opinion of members of Congress who back impeachment is a wash; members of Congress who oppose it are on the wrong side of a 15-point margin, with the anger coming mostly from Democrats. New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew's party switch, a direct result of bad polling that showed Democratic voters punishing him for a "no" on impeachment, tells the rest of this story.
Amy Klobuchar. She said she raised $1 million after the last debate, while she was heading to Iowa for a bus tour that will nearly complete her march through all 99 counties.
Bernie Sanders. He campaigned alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in California and Nevada and took the Homes Guarantee Candidate Pledge presented to him by People's Action, a left-wing coalition of organizers that had just endorsed him.
Joe Biden. He picked up the support of mega-donor Louis Susman, a former ambassador to the United Kingdom who got that job after bundling half a million dollars for the 2008 Obama campaign. He’ll return to the trail Friday, after Christmas, with stops in Iowa and then New Hampshire.
Elizabeth Warren. She'll return to Iowa after Christmas, hitting tiny Page County in between bigger rallies in Des Moines and Council Bluffs.
Pete Buttigieg. He unveiled his immigration plan, which would give every undocumented immigrant a path to citizenship and undo most of the Trump administration's enforcement priorities. Something missing from the plan: his old support for turning border-crossing from a criminal offense into a civil one. He heads back to Iowa on Saturday.
Tulsi Gabbard. She'll spend the week after Christmas in New Hampshire, staying through the new year, with a town hall in Portsmouth marking the final hours of 2019.
Michael F. Bennet. His campaign spread around a video of a confrontation between the candidate and some Trump supporters in New Hampshire, with Bennet calming things down by warning about the dangers of division and remembering a story from a voter he'd met: "He said, 'My dad stopped talking to me after Trump got elected, and then he died.' "
Tom Steyer. He'll begin a bus tour through Iowa on Jan. 1, his first such trip through the state.
Cory Booker. In a CNN interview, he continued brushing off questions about whether Biden's son Hunter had any culpability in the scandal that kicked off the president's impeachment. "I’m exhausted, frankly, of the Biden aspect of this," he said. "This does not speak in any way that’s germane to the president’s behavior."
Andrew Yang. On debate day, his campaign announced that rapper, actor and director Donald Glover would be his campaign's creative director. That work started with a $1,000 sweatshirt to advertise Yang's proposal for a $1,000-per-month basic income.
Pete Buttigieg surprised his beat reporters this weekend, when he told voters about an ultra-specific poll that showed him ahead in his famous hometown.
"In South Bend, Indiana, right now, I’m winning,” he said in Las Vegas. “I don’t know if we’ve pushed that polling out or not."
By Sunday, they had pushed it out: Adam Wren, who has chronicled Buttigieg's rise closer than anyone, revealed that the controversial pollster Change Research was commissioned to study the candidate's popularity in South Bend. Indiana is arguably the hardest state to poll, anywhere, thanks to laws limiting unsolicited phone calls, and Change Research does not meet the standards for the DNC's debate calculations. But Buttigieg, who has begun using more South Bend allies to argue for his record and electability, had something fresh to point to when arguing that he could win.
... 23 days until the seventh Democratic debate
... 43 days until the Iowa caucuses
... 51 days until the New Hampshire primary
... 62 days until the Nevada caucuses
... 70 days until the South Carolina primary