New Hamp­shire be­gins to get ready for 2020


— “In our town, we like to know the facts about every­body.”

The words were Thorn­ton Wilder’s, they were writ­ten more than three-quar­ters of a cen­tury ago, and they can be found in the lines of “Our Town,” the quin­tes­sen­tial New Hamp­shire drama — quin­tes­sen­tial, that is, un­less you are talk­ing about the drama that just now is un­fold­ing in small North

Coun­try ham­lets like this one or in the cities in the cen­tral and south­ern parts of the state.

Be­cause what be­gan tak­ing form last week here in the site of the first pri­mary of the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion has the mak­ings of quite a drama. As many as 20 can­di­dates. New faces, fa­mil­iar faces, some very old faces. Lust for the White House af­ter two years of Don­ald J. Trump as pres­i­dent.

This is where the know­ing all the facts about ev­ery­one comes in. Hart’s Lo­ca­tion, with a pop­u­la­tion of 41, is the small­est town in New Hamp­shire and one of a hand­ful per­mit­ted what is known as “mid­night vot­ing,” the priv­i­lege of cast­ing bal­lots at the very first mo­ment of Elec­tion Day. Ev­ery­one knows all the facts about ev­ery­one in a place like this, but the broader point is that ev­ery­one knows the facts about all the can­di­dates in a state like this.

Be­fore long the state will be over­run by can­di­dates. “If politi­cians show up in New Hamp­shire this sea­son without skis,” says Manch­ester im­mi­gra­tion lawyer Ron Abram­son, “they’re run­ning for pres­i­dent.”

Vot­ers here get to scru­ti­nize the can­di­dates in mul­ti­ple en­coun­ters. The pres­i­den­tial race in New Hamp­shire — a con­test to choose the com­man­der in chief of the most pow­er­ful armed forces in the his­tory of the world, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of a for­mi­da­ble eco­nomic power — has the char­ac­ter of a con­test for town select­man.

Be­fore the ball fell on the revelry at Times Square, Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mas­sachusetts de­clared her can­di­dacy. Later this week, Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris of Cal­i­for­nia will es­sen­tially do the same as she con­ducts book un­veil­ings in New York City and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.; a po­lit­i­cal fig­ure widely men­tioned as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date doesn’t write a bi­og­ra­phy pub­lished the year be­fore the elec­tion if her as­pi­ra­tions are merely to ex­change her seat on the Home­land Se­cu­rity and Gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs Com­mit­tee for one on For­eign Re­la­tions.

Af­ter her, the del­uge. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jer­sey? Cer­tainly. Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand of New York? Bet on it. Sens. Sher­rod Brown of Ohio and Amy Klobuchar of Min­nesota? Don’t be sur­prised; they just won big bat­tles for their third terms. Sen. Bob Casey of Penn­syl­va­nia? Any­thing’s pos­si­ble. For­mer Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas? Some of his sup­port­ers don’t know a thing about him. And that’s without men­tion­ing those who have sat in gov­er­nors’ chairs: Terry McAuliffe of Vir­ginia and Steve Bul­lock of Mon­tana. Never heard of them? Had you heard of Sen. Barack Obama in 2006 ... or Gov. Jimmy Carter in 1974?

The big ques­tions in­volve two old guys, for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joseph R. Bi­den Jr. (78 on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day) and Sen. Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont

(79 on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day). Both have run for pres­i­dent be­fore, and both fell short. Both are sym­bols of op­po­si­tion to Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump, and both have big dreams.

One thing unites the Demo­cratic ac­tivists who are just now eval­u­at­ing the field but who, in the months to come, will com­prise the ground troops of New Hamp­shire pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics. “We need some­one who has built a ca­reer on uni­fi­ca­tion,” says the Con­cord lob­by­ist Jim De­mers, who has been prom­i­nent in the state’s pol­i­tics and who al­ready has signed up with Booker. “Peo­ple are tired of di­vide­and-con­quer lead­er­ship.”

The prob­lem is that the 2020 Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion strug­gle has all the char­ac­ter­is­tics of di­vide without the in­evitabil­ity of con­quer.

With as many as 20 Demo­cratic can­di­dates, the vote here and in Iowa, which holds its cau­cuses eight days be­fore New Hamp­shire’s pri­mary, nec­es­sar­ily will be deeply di­vided. It won’t be like the 2000 New Hamp­shire pri­mary, when Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jer­sey ac­counted for 95 per­cent of the vote as the only ma­jor con­tes­tants.

A field of 20 al­most cer­tainly will re­sult in a win­ner with a small mar­gin of vic­tory — and lit­tle mo­men­tum for suc­ceed­ing con­tests in Ne­vada and South Carolina.

There’s one way for Democrats to avoid that prob­lem, and that would be for an early en­try of Bi­den and per­haps San­ders. “Some­times if the big names get in,” says Neil Levesque, who di­rects the New Hamp­shire In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics at St. Anselm Col­lege in Goff­s­town, “it might suck the oxy­gen, which is to say the money, out of the process.”

The key is the word “some­times.” Though San­ders’ 2016 ac­tivists have dis­trib­uted a poll say­ing 76 per­cent of his con­ven­tion del­e­gates re­main loyal, some of the se­na­tor’s back­ers are peel­ing away, in part be­cause of com­plaints of sex­ism. “There was a win­dow for be­ing ide­o­log­i­cal and ide­al­is­tic,” says Abram­son, who was host for a San­ders event at his home and was on his 2016 steer­ing com­mit­tee here. “But right now, we just need to be prac­ti­cal.”

Be­ing prac­ti­cal in the par­lance of 2020 pol­i­tics means find­ing a can­di­date who can top­ple Trump, who came within less than a per­cent­age point of win­ning this state in the gen­eral elec­tion in 2016.

There’s more than one di­men­sion to pol­i­tics

2020 here. A year-end NPR/PBS NewsHour poll con­ducted by the re­spected Marist In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Opin­ion showed that seven in

10 Amer­i­cans be­lieve po­lit­i­cal ran­cor in Wash­ing­ton to have grown since Trump’s as­cen­dancy. (The press does not es­cape blame for this de­vel­op­ment.)

Will the tone of Gran­ite State pol­i­tics sim­ply in­ten­sify that ran­cor? “There is noth­ing that a New Eng­lan­der so nearly wor­ships,” the fa­mous cleric Henry Ward Beecher said in

1887, “as an ar­gu­ment.”

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