EXETER, N.H. — Bill Clinton on Monday made his first appearance on the 2016 presidential campaign trail here in the nation’s first primary state, where reminders of the past flowed freely and where the stakes for the presidential hopes of his wife, Hillary Clinton, could use a nostalgic boost.
Neighboring Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is consistently closer to her in New Hampshire than other early states, but this is the state that has jolted life into both of their previous presidential campaigns.
Clinton famously declared himself the “Comeback Kid” after the primary here in 1992, when he came in second to Paul Tsongas but surpassed expectations and kick-started his way to the nomination (Clinton eventually placed 8 points behind Tsongas, but celebrated with the famous line when exit polls were showing a much closer finish).
It’s also the spot that launched life back into Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008, just a week after she lost the Iowa caucuses to Barack Obama and John Edwards.
Being back in New Hampshire is “wonderful,” Bill Clinton told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell Monday. “I love this place, you know?”
Historically “Clinton Country,” New Hampshire is the one corner of the Democratic presidential race where Bernie Sanders is mounting a serious challenge, and is crisscrossing the state at the same moments as Bill Clinton makes his debut. While Clinton leads Sanders by double digits across the country, they have consistently been close in the New Hampshire polls, with Sanders often leading, and currently polling 4.3 percent ahead of her in the latest Real Clear Politics Average.
Hillary Clinton’s supporters have acknowledged that polls will fluctuate as the months go by and that they always expected a competitive race. They consistently refer to Sanders’ home state of Vermont, and the fact candidates from neighboring states tend to fare stronger.
“Win here? Sure! But it's gonna be hard,” Bill Clinton told NBC at his first campaign event in Nashua. “She's been here a lot, worked hard, that's all you can do. These people are really fair. No candidate who borders New Hampshire has ever lost a primary here, except when Howard Dean lost to John Kerry because they both did.”
But Clinton was not entirely accurate — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lost to Arizona Senator John McCain in 2008, and former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy lost to former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in 1980. But no candidate from a neighboring state has ever placed below second in the primary.
Sanders himself has admitted that geography is relevant. "I am better known in New Hampshire than most other states and I think that’s why we are doing fairly well here,” he said bluntly at a recent event in Dover.
Sanders and his team put New Hampshire central in their equation to win the White House. “I wake up every morning and tell myself that New Hampshire is a must-win,” Sanders’ New Hampshire state director Julia Barnes recently told MSNBC. “I think strategically there is a great amount of importance for us to do well here ... No one is going to say that it’s not a must-win.”
“I am feeling increasingly confident that we are going to do really well here in New Hampshire,” Sanders likes to tell crowds. “We are going to do well in Iowa. And if we can do well and win those two states, I think we’re going to do quite well on Super Tuesday. If we do well on Super Tuesday, we’ve got a path to a victory.”
Both campaigns have rapidly been building significant ground operations in the state. The Sanders campaign boasts more than 80 paid staffers with 15 offices. Clinton’s campaign has declined to release updated state staffing numbers for several weeks, but last reported employing 50 people with 11 offices and 3 get-out-the-vote centers.
“New Hampshire voters want a contest on both sides. They like the primary. They take it extremely seriously and they like to shop,” attorney Terry Shumaker, a Hillary Clinton supporter and former N.H. campaign co-chair for Bill Clinton, told NBC this fall. “Polling is showing that most of Senator Sanders’ supporters’ second choice is Hillary Clinton. And I think the realization will sink in that she has a far better chance of beating whoever the Republicans choose.”
“It’s not only that you are the first to vote, you are the first line of defense,” Hillary Clinton told a crowd in Keene on Sunday.
Arlene Howley volunteered for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and is volunteering for Hillary Clinton this year, and attended her Keene town hall. “I think this is a little bit more exciting because Hillary’s a woman and I’m a woman and I just love what she has to say,” she said.
At that Keene event, right down the road from Sanders’ home state, Clinton reminded voters of her support from Vemont Gov. Peter Shumlin, one of most of the local elected Democrats she has locked up the support from. In New Hampshire, Gov. Maggie Hassan and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen endorsed Hillary Clinton, as has Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy.
In the New Hampshire State House, Clinton has the support of both Democratic executive councilors and nine of ten Democratic state senators. Clinton has been endorsed by 78 state representatives, about half of the 161 Democratic state representatives in the legislature. The Sanders campaign reports the support of 20 state representatives.
Fans of Sanders recognize that coming from close by helps, but that it’s not everything.
“If you turn Vermont upside down it looks kind of like New Hampshire, the proximity, for one thing. We are familiar with him,” said Jerry Conner, a retired union laborer from Londonderry, who attended a Sanders office opening celebration in Manchester. “I think it has a lot to do with it but I still think he speaks truth to power when it comes to working people.”
“There is an integrity and realness to why they’re here that goes well beyond the fact that Senator Sanders is from Vermont,” Barnes told NBC News this fall. “Vermont is not New Hampshire. It’s nice that they’re close and it’s nice that they know his name, and it’s nice that he’s been in the state campaigning for Democrats for many years prior to this, but we are talking about Hillary Clinton. There is a very significant amount of name recognition there too.”