Beyond N.H., Democratic Presidential Race Isn't Much of a Race at All

Dec 17, 2015

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley in the second Democratic debate in Iowa.

The three Democratic presidential candidates will take the stage at Saint Anselm College Saturday night for their next debate.

This will be New Hampshire’s first debate of the primary season.

And while polls show a tight Democratic race here in the Granite State, the numbers nationally tell a different story.

To talk about the Democratic race leading into this weekend’s debate, Boston Globe political reporter James Pindell joined NHPR's Morning Edition.

Polls show Hillary Clinton with a comfortable lead nationally, but the latest poll had Bernie Sanders with a 10-point lead here in New Hampshire. So what’s going on?

There’s a lot going on, but I think we do have to step back globally here and recognize that without New Hampshire, you really can’t make an argument that there’s even really a Democratic primary going on. Clinton is up by almost double digits in Iowa and has the momentum there. She’s up by 50 points in South Carolina. And in Nevada, she also has a double-digit, comfortable lead. New Hampshire has been her problem, and it is sort of ironic that this is happening because this is “Clinton Country.” New Hampshire’s been a great state for the Clintons. It led to the comeback kid moment for Bill Clinton in 1992 and it led to the comeback for Hillary Clinton in 2008 when she was on the ropes. Talking to political strategists, they believe that some of this does make sense. The geography plays a factor; he’s from next door. It’s not so much that the media market from Burlington bleeds into the Upper Valley; it’s just that he’s been here a lot and he’s spent a lot of time here over the years.

Does Bernie Sanders need a win here in New Hampshire to stay in the race?

Yes, and he’ll tell you that. His premise right now – I talked with him this week – is if we win Iowa, if we win New Hampshire, he can go on to win these other states. That’s a huge if right now. Clearly, he enjoys the most recent New Hampshire poll showing him up by 10 points. Looking at other polls, it’s either tied or he’s up slightly. He has to win here if he’s going to have even remotely an argument for going on to be the Democratic nominee. He may stay in the race for reasons that have nothing to do with winning, but he has to win New Hampshire.

As you said, you spoke with Sen. Sanders this week, and it sounds like he’s looking to refocus his campaign a bit. Do you expect to see something different from him Saturday night?

I do. I think we’re going to see more of a focus from Sen. Sanders on foreign policy. This has been a problem for him the last couple of weeks. In fact, flat out, his campaign spokesperson told the press not to ask about ISIS. Of course, a pesky member of the press asked him about ISIS, and he was willing to talk about it, but he’s trying to put ISIS and terrorism in a broader context, which is that there are many issues that a president will have to face and he does believe that income inequality and campaign finance reform are the moral issues of our time. He does believe the most important job of the president is keeping Americans safe, but with that are all these other issues. You’re not seeing that from Hillary Clinton, who’s had a laser-like focus on that, and you certainly saw that earlier this week in the CNN debate with Republicans. That has been the flip in this presidential campaign. We began by talking about economy and jobs, both Republicans and Democrats. That’s now shifted to terrorism and ISIS.

What about Martin O’Malley? The former Maryland governor has been campaigning here in New Hampshire quite a bit, but is still just barely registering in the polls; the latest had him at 1 percent.

He’s glad that it’s a three-person race when you look at it on the stage, but politically, it’s a two-person race. If you look at the polling, Hillary Clinton’s in the 40s, Bernie Sanders is in the 40s, and Martin O’Malley is around 5 percent, and that’s being the most generous. This is a two-person race and he needs someone to badly fall for him to suddenly become a player.

Bottom line – is anyone going to watch this debate? It’s the Saturday night before Christmas. Why this time slot?

There are two complaints here. There are people complaining about the number of these debates. But then there’s just the matter of when these debates are. This is going to be the second Democratic debate in a row on a Saturday night. This one is going be on Dec. 19, six days before Christmas, in the middle of the holiday season. I don’t know who’s going to watch this. This is going to be broadcast on WMUR, and broadcast nationwide on ABC. It’s a pretty good platform; I just don’t know who’s going to watch this. So when we go through the ins and outs of who had a good zinger or who had a good line or who performed well, we have to ask ourselves what kind of impact does it have if no one’s watching.