If you can’t win New Hampshire, at least you can spin New Hampshire. That’s very clearly the strategy for Hillary Clinton, who came into today’s primary trailing Bernie Sanders by an average of fourteen points in the polls.
Given the size of his lead, it will be tempting for the media to present a smaller Sanders victory as a “virtual win” for Clinton. Here are three reasons to reject that narrative.
1. Sanders’s “home field advantage” in New Hampshire has likely been very modest.
Traditionally, journalists and pundits have assumed New England candidates hold a major regional advantage over other candidates in New Hampshire. In 1992, Bill Clinton successfully depicted himself as the “comeback kid” after losing the state by only 8 percent to Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas.
It makes sense to view Massachusetts contenders this way. According to the 2010 census, the five New Hampshire counties included in Greater Boston account for 77.9 percent of the state’s population. New Hampshire voters in Manchester, Portsmouth, and elsewhere are well inside the Boston TV market.
Yet no comparable regional ties link New Hampshire to Vermont. The four counties on New Hampshire’s western border make up just 18.5 percent of the state’s population. It takes less than an hour to drive from populous southeastern New Hampshire to Boston, but over two and a half hours to get to Burlington. And it’s hard to imagine that Vermont media penetrates New Hampshire in any way comparable to Boston TV, radio, and newspapers.
To be sure, Sanders has probably reaped some modest benefits from Vermont’s proximity to New Hampshire. (It also helps that the state’s electorate has a similar demographic profile to Vermont voters.) But his “home field advantage” in today’s primary is nothing like the local advantages Tsongas, John Kerry, and Mitt Romney enjoyed.
2. Sanders started from (near) the bottom in New Hampshire.
Although he had been a Vermont congressman and senator for over twenty-five years, Sanders was not widely known in New Hampshire when he began his presidential campaign. A year ago, his favorability rating among state Democrats was 44 percent — far lower than Hillary Clinton’s 89 percent. Even Elizabeth Warren, elected to the Senate from Massachusetts in 2012, stood at 64 percent.
In head-to-head polling, Sanders’s numbers were similarly anemic. In nine state surveys between January and May 2015, the Vermont senator never broke the 15 percent barrier, while Clinton averaged over 50 percent.
In the 2008 campaign, by contrast, Barack Obama and John Edwards each began the New Hampshire campaigns within striking distance of the frontrunner. Most early 2007 polls showed Clinton with just a single-digit lead over her rivals.
Even a modest win for Sanders tonight would represent a come-from-behind victory of historic proportions. It would mean that in the course of a nine-month campaign, Sanders had won over at least 40 percent of the primary electorate — while facing a candidate whose name recognition, establishment support, and personal popularity are almost without parallel in Democratic Party history.
3. The Clinton campaign has done anything but concede New Hampshire.
In the last few days, with the Clinton campaign trying to dial down expectations, it’s easy to forget that both candidates have put much effort into winning New Hampshire.
Making the most of her early fundraising lead, Clinton hit the state airwaves early and often, spending $2.6 million on New Hampshire TV ads in the summer and fall. During those early months, her paid state staff still outnumbered Sanders’s insurgent campaign (fifty to forty-three, according to Politico’s count in October).
None of it worked: Sanders continued to climb in the polls as his message resonated with younger and lower-income voters across New Hampshire. But Clinton did not back down. She has now spent $7.6 million in New Hampshire — more money than either she or Obama did in their hotly contested 2008 primary.
Sanders’s very recent TV blitz has pushed his expenditures even higher, to $8.5 million. But contrary to what various DC insiders claim, Sanders has not “drastically outspent” Clinton in New Hampshire. And until several weeks ago, it was probably Clinton, not Sanders, who was the state’s biggest spender.
On the ground, the story is similar. Clinton has visited New Hampshire twenty-three times, making a total of eighty-five stops; her campaign operates eleven offices and eight get-out-the-vote centers in the state. (The numbers for Sanders: twenty-seven visits, ninety-three stops, and eighteen local offices.)
It’s fair to say that Sanders has devoted slightly more resources to New Hampshire than Clinton — as a largely unknown underdog before the race began, he had almost no other choice.
But it’s not fair to suggest that Clinton has relented in New Hampshire. If Sanders wins the state — no matter the margin — he will have achieved an enormous upset against a very determined foe.