Matt Taibbi: 24 Hours in Democrats' Chaotic New Hampshire Primary - Rolling Stone
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Campaign Diary: Notes from the Most Unpredictable Primary Race Ever

With voting just a month away, chaos is coming in the Democratic Party. But that’s OK

Pins and bumper stickers of presidential contenders in the New Hampshire primary are displayed in the State House visitors center, in Concord, N.HElection 2020 New Hampshire Primary, Concord, USA - 14 Nov 2019

Pins and bumper stickers of 2020 presidential contenders in the New Hampshire primary are displayed in the State House visitors center, in Concord, N.H on November 14th 2019

Charles Krupa/AP/Shutterstock

Noon, January 2, Concord High in New Hampshire. “Hello!” shouts Andrew Yang, sprinting up the aisles of the school auditorium like he’s introducing a daytime talk show called Andrew!

No candidate has leaned more into the fun part of running for president than Yang. He does some high fives, then reminds all: He’s the guy who wants to give everyone $1,000 a month. He notes the state of Alaska already does something like this, divvying up oil revenues. What’s the 21st century version of oil?

Murmurs among the teenagers. Yang grins.

“It’s technology,” he says. “Although, I thought someone was going to say marijuana. And that’s cool, because I want to legalize weed, too.”

LOUD cheers. The Beavis and Butthead factor here is through the roof. Also: Yang wants to give 16-year-olds with cash and expanded relaxation options the right to vote. (Studies show this increases like likelihood of future engagement). You could cause brain bubbles in a Fox News host with a video of this Democrat recruitment scene.

Through the eyes of a rival candidate, Yang’s slang-laden pitch to high schoolers might smack of Steve Buscemi’s “How do you do, fellow kids?” routine. His speech is peppered with phrases like “That’s okay, bro.” Describing the political “disaster” previous generations have left children, he says, “You could even call it a shit show.”

But kids spot phonies quickly, and Yang isn’t failing. His campaign is meant as a warning that it’s traditional politicians who are being phony, when they don’t raise alarms about a jobs crisis brought on by automation and changes to the manufacturing economy.

He’s been evangelizing the Democratic Party to a new generation of voters, at events like these and online, where his #YangGang has been one of campaign 2020’s big marketing success stories. He raised $16.5 million in the fourth quarter, fifth among Democrats, hinting at new sources of support for the party.

But the reaction to Yang among party leaders and press has hovered between indifferent and hostile. He’s had trouble getting air time, and thanks to an arbitrary set of criteria, may be shut out of the January 14th candidate debate in Des Moines, despite poll numbers that are competitive with some already-qualified participants.

The standard requires four “qualifying” polls showing 5% support or higher, or two qualifying polls showing 7% or higher support in Iowa or New Hampshire. The problem is, there were no new state polls for over a month, making it nearly impossible for candidates on the edge to meet the increased standard.

Yang cracks a smile when asked about the party criteria for the Des Moines debate, then says, “We’re operating on the assumption the debate doesn’t exist, and we’re just making our case,” he says.

Just a few weeks out of votes in Iowa (February 3rd) and New Hampshire (February 11th), the Democratic Party seems to be in chaos. A year-long process traditionally used to hone consensus among donors and media has achieved the opposite.

The four top candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg — are polling within points of each other. As many as three or four others, Yang included, could challenge in New Hampshire with a strong final month.

Democrats have test-driven an incredible 29 candidates in a calendar year to get to a place where neither voters nor party officials seem close to agreeing on who might be the best choice to take on Donald Trump.

This has led to a spate of news stories about “anxiety” from donors, pundits, and strategists, who complain the bitter primary fight is “wasting valuable time” the party could be using to make a case against Trump. Whispers about a brokered convention have become more common in campaign analyses.

In such an environment, there is less establishment patience for outsiders like Yang, whose 4-5% poll support in New Hampshire is probably coming out of the hide of one of the more traditional candidates.

Asked after the Concord High School event what the uncertainty says about the state of Democratic field, Yang says this is the way things are supposed to work.

All of this stuff ahead of time historically hasn’t made the determination,” he says. “You know what has? Voters in Iowa, voters in New Hampshire.”

That’s true, I say, but you know what I mean. The party doesn’t want things this way, does it?

Yang nods. “The party,” he laughs, “definitely doesn’t want it to work this way.”

*****

The madness started in this state fifty years ago. In 1968, antiwar challenger Eugene McCarthy nearly beat incumbent Lyndon Johnson here, losing by just five points 47%-42%. “Clean Gene” had polled in the teens, beginning a tradition of pundits being massively wrong in this state.

This surprise showing inspired Robert Kennedy to enter as a second antiwar challenge. LBJ — aging, sick, hated by Dixiecrat whites for civil rights programs and by liberals for everything from Vietnam to responses to protests in Watts, Detroit, and Newark — had a moment of clarity and dropped out, not wanting to deal with the Bernie Bro energy of McCarthy or the handsome-Dan media appeal of Kennedy.

This left Democrats in fracture, formalized at the Chicago convention. Party-controlled delegates handed the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, a charmless, gaffe-prone party lifer who called youth-voter fixation on Vietnam “escapism.”

Humphrey earned just 2.2% of primary votes, but the argument for him was the same one we’re hearing today about candidates like Pete Buttigieg: electability.

Antiwar voters who’d dominated primaries came away with nothing, leading to new rules mandating future delegates be more beholden to voters. Insiders countered by perfecting an “invisible primary” system in which donors and media endorsements would be lined up well in advance of Iowa and New Hampshire.

The goal was to create momentum for a clear frontrunner before the first votes were cast, i.e. exactly the current situation.

*****

How the New Hampshire primary traditionally works: the out-of-town press invades, occupying the Manchester Radisson like a siege army, and leans into a presumed frontrunner until he or she wins.

If the voters are very rebellious, and decide to back a different conventional politician, the press re-calibrates behind the new hotness. If voters decide to think completely for themselves, and pick a candidate not approved by the party or major media – no one knows what happens then, since we’ve never seen it, at least not on the Democratic side.

Two candidates I didn’t catch on a recent tour through the state each show how conventional campaign thinking has been upended in this cycle.

In the days after the New Year, Biden announced he’d be willing to pick a Republican running mate and also said coal miners should “learn to program.” He will go on to say “no one understood Obamacare” in Iowa. Reporters almost universally think he’d be a shit candidate against Trump, but voters haven’t agreed: he’s still at or near the top of polls.

Bernie Sanders meanwhile has spent the last four years serving as the subject of stories detailing his lack of general election viability, declining popularity, Putin-ness, physical unfitness, bad hair, and ideological unsuitability, among other things.

Yet he entered 2020 crushing the field in fundraising, raising $34.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2019, and is now a co-frontrunner with Biden in some polls. The failure of years of blunt messaging to derail a candidate like Sanders is part of what’s been driving those stories about “anxiety” among the party elders.

One candidate who has been affected by media, especially of late, is Elizabeth Warren. In Concord, I watched the news cycle take a bite out of her campaign.

New Englanders (I’m one) think they invented everything from baseball to microbreweries to the Democratic Party, and they believe the rest of the country should pay an annual thank-you dividend for the Kennedys. In regional memory, Mike Dukakis won the presidency in a landslide.

That’s why a sizable crowd in Concord responds with howls of approval when Elizabeth Warren asks, “Can we just admit that trickle-down economics is a failure?” In Phoenix, they’d ask, “What the fuck is trickle-down economics?” In parts of New England, Reagan is still president and they’re still mad about ketchup being declared a vegetable. Understanding the vagaries of Masshole chauvinism helps here.

Warren’s candidacy was designed to be an answer to the schism problem, a patch on the Hillary-Bernie divide. She sells herself as a proud Democrat with impeccable partisan credentials (her April, 2019 declaration in support of impeachment rocketed her up the polls). However, she also pushes the anti-corporate themes Democratic voters responded to in 2016.

Anyone who can thread the needle between business-friendly Neera Tanden Democrats and Bernie’s “Let’s chainsaw the arms off billionaires today” platform probably deserves to be president. For much of last year, Warren looked poised to pull it off.

However, her campaign began stumbling in November. In response to criticism about the costs of her social proposals, Warren tiptoed back from immediate support of a Bernie-style health plan, promising instead to expand coverage in the first 100 days of her presidency as part of what she called a “transition” to Medicare for all.

Progressives freaked. Sanders accused her of wanting to “delay” the fight. Warren stopped emphasizing Medicare for All. The new stump formula, visible at events like this Concord Town Hall, would be shorter speeches and longer Q&A.

Campaign reporters, scum that we are, noticed. Papers like the New York Times noted, “Elizabeth Warren isn’t Talking Much About Medicare for All Anymore.” Vice quipped: “Big, structural change? More like big, structural incrementalism.”

Incrementalism is a near-fatal epithet in the Trump era. Once this word appeared, Warren had to act before something terrible happened, like a laudatory column from David Brooks.

In a December 19th debate, she attacked surging “moderate” Pete Buttigieg for hosting a fundraiser in a California “wine cave,” a clear effort to re-establish anti-corporate credentials.

This time, the freakout came from insiders. Columns appeared in the Washington Post and the New York Times assailing Warren for Democrat-on-Democrat crime. Buttigieg ripped Warren on long-game grounds, saying, “I’m not going to turn away anyone who wants to help us defeat Donald Trump” (a version of Hillary Clinton’s “there is too much at stake to unilaterally disarm” argument).

Warren seemed checkmated. Both wings of the party were denouncing her as a Trojan Horse. Worse, a campaign press that embraced Warren’s “play for nuance” earlier in the campaign cycle was now in cape-vulture mode, circling with features about her changeable rhetoric and falling poll results.

In an aggressive gaggle after the Concord event, a reporter pushes Warren on the “wine cave” issue. Warren answers in non-committal fashion, saying, “I didn’t spend one minute selling access.”

The next day, Politico will write up the whole Concord appearance as follows: “Warren ends wine cave offensive.”

It’s hard to know if the media turnabout on Warren reflects real concerns below the surface from party sources and donors about her general election prospects, or whether it’s something even dumber, like reporters just being froggy because she won’t keep the click-producing food fight alive with Buttigieg.

After the event, a 73 year-old builder from Salisbury named Bob Irving shakes his head, wondering if Warren’s compromise approach will work in the current environment.

“This isn’t going to get done from the inside,” Irving says. “I think it will be hard to do her way.”

*****

Keene, a few hours after Warren’s Town Hall. Pete Buttigieg addresses a packed hall of 850 at the Colonial Theater. He warms up with recollections of last year’s visit to Lindy’s diner, a mandatory campaign stop in the past for the likes of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and multiple Bushes.

“That’s how you build your relationship with Keene,” Pete quips. He’s standing against a giant PETE sign whose font recalls a Fortnite options page.

Any veteran campaign reporter watching Buttigieg live for the first time will feel like an NBA scout seeing a 13 year-old in AAU ball draining 35-footers. Either this politician spent his childhood practicing president-speak in front of a mirror, or he was born with the same mutant gene for projecting warmth and ideological vagueness carried by other iconic Democrats.

In Keene, Buttigieg makes the comparison explicit.

“Every time my party has won in the last fifty years,” he says, “it was somebody who was new to national politics. Somebody who didn’t work in Washington … Somebody who was holding the country to its highest values. And somebody who was opening the door to a new generation of leadership.”

Translation: I’m Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. (And Jimmy Carter, but modern crowds won’t make the association). It takes stones to say this with a straight face, but Buttigieg doesn’t seem lacking in that department. One could imagine him flustering Trump just by being fit and having his own hair, not that this helped Marco Rubio.

Of course, the argument that Buttigieg is a nuclear warhead of electability is undermined somewhat by a documented problem with black and Latino voters. Even if he sweeps Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s hard to see his path continuing through South Carolina or Super Tuesday – but that’s another subject for another time.

Outside the theater, the crowd buzzes with comparisons to toothy political men through the ages: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, even Emmanuel Macron. Obama’s name comes up a lot.

“Obama was an excellent speaker. When you heard Barack Obama speak, you thought, ‘that could be the Commander in Chief,’” says Raleigh Ormerod, a Keene city councilor. “Pete has that quality.”

Fellow city councilor Randy Filiault, who has endorsed Pete, points to another quality many Democratic insiders like about Pete: He’s not Sanders.

“I think it means a lot when a candidate doesn’t have to yell to get their point across,” says Filiault, cracking a smile. “You know how some candidates who [cough cough] are running for president think the louder they yell, the more correct they are?”

*****

Morning, January 3rd, Manchester. The “Candidate Café” event hosted by local station WMUR at the Airport Diner in Manchester is a tradition that’s yielded impressive weirdness in the past. This is where Ted Cruz depressed Princess Bride fans everywhere in 2012 by expertly acting out Billy Crystal’s “Your friend is only mostly dead” routine.

Today’s entrant is New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. I photograph him talking to a table full of diners about his breakfast preferences before he disappears into the closed-door session with voters, as filmed by WMUR. In the meeting, he will talk about his relationship with actress Rosario Dawson.

“I just love it,” he reportedly says. “If I had a vacation, it would be for me and Rosario to go to a nice beach and do a lot of reading. I like to read out loud to her.”

Booker is one of many lower-polling candidates to protest the DNC’s debate rules. He sent a letter to the DNC asking that thresholds for entry to debates be lowered or abolished. Yang the day before noted the campaigns went further than that:

“We went to the DNC and we offered to pay for polls,” Yang said. “And it wasn’t just us. Tom Steyer and Cory Booker joined in, and said, of course there should be more polls.”

On this morning of January 3rd, the New York Times runs a story detailing the DNC’s answer. A spokesperson for DNC chairman Tom Perez says the party would be willing to encourage private outlets to conduct more polls. Beyond that, Booker, Yang, and the rest could suck it.

“The D.N.C. will not sponsor our own debate-qualifying polls of presidential candidates during a primary,” Xochitl Hinojosa said. “The New York Times and the expansive list of 16 qualifying poll sponsors should conduct more independent polling.”

*****

Warner, the Schoodacs Coffee House, noon. Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard shrugs when asked about the debate issue. She says she made her concerns known a while back about what she tabs the DNC’s “pre-primary,” but it’s out of her hands. Like Yang, Booker, and others, she’s focused on campaigning the old-fashioned way.

About that: One of the few reporting clichés that is true is that the “intimate” New Hampshire race is changing. The bunched population centers and high stakes involved with this one primary — Yang noted a New Hampshire primary vote traditionally has roughly 1,000 times the influence of a California vote — once incentivized campaigns to prioritize visits and personal contact.

But the Internet-centered focus of modern politics and the likelihood that this year’s Democratic race will be contested long after New Hampshire has caused a re-think of the handshakes-and-diner-visits campaign style. Candidates are focused on town halls, while spending more evenings at fundraisers and doing more media buys.

“I stopped by a shop yesterday in Concord,” Gabbard says. “It was a jewelry store. The owner laughed, said he’s been in business for 36-37 years, seen a lot of presidential candidates coming through his doors… He said, ‘You know, you’re the first candidate to come in in this election.’ I was surprised. This is Concord!”

Gabbard shakes her head. “It’s become an election that’s more about sound bytes on TV than that person-to-person experience New Hampshire voters are accustomed to.”

Gabbard is speaking just hours after American airstrikes in Baghdad kill Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. While all the Democratic candidates denounce Trump, most merely complain his move was not thought out.

Buttigieg said there were “questions about how the decision was made”; has carefully thought through the national security implications”; Booker said Trump had “no larger strategic plan”; Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar said the “timing, manner, and potential consequences” of the assassination “raise serious questions,” etc. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, mockingly tabbed the Great Centrist Hope by the New York Post, added, “Nobody that I know of would think that we did something wrong in getting the general.”

Gabbard’s take is different. “The clear action we need to take,” she says, “is we need to bring our troops home. Get them out of Iraq and Syria, now.”

Until recently, Gabbard polled well here (she ended 2019 in the 5-6% range) but has remained a locus of furious controversy within the party. Hillary Clinton suggested Gabbard was a Russian asset in an interview in late October, and things got weirder from there.

In Keene in late December, someone went around town sticking home-printed hammer-and-sickle logos on Gabbard campaign signs. “They sent me out there, and I found like 25 or 30 of them,” Gabbard volunteer Dave Fite told me. “I thought, ‘Who has time to do this?’”

All this again echoed 1968, when Democratic governor John King said a vote for Eugene McCarthy would be “greeted with cheers in Hanoi.”

Asked if the same fault lines that opened in 1968 are still there, Gabbard pauses, then nods. “I think it’s only gotten more entrenched,” she says, referring to splits within the party on war especially.

The difference on Iran between most Democrats and Gabbard (and Bernie Sanders also said we should bring troops home from the Middle East in an “orderly manner”) echoes what we saw in 2004, when Dennis Kucinich opposed the entire framework of the War on Terror, as opposed just the strategy and execution of the Iraq invasion.

Kucinich, who just endorsed Gabbard, is frustrated that the uproar within the Democratic Party over incidents like the Soleimani attack tends on the campaign trail to stop short of questioning the broader context of policies like drone assassination. “They say, ‘You should have told us you were doing the assassination,’” he says. “No, you shouldn’t have done it!”

He believes Democrats over the years have consistently missed election-year opportunities to embrace more progressive positions against war. “Seriously,” he asks. “In what other profession can you be wrong over and over again, without consequences?”

I offer: journalism?

“Fair enough,” he laughs.

*****

New Hampshire campaign platitudes through the years: the elected president always wins here (this stopped being true in 1992), “liberals” have an advantage (New Hampshire is really more likely to embrace conservative-ish Democrats like Jeanne Shaheen), Random Candidate X has “momentum” (Marco Rubio and Joe Lieberman are the best-known, but talk of “Huntsmentum” in 2012 was only partially a joke), etc.

New Hampshire voters are unpredictable!” is another. Strategists love to remind us of this state’s many outlier results, from John Kasich’s second-place finish in 2016 to Hillary Clinton overcoming double-digit poll deficits to beat Obama in 2008 to Bill Clinton rebounding from the Gennifer Flowers scandal to take second place after Paul Tsongas in 1992.

Taking polls, electability, and the “invisible primary” so seriously all those years was the real outlier. Maybe this process shouldn’t be predictable, and the chaos in places like New Hampshire means we’re finally getting back to normal.

 

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