'Show of force': 2020 Dems to court voters, endorsements at New Hampshire convention

The state campaign teams have been staffing up, mobilizing volunteers and getting creative in their outreach to Granite Staters.
Image: Sen. Elizabeth Warren Holds Labor Day House Party In New Hampshire
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren arrives to at a Labor Day house party on Sept. 2, 2019, in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire.Scott Eisen / Getty Images

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By Amanda Golden and Julia Jester

MANCHESTER, N.H. — The 2020 Democratic field is set to descend on Manchester for the state party’s convention on Saturday, where 19 candidates will court voters and earn prime endorsements while speaking for 10 minutes or less.

State Party Chairman Raymond Buckley said he expects it to be the state’s largest-ever political gathering, a “show of force” among the campaigns vying to win the first-in-the-nation primary.

Buckley hopes to fill the nearly 12,000-seat arena here and beat President Donald Trump's record of 11,500 attendees at an August rally. “It will be evident which campaigns are organized and which are challenged” in how they’re received by the crowd, he said.

The campaign teams have been staffing up, mobilizing volunteers and getting creative in their outreach to Granite Staters ahead of February's primary, likely to spend a record-breaking $150 million in the state this cycle, the state Democratic Party estimated.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, leads in infrastructure, announcing 56 paid staff on the ground and 12 offices in all 10 counties. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren boasts 55 staff, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., 45, each across a headquarters and six field offices. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner in the polls, has 45 staff members across his headquarters and five field offices.

Former Vice President Joe Biden talks with a woman outside Lindy's Diner in Keene, New Hampshire, on Aug. 24, 2019.Elizabeth Frantz / Reuters

Biden builds on his relationships and record

Biden’s team relies on his existing relationships in the state while sharing the former vice president's record with younger voters at youth-oriented events.

The team has spent weeks reaching out to moderate voters, including Republicans, in traditionally red areas. They’re using Biden’s name recognition and experience to make an electability argument, as did his wife, Jill, when she campaigned on his behalf here last month.

“As evidenced by the vast amount of public polling where we see the VP’s electability as one of his top strengths in winning, because people know that he's our best shot at beating Trump, I think we're seeing a really positive response to that,” state director Ian Moskowitz said.

Warren’s power in numbers

While Buttigieg recently surpassed Warren’s infrastructure in size, she's been steadily building hers for the past eight months, focusing on direct voter contact.

The campaign doesn't often tout (or even release) staff, volunteer or endorsement figures, but uses a state-based campaign Twitter account to share glimpses of its ground efforts — from campus events to parades.

Going beyond traditional canvassing and phone banking, field organizers hold outreach events like "Persist Trivia" (game nights with Warren policy and state fact categories), "Big Structural Change Meetups" and "Night School" seminars highlighting the senator's proposals

Sanders' old school outreach

For Sanders' campaign, the “primary focus is old-school direct voter contact — canvassing and phone banking,” said Carli Stevenson, deputy state director and communications director.

Campaign manager Faiz Shakir said they aim to build the strongest organization in the state and exceed voter turnout expectations, estimating their “aggressive ground operation” has already contacted 35 percent of likely primary voters.

When Sanders, who has held 27 public events across six trips here, isn't in the state, the campaign relies on surrogates like California Rep. Ro Khanna, Sanders-affiliated Our Revolution President Nina Turner, and Ben Cohen, co-founder of Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s.

“We have a candidate in Bernie Sanders who doesn't really love talking about himself,” Shakir said. “Oftentimes it's the surrogates, it's people like myself who interact with him on a daily basis, coming here and telling people about the side of Bernie Sanders you may not always see and hear about that we know and love.”

New phase for Buttigieg

Buttigieg recently entered a new phase of his state campaign, featuring a heavy field office and staff investment. He's drawing some of the biggest crowds so far this cycle, including more than 800 people at a recent town-hall-style event at a Dover park.

Buttigieg’s state team is focusing on organizing based on personal relationships and “ensuring that people have the tools and language to communicate with their own friends and family,” said Jess O’Connell, a senior adviser.

“I can only imagine what it's like to be a voter in New Hampshire getting 20-plus calls and door knocks and hearing from everyone," she said. "And so we're really focused on making sure that friends are reaching out to friends, and family is talking to family, and co-workers to co-workers.”

The team is also expanding youth outreach, with organizers at five college campuses across the state.

Harris’ brand

California Sen. Kamala Harris has been here less than most of the candidates, with 12 events across four trips to the state since announcing her candidacy.

But her New Hampshire team is spreading her vibrant brand through both traditional outreach activities, like nightly phone banks and weekends volunteering in local communities, and youth-focused programs such as “Kamala Captains,” which aims to mobilize more than 150 trained youth volunteers to lead outreach efforts on campuses and in local communities.

“Grassroots engagement with the campaign has never been stronger,” state communications director Nate Evans said.

Booker, Klobuchar, O’Rourke hoping investments pay off

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker isn't a top-polling candidate, but he has a top-tier infrastructure. With 30 staff across a headquarters and three field offices, his state campaign was one of the first to knock on doors and talk directly to voters.

The campaign has gone outside the box, holding virtual house parties where Booker conferences into homes, starting a “Justice Academy” leadership program focused on criminal justice, environmental and reproductive rights issues central to Booker's platform, and hosting watch parties of his mayoral race documentary. But the campaign also stresses community service.

“We’ve had a lot of service days of action and making sure we’re leaving these communities better than where they are,” state director Erin Turmelle said.

But that investment has yet to pay off in polling: While Booker has garnered about 50 endorsements from local activists and elected officials, his state polling average is at 0.7 percent.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s campaign is taking retail politics all over the state — especially red and purple areas. They recently started "Hot Dish House Parties," potluck dinners to bring people together over food and conversation.

“Our campaign believes that in order to win we must go everywhere and talk to everyone," state communications director Kelsi Browning said.

For former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the “marriage of real world and online is crucial,” state press secretary Will Simons said. “Being able to bring things back and forth between online and offline is how you organize, it’s how people live," he said.

The state campaign launched a #RefuseToDoNothing campaign after the El Paso and Dayton shootings, sending care packages to victims, donating blood and attending events protesting racism — an example of its community service focus.

Gabbard, Yang, Castro: Building under the radar

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who has averaged sixth in state polls, has spent more than $30,000 on billboards here.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang's state director, Khrystina Snell, is leading the campaign’s data-driven field effort pairing local with out-of-state volunteers to knock on doors and participate in phone banks. As an early state, “we’re the slingshot that can take down Goliath,” Snell said.

Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro's New Hampshire director, state Rep. Manny Espitia — one of two full-time staff here — says they're focusing on nonpolitical, high-traffic areas to “to turn out people who have never really been turned out,” especially minority voters.

“When people talk about ‘New Hampshire’s a white state,’ it almost feels like an erasure of the people of color who live here,” he said. “We exist, and we care, and we do make up a portion of the electorate.”

As for what the thousands of voters inside the arena are looking to see from the candidates at Saturday’s convention, Buckley predicts “a united, aspirational message,” adding, “People are really anxious to hear how America can return to being a more positive beacon of hope throughout the world.”