5 top state Democrats dish on the state of play

Bernie Sanders has the home-field advantage and the precedent of 2016, and Elizabeth Warren boasts the top organization. But don’t count out Pete Buttigieg or Joe Biden — or even Amy Klobuchar, who has the most potential to break out. And keep an eye on Michael Bennet to outperform expectations.

So say five of the top political minds in New Hampshire Democratic politics, whom POLITICO sought out last week for their ground-level perspective on the state of play one month out from the Feb. 11 primary. Though all of them described the race as fluid and difficult to forecast, they weighed in on the hidden strengths and weaknesses of the field, as well as what the media is missing in New Hampshire and what would truly count as a surprise on Election Day.

Their answers are edited for clarity and conciseness.

Andrew Hosmer, the new mayor of Laconia, which voted for Barack Obama twice before backing Donald Trump in 2016.

Pete Buttigieg winning — that would surprise me just based on how far he has come in a year. There’s a realistic possibility, and it would be shocking given that it would mean he nudged out two sitting senators and a vice president. It isn’t impossible.

Melanie Levesque, a political operative who recently became the first black person elected to the state Senate.

It would surprise me if an underdog won. At this point, it would be near-impossible for someone to beat Biden, Warren, Buttigieg and Sanders, given their campaign and field operation. The other surprising thing could be the number of voters who are unaffiliated with a party who take Democratic ballots in the open primary. That will go up significantly, and if not, that would be very surprising.

Lucas Meyer, the 29-year-old chairman of the New Hampshire Young Democrats.

It would surprise the hell out of me if someone won the primary by 10 points.

Kathy Sullivan, a top Democratic Party official in the state for more than two decades who served as Hillary Clinton’s state co-chairwoman in 2008.

It will surprise me if Iowa and New Hampshire have the same winner. New Hampshire loves a comeback story, so you could have someone who finishes second or third in Iowa who comes in first here. And if someone drops out after Iowa, that could have a huge impact.

Jay Surdukowski, a liberal Democrat who led a local effort to draft Beto O’Rourke for president and is now running for a seat on the powerful Executive Council of New Hampshire.

Slow and steady Joe Biden beats local favorites Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. There seems to be a conventional wisdom that it will be Warren or Sanders in the blue ribbon spot. But New Hampshire’s independent-minded voters might hand it to the tried and tested statesman — especially if war clouds are on the horizon.

Hosmer: Let’s say Amy Klobuchar has a strong showing in Iowa, coming in third or fourth, then she gets the momentum coming here and it’s kind of a snowball effect. There’s also something about her that she is moderate and plain-spoken — that authenticity will resonate with voters here.

Levesque: Booker and Klobuchar are the ones to watch. They have been steadily increasing in the polls. They are differentiating themselves by showing their competency to lead and bring the country together, which will be key.

Meyer: Anyone who tells you they know who the top three candidates are going to be on Election Day is speculating wildly. Things can change so dramatically. But Klobuchar has had a lot of momentum heading into the final stretch.

Sullivan: If you assume Amy Klobuchar is not a dark horse, then I’d say Cory Booker. Although he has not popped in the polls, he has a lot of support from legislators and activists. He needs to turn that into a wider net of voters. I would also keep an eye on Deval Patrick and Michael Bennet.

Surdukowski: Amy Klobuchar. She will need a springboard with a strong finish in Iowa. But that said, she could make her own magic having assembled a compelling coalition of diverse backers and a practical message. Andrew Yang or Tulsi Gabbard could also pull it off if they can cobble together enough independent-minded and even libertarian-leaning voters.

Hosmer: Pete Buttigieg. Some of the indicators for me are the number of offices and staff on the ground. They’re quality staff — not just bodies. I’ve also been impressed by Klobuchar’s willingness to come out and help us local elected officials — they helped quite a bit in my campaign for mayor. I was really impressed by their organization and their desire to get involved in communities like Laconia.

Levesque: Warren, who has hired some of our best people very early and started a strong door-to-door campaign. She commands large crowds, articulates her vision well and takes selfies with anyone who wants one.

Meyer: Warren’s organization was smart enough to realize early on that helping to get people elected to local offices would make a difference for her when she needed their support. They stepped it up to help us, mobilizing her volunteers to do work on down-ballot races, and that is really important among local Democrats.

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Sullivan: Elizabeth Warren. She has a large organization of staff and volunteers who have blanketed the state. They are not letting the ups-and-downs of polling distract them from their plan and have constantly sought to broaden their support, unlike Bernie Sanders, for example, who has not. She also has done a great job at retail, with her town halls and the selfie lines. She is the most approachable of the current top four, which means something here.

Surdukowski: Bennet has been scoring very impressive endorsements and has a team working extremely hard. In terms of crowd size and buzz, Buttigieg would win if the primary were tomorrow. But a lot can happen in a month, just ask Howard Dean.

Hosmer: If you go to coffee shops now, literally everyone is talking about the primary. It’s very much a jump ball. I was at the barbershop and struck up a conversation with a complete stranger. He talked about three or four candidates that interested him, and it was impressive to see how well-read this guy was about the candidates. But he was still undecided.

Levesque: The media is completely missing minority populations here, especially with all the talk of lack of diversity in New Hampshire and Iowa. The media could do a better job of seeking out opinions from more diverse populations in both states.

Meyer: Recent changes to the state’s residency laws for voting, which are a big deal and could significantly impact turnout among college students. Our state has done a huge disservice to young voters, especially by not clearly and concisely answering the questions that have come up for students who live on campus.

Sullivan: At this point in 2016, Sanders was at 50 percent in the polls. He ended up winning with about 61 percent. Now he’s in the mid-20s. That’s a pretty significant loss of support, yet the media seems to think he is doing well. The media is also missing the potential that there may be no clear winner here. Any candidate who finishes with more than 15 percent of the vote picks up delegates under the party rules. Let’s say there are four people who win delegates, then we’re on to Nevada and South Carolina!

Surdukowski: I think a hard, methodical and data-driven look at what “unicorn voters” who voted for President Obama twice and then voted for President Trump. There is a reflexive conventional wisdom that a race to the left is universally important in Democratic primaries, but in New Hampshire, where roughly 42 percent of the voters are independents who can draw a Democratic ballot in the primary, there is a real potential for a win by Buttigieg or Klobuchar who have worked far more aggressively at courting folks in purple and red towns. The independents are the majority party here, something D.C. consultants helicoptering in may neglect at their peril.

Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. | Paul Sancya/AP Photo

Hosmer: I think a centrist wins by convincing voters in New Hampshire that if you want to beat Trump, you’ve got to win the general. You’ve got to win the important states that we didn’t win in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida. And you’ve got to convince people that the far-left in the Democratic Party cannot win rural America. Of everyone in the field, I think Klobuchar and Buttigieg have the best chance of making that case.

Meyer: The supposition that Sanders and Warren have a stranglehold on the state is wrong. They certainly have an advantage by virtue of familiarity. But that also creates a much greater expectation for them to perform very well. The strength of the other campaigns also cancels out whatever home-field advantage they may have, creating a pretty equal fight here.

Levesque: It’s really about meeting people and getting vetted by voters. Sanders and Warren have a neighboring-state advantage, but there is room for those who are looking for more moderate candidates. With the current crisis in Iran, people may be looking for someone with experience on the international stage who can get us back on track working with allies in short order.

Sullivan: Show up and talk to voters. But I disagree that there is a stranglehold. Biden is doing well and could win. Buttigieg is doing respectably. Klobuchar is moving. At some point, all those undecideds are going somewhere, so this is not over.

Surdukowski: Personal charisma and practicality in policy outlook. A boost in Iowa doesn’t hurt for the many who won’t make up their mind until the final days. I still believe most people will vote for who inspires them.

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