In New Hampshire's Democratic Debate This Weekend, What's At Stake For Sanders?

Dec 18, 2015

With all the attention paid to the most recent Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas – and the GOP presidential race in general – it can be easy to forget that the Democratic candidates for president have another debate of their own coming up Saturday in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, joined VPR to discuss the importance of the debate.

The debate will be marked by a shift from economic inequality issues, which dominated the previous Democratic debate, to the foreign policy issues that have generated so much debate in the wake of the Paris attacks and the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

“Certainly there is a change in emphasis,” Fowler says. “And Hillary's speech in Minnesota, where she really began to lay out what a Clinton foreign policy would look like, [was] very critical of inexperience and the positions she was seeing on the Republican side, and [she used] that to sort of position herself as the ‘grown-up.’”

As of the first week of December, Clinton was trailing Sanders by 10 points in New Hampshire. But Fowler is skeptical of the polls.

“The pollsters are still using these very minimal screens to figure out who a likely voter is, and they're pretty unreliable,” she says. “Let's not forget that Hillary was behind in the polls in 2008. And of course she ended up pulling it out at the last minute. So ... particularly these early polls, I don't like to put too much emphasis on them, because I think the methodology is weak.”

The decreasing prevalence of land lines – by which polling agencies have traditionally contacted voters – poses a notable challenge.

"Particularly these early polls, I don't like to put too much emphasis on them, because I think the methodology is weak." - Linda Fowler, Dartmouth College professor of government

“I think the land lines in the polling is particularly important for Bernie Sanders,” Fowler says. “He's doing extraordinary well among young people, and they typically have cell phones and don't have land lines. There's a potential that they'll be under estimating Bernie's poll numbers.”

Fowler also says that polling of New Hampshire’s independent voters has also thrown the numbers, since many refuse to identify as Democratic or Republican.

“The non-response rate in these polls is really high,” she says.

While the New Hampshire primary doesn’t always guarantee its victor the nomination – Clinton took the state in 2008, but then-Senator Barack Obama ultimately prevailed – Fowler says it plays an important role in the race.

“In the past, let's think about what the New Hampshire primary accomplished for candidates, which is why it became so important. First of all, with the retail politics, the relatively inexpensive media markets, it was a place for candidates to go and try out their message. It was kind of like the dress rehearsal in New Haven [Connecticut] for Broadway shows,” Fowler says.

"Let's assume that [Sanders] maintains his lead, and actually does win New Hampshire. The real question is, is he going to get blown out in South Carolina and these March 1 primaries because he wouldn't have had enough time to leverage a victory to be successful there?"

The New Hampshire primary also kicks off a series of others in key states leading up to Super Tuesday on March 1.

“So I think this is more important for Sanders, because let's assume that he maintains his lead, and actually does win New Hampshire,” Fowler says. “The real question is, is he going to get blown out in South Carolina and these March 1 primaries because he wouldn't have had enough time to leverage a victory to be successful there?"

Fowler also validates the Sanders campaign’s ongoing critique of national outlets that give other candidates more airtime – ABC World News Tonight, for example, has devoted a total of 81 minutes of air time to Republican candidate Donald Trump, and just one minute to Sanders, according to the watchdog group Media Matters.

“I think the Sanders complaint is a legitimate one,” Fowler says. “The press has been obsessed with The Donald. And in effect, he's their creature. He would not be doing so well in the polls if the press hadn't singled him out so quickly to focus on, and if he didn't provide the kind of conflict and unexpected sound bites that generate media attention. For Sanders, if he said something completely different, they would cover it.”

Given the fact that direct engagement with followers on social media has formed such a strong pillar of the Sanders campaign, Fowler says the media slight “may be a mixed blessing.”

“If the lack of coverage continues in January,” she says, “then I think he really has a gripe with the press.”

The Democratic presidential primary debate will take place at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire on Saturday, Dec. 19 at 8 p.m.