PINNACLE IN THE NEWS via WMUR: Crowded Democratic field increases importance of vintage NH-style retail campaigning

John DiStaso, February 11th, 2018


With Democrats building what could be their largest field of serious and viable presidential candidates ever, the race for the party’s 2020 nomination is wide open a year before the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

Longtime political experts tell WMUR that the field currently does not have a clear frontrunner – and may not end up with one. They say that as a result, the person-to-person campaigning that has made the New Hampshire primary such an important and internationally recognized institution will be especially crucial.

“A state like New Hampshire is tailor-made for a large field like this,” said Mo Elleithee, executive director of the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and a former communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

“Not only is this a large field, but it’s a large field without a juggernaut. There’s not a clear front-runner,” said Elliethee, who has also worked on several Democratic presidential campaigns in the Granite State and other states. “Some candidates have higher name ID than others but there is no dominating figure.”

What does that mean?

“Everyone is going to have to hit the road and talk to small groups of voters. This campaign is shaping up as being made for retail politics, which is obviously what New Hampshire is famous for,” Elleithee said.

The current list of declared and potential 2020 Democratic candidates approaches two dozen people. It’s a diverse field that includes at least six women, several persons of color, an openly gay man, wealthy people, senators, congressmen, a governor and an author/lecturer.

Presidential campaign fields have been crowded in the past. In the 2016 cycle, 17 Republican candidates took a debate stage, in two tiers, in August 2015. When the New Hampshire primary was held on Feb. 9, 2016, nine major candidates remained. And within days of Donald Trump’s lopsided primary victory, four more candidates withdrew.

Democrats had a crowded field in 1992, with eight serious declared contenders in the New Hampshire primary, and like 2020, no obvious front-runner. Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas won the primary, but Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton won the public relations contest by finishing second and famously declaring himself the “Comeback Kid.”

Elliethee said it’s impossible to speculate how many candidates will be in the current Democratic field by the primary, which at this point is expected to be held on Feb. 11, 2020, although the date is not definite.

He predicted that no candidate with a serious chance at winning the nomination will ignore New Hampshire or the other three early voting states – Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada.

“With the field this big and fast-moving, there could be a different winner in each of the first four states,” he said.

Elliethee said he expects the campaign to be relatively friendly, at least until the final stages.

“There will be some distinction on policy and they will be quick to point those out, but I’ve been encouraged that at this early stage, everyone has been signaling that they want to play nice with each other,” he said. “Instead of a full-on brawl like the Republicans had in 2016, I think this will be more like a family argument around the kitchen table.”

New Hampshire Democratic National Committeeman Bill Shaheen was encouraged by a Monmouth University poll last week.

The poll showed that 56 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents across the country prefer a nominee who would be the strongest candidate against Trump even if they disagree with the candidate on important issues. According to the poll, only 33 percent said they prefer a nominee with whom they agreed on the issues but would have a hard time beating Trump.

“I’m comforted by that,” said Shaheen, who has been involved in Democratic primaries for at least four decades. “People are willing to give up some of their particular issues to find the most electable candidate. In the past, many people would vote based on one issue or another.”

“That’s why you have so many people running right now.”

Shaheen said that in a large field, wining the New Hampshire primary requires each candidate and his or her campaign organization to carefully and precisely identify their firmest voters.

“You target your ‘ones’ and your ‘twos’ and you do it effectively, because 24 percent of the vote could win the election,” he said.

Shaheen said that while candidates will use carefully culled data, online organizing tools and social media to identify and target their likely voters, traditional person-to-person, retail politics is still important, especially important in a crowded race.

“It’s all about the one-on-one,” he said. “You’ve got to ask people for their votes. We take this job very seriously. New Hampshire people are not impressed with wealth and they’re not impressed with status. You’ve got to answer the questions.”

Two longtime Republican strategists who have been in several primary contests agreed that a crowded field helps lesser-known candidates.

“The great thing is that in a field this large, if you are relatively unknown, it’s easier to make a difference by grabbing a small percentage of the vote,” said Michael Biundo, who has worked on behalf of Republican presidential, state and local candidates since 1992.

“A crowded field provides a meaningful opportunity for someone who connects well with voters and is personable,” he said. “And there may be a geographic factor that favors candidates from our region.”

Michael Dennehy, who was an integral player in John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 lead-off primary victories, attended hundreds of vintage New Hampshire town halls with the late Arizona senator.

“Without a true front-runner, it evens out the odds for everyone in their ability to build an organization,” he said.

Dennehy predicted 12 to 15 Democrats will ultimately run for president.

“We’ll see in the 2020 Democratic campaign the beauty of the first-in-the-nation primary,” he said. ‘’I firmly believe that the candidate who spends the time building relationships with voters and elected officials and opinion leaders will see it pay off in a big way.”

Challenge to Trump?

Meanwhile, the possibility of a serious challenge to Trump has raised concern on the Republican side.

Trump nemesis John Kasich’s recent decision to sign on as a commentator for CNN is viewed by many Republicans – including Dennehy and Biundo – as a sign that the former Ohio governor and 2016 GOP runner-up will not be a candidate in 2020. That remains to be seen.

Republican former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who was the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee in 2016, has indicated that he is eyeing a challenge, but it is unclear how seriously his bid would be taken by the “never-Trump” segment of the GOP.

Weld has said he intends to make his plans known during a speech Friday at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. But, in an indication that he has decided to run, he is scheduled to return to the state on Feb. 26 to speak at New England College.

The Republican National Committee in January voted unanimously in favor of a resolution pledging “undivided support for President Donald J. Trump and his effective presidency.”

While that’s merely a symbolic step, more importantly, the Trump re-election committee has been integrated into the RNC, meaning that the resources of both groups will be used to defend Trump if he is challenged for the GOP nomination. That makes a challenge even more difficult.

“I don’t see any threat whatsoever at this point,” Dennehy said. “With the New Hampshire primary a year away, it would be tremendously difficult for an insurgent campaign against an incumbent president to gain serious traction.”

Biundo’s first presidential campaign work came on behalf of conservative Republican Patrick Buchanan, who challenged incumbent President George H.W. Bush for the party nomination in 1992. Buchanan received 37 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote, damaging Bush, who went on to win the nomination but lose the general election to Clinton.

“I don’t see anyone out there who can tap into Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican Party,” Biundo said. “Buchanan’s challenge to Bush came from the right. Any challenge to Trump would have to come from his left and I don’t see how there is room for a challenge from that perspective.”

Democrat Elliethee cited the Buchanan challenge in 1992 and Sen. Ted Kennedy’s challenge to President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

“History has shown that any time an incumbent faces a serious challenge in his own party, it is a serious problem for the incumbent later on,” he said.

“If the ‘never-Trumpers’ are interesting in taking on Trump, it is important that a credible candidate does it. I’m not sure if it will be Gov. Weld, but if Gov. Weld did it and walked away with 30 percent, it should send up a red flag for Trump and his supporters, and it would be good news for the Democrats.”