MANCHESTER, NH – Two days after Bernie Sanders entered the presidential fray, Elizabeth Ropp was ready. She shoved furniture to the walls of her modest inner city bungalow creating standing room only for the overflow house party crowd that arrived on a Saturday in May to officially launch Sanders’ New Hampshire Primary campaign.
She’s been canvassing and phone banking ever since. Despite her obvious dedication to the cause, she’s also found herself dodging a singular barb coming from her Hillary Clinton campaign counterparts.
It’s relentless, she says.
Ever since May I’ve been getting the same question, over and over: ‘Will you ultimately support Hillary?’ I resent that.
“Ever since May I’ve been getting the same question, over and over: ‘Will you ultimately support Hillary?’ I resent that,” says Ropp, 39, who works at a community acupuncture clinic.
“I don’t hear anyone asking Hillary supporters if they’ll support Bernie. We’ve had this uphill battle and, right now, Bernie’s campaign is going great. So, my answer is not to answer. I say that I’m focusing on the primary right now, because I feel we have a really good shot,” says Ropp.
When pressed, she still can’t bring herself to go down that road. Not yet.
“I think I find Hillary’s support from the Wall Street’s banks really troublesome, and I fear she wouldn’t bring any change, or progress. Then, I look at Cruz or Trump, and that just pushes me harder to do everything I can to make sure Bernie’s the nominee. I’m fighting hard to not have to make that kind of choice.”
Ropp is among the ranks of New Hampshire’s 384,000 or so “undeclared” voters, which make up about 44 percent of the state’s 874,000 registered voters, according to the most recent tabulations by the NH Secretary of State’s office.
Although registered Republicans still edge registered Democrats by about 32,000, these affiliations, or lack thereof, is what makes the New Hampshire primary process so important. With such a statistically unpredictable faction of independent voters, the importance of New Hampshire’s focus on “retail politics” is what presses candidates to participate in small house parties, like Ropp’s.
Ultimately, New Hampshire’s primary is a crowd-sourced job interview.
And while winning New Hampshire – as Hillary Clinton did in 2008 – doesn’t guarantee a win in the general election, it provides the rest of the country an intimate look at the candidates through the eyes of a discerning New Hampshire electorate. The fact that Hillary had such a strong showing in New Hampshire in 2008 may contribute to the tenacity of those like Keith Yergeau, 30, a tireless roadie on Sanders’ New Hampshire street team.
Like Ropp, Yergeau, 30, of Bedford, has been following Sanders closely on the ground in New Hampshire. Unlike Ropp, Yergeau knows exactly what he’ll do if Clinton is the last Democrat standing on Election Day, whether she’s standing next to Trump – or any of the other Republican candidates.
I wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton if you paid me to do it. …If it came down to it, I would most likely write-in Bernie.
“Even though Trump is big money in politics personified, and a caricature of our corrupt system, I wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton if you paid me to do it,” says Yergeau, who works for Stamp Stampede, a non-profit organization aimed at campaign finance reform, founded by Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s.
“If it came down to it, I would most likely write-in Bernie, or I would vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party.”
Yergeau voted for Obama twice. Sometime after the 2012 election he says he started to wonder about the polarization in Washington, D.C. He concluded that Obama is as beholden to Wall Street and special interests as any Republican. And by his millennial measuring stick, Clinton is just as culpable.
“The two parties in theory are diametrically opposed, but they have the same master and the same people,” says Yergeau. “And Hillary falls into that same category.”
Sylvia Gale represents the other end of the chronological spectrum of Sanders supporters – a retired social worker and longtime social activist, she says she’s most inspired by Sanders’ populist platform. Gale doesn’t count herself among New Hampshire’s politically motivated, although she did try her hand at change from the inside out, winning a two-year seat as a state legislator in the last election cycle. But she lost her bid for reelection, which was fine with her.
She is more of a one-on-one evangelist. Gale has only been moved from her comfort zone to ride shotgun on a presidential primary bandwagon by a handful of candidates over the 40 years she’s lived here – Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown, Barack Obama and now, Bernie Sanders.
“He is the epitome of authenticity. It’s rare to find in an elected official at any level,” says Gale. “This campaign is hard to articulate. It’s a phenomenon. It’s a people’s campaign, a people’s political revolution, and it’s because of Bernie. What he brings forward and will deliver to the people is honesty, integrity and consistency, something we’ve not been holding in high premium in a long time.”
It’s a phenomenon. It’s a people’s campaign, a people’s political revolution, and it’s because of Bernie.
Voting for Hillary will give her great pause, if it comes to that.
“Hillary’s support of Wall Street and ties to big money and the evolution of her positions on things I hold important, like LGBT issues and the Keystone Pipeline, just reinforces to me that we need someone genuine and real. The things that matter to me are the things Bernie’s spent 40 years standing up for, and he doesn’t waver,” says Gale.
“I will pull the lever for Hillary, with great disappointment. Considering the alternatives, yes, I would do that. I’m a progressive, more than I’m a hardline Democrat,” says Gale. “But until that time, I believe it’s our mission to keep momentum going, no matter what happens in New Hampshire. We’re fueling a revolution, and Bernie’s supporters around the country are counting on us to keep it going.”
Gale has found an alliance within the community of tight-knit Nashua City Democrats in Jan Schmidt, 64, an independent web developer and also a woman of a certain age. Like Gale, Schmidt has been waiting a lifetime for a woman to make it to the White House.
At the risk of ruffling the sensibilities of her fellow boomer ladies, she’s willing to wait at least four more years.
“Sure, America is ready for a woman in the White House, although I know there’s a whole cohort of men out there who say we’ll never have a woman be head of our Army, because it’s just wrong. And yes, there’s the guilt trip I get from women for not supporting Hillary – like I’m some kind of traitor to my gender for supporting Bernie,” says Schmidt, also a former NH State Representative for her ward in the city of Nashua.
This is where we talk about our differences. We’re also Democrats, so of course we’ll come together in the end. We bitch and chew and moan and then – we do what we’re supposed to do.
“I like the response from Susan Sarandon best. She said, ‘I don’t vote with my vagina.’ I was out over the weekend at a honk-and-wave for Bernie in Nashua, and a guy rolled down his window and said, ‘I’m so glad to see women voting with their heads.’ I doubled over with laughter because I figured he was referring to that quote,” says Schmidt.
“I know Hillary’s done some terrific things, but I don’t think you earn anything just by being a woman. Bernie’s got a 100 percent rating with Planned Parenthood. He marched with Martin Luther King. He supports unions. He’s part of what we are – not as men or women, but people.”
Schmidt says her real problem with Clinton is her character – she believes Clinton’s platform has rapidly evolved to emulate many of Sanders’ talking points on income inequality, getting “big money” out of politics, and elevating the middle class. Schmidt believes Clinton’s sustained launch into the national political sphere – as a senator and secretary of state – is solely due to her firm grasp on her husband’s coattails.
“I never felt there should be royalty in this type of race, or that she really ever distinguished herself from him. He wasn’t a horrible president, but he took the country farther to the right than I would have liked,” says Schmidt.
And yes, she will cast a vote for Hillary if Bernie doesn’t get the nomination.
“This is the New Hampshire primary. This is where we talk about our differences. We’re also Democrats, so of course we’ll come together in the end. We bitch and chew and moan and then – we do what we’re supposed to do.”
With less than a month to go until the February 9 New Hampshire primary, Hillary supporters like Homa Jaferey, 49, seem less concerned than pundits are with the shift in daily polling data that indicates a Sanders surge – he is currently leading Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Jaferey also isn’t fazed by the divide she’s sensed among New Hampshire Democrats. She maintains that Clinton’s qualifications will be the deciding factor for informed voters, and the schism between Bernie and Hillary supporters is stemming from the threat some Bernie supporters must be feeling, knowing Hillary is the stronger candidate, she says. While everyone in her social circle is cordial enough in person, she notes it seems it’s the Sanders supporters who “go on the attack” against Clinton supporters, based on her social media feed.
I like what he stands for but, obviously, I don’t think he’s as qualified as Hillary. …She’s the most qualified presidential candidate we’ve ever had.
“And that’s not cool,” says Jaferey. “They should be attacking Republicans, not Hillary,” she says.
If Clinton doesn’t win the party’s nomination, she’ll certainly support Sanders. She just doesn’t see that happening.
“I like what he stands for but, obviously, I don’t think he’s as qualified as Hillary. She’s the only candidate who goes in-depth on foreign policy matters. She’s the most qualified presidential candidate we’ve ever had,” says Jaferey. And I’m not sure he can execute all the things he’s screaming about.”
Although Jaferey has maintained her support of Clinton since even before she officially announced her candidacy, there are other dedicated Democrats, like Jawad Ali Baba Shaikh of Manchester, who came to Clinton’s camp by taking full advantage of New Hampshire’s political primary tourist season.
Shaikh says he’s someone who needs to feel the chemistry of each candidate before deciding, from a handshake and first-person Q&A sessions, to an overall vibe. That’s how he settled on Clinton, a decision that wasn’t so easy, he says.
“I met with both Hillary and Bernie, and I asked them both a lot of questions,” says Shaikh, 40, an entrepreneur and investor. “Bernie doesn’t like big banks and big corporations. We have that in common, and he’d make a good president – if he wins the primary. But that’s going to be the tough part for him.”
Hillary’s strength as a candidate goes beyond her resume – which by the way is impeccable, he says.
“I was nervous for her when she was going through the [Benghazi hearings], but the way she handled herself, that was leadership. The whole world was watching, and that’s when I knew she had my vote,” Shaikh says. “But you know, if Bernie wins, I will have no problem supporting him, 100 percent. He’s an honest man.”
Nikki Arguin, 41, is slightly less enthusiastic about the prospect of Sanders being the party’s nominee. She was an early recruit to the Ready for Hillary movement, launched in 2013. Since then, Arguin has been volunteering up to six days a week for Clinton’s campaign. She says she would vote for Sanders if her candidate doesn’t get the party’s nod, but that her heart won’t be in it.
“I’m working as much as I can so it doesn’t come down to that, but to be honest, I don’t think I could volunteer as much for him as I do for Hillary,” says Arguin. “I’m all heart when I volunteer. I have to be in it, 100 percent, and I don’t think I can do that for him just because I don’t believe in his message – and I find his followers here to be negative.”
We’re all passionate people. …but any Democrat is better than any Republican in the end, and I think we all agree on that.
She refers back to September’s New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention, where she felt party unity was marred on a very public stage by bad manners.
She was mortified.
“It was such an amazing event. I couldn’t believe it when Bernie Sanders supporters were booing Hillary when she came out to talk – she couldn’t get a sentence out. I felt like I should go apologize to her, on behalf of the entire state of New Hampshire,” says Arguin.
“We’re all passionate people. I’ve heard some true-blue Democrats who’ve said they think the DNC wants to coronate Hillary, and I’m not sure if in the end those people who think there’s a conspiracy would vote for her, or write-in Bernie, but any Democrat is better than any Republican in the end, and I think we all agree on that.”
Carol Robidoux is a freelance writer, multimedia journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com an independent daily news site in Manchester, NH. She has reported on New Hampshire politics for The Boston Globe, MSNBC, and the PBS News Hour.