Most early states in the presidential nominating contest have their own special institutions: the Iowa state fair, Jim Clyburn’s South Carolina fish fry and the Dixville Notch midnight vote in northern New Hampshire. But on Saturday night, Democratic presidential candidates, their supporters and prominent Democrats from around the country packed into an arena in Manchester for the McIntyre-Shaheen dinner.
The SNHU Arena in downtown Manchester was filled with thousands of party activists, many of whom were from out-of-state. Candidates had designated sections throughout the arena complete with placards, glowing bracelets, competing chants and visits from the candidates themselves. By far the largest crowds in the room were supporters of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.
New Hampshire is seen as a last lifeline for some candidates who failed to catch fire last year, including Senator Michael Bennet. Before the McIntyre-Shaheen Dinner, I attended Bennet’s town hall just down the street. He was joined by James Carville, “the Michelangelo, Napoleon and Edison” of modern politics. For the past few weeks, Bennet has been touting Carville’s support on social media and in press appearances, arguing that Democrats need a “purple state” strategy in order to win the White House. New Hampshire made Bill Clinton the “Comeback Kid” in the 1992 primaries, even though he finished second in the state behind Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas. With low expectations and James Carville by his side, Bennet needs his own comeback moment on Tuesday.
New Hampshire has a history of treating presidential candidates from neighboring states well. In 2016, Bernie Sanders of Vermont trounced Hillary Clinton; in 2012, New Hampshire made Mitt Romney the undisputed frontrunner; and in 1988, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis won by over 17 points.
In 1988, New Hampshire gave Dukakis the boost he needed after an abysmal showing in Iowa. Another Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick, is hoping to replicate that. At the McIntyre-Shaheen Dinner, Patrick drew an impressive 800 supporters—the fourth-largest crowd in the arena, ahead of Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar. Patrick, like Bennet, needs to beat expectations Tuesday for some momentum going into South Carolina and Nevada. When you’re polling at 1%, there’s really nowhere to go but up.
On Tuesday, we will have concrete results, forcing some campaigns to reckon with their own weaknesses. If Biden and Klobuchar fail to place third or higher, you could quickly see their online donors and big-money backers stop giving. If Elizabeth Warren fails to overtake Bernie Sanders, her campaign could be dead on arrival in Nevada. Considering the vast number of candidates vetted by New Hampshire in past elections, the debacle in Iowa and the sheer uncertainty of possible outcomes on Tuesday, this really is the most important New Hampshire primary of the modern era.