Clinton Makes Risky Bet on Electability in New Hampshire

January 11, 2016, 3:18 AM UTC
Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In New Hampshire
MANCHESTER, NH - DECEMBER 19: Democratic president candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the debate at Saint Anselm College December 19, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire. This is the third Democratic debate featuring Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Andrew Burton—Getty Images

The volunteer for Hillary Clinton drove up a long hill and parked outside a house on a crusty snowbank. With a campaign clipboard tucked under her arm and ice cleats on her boots, the woman walked up to the back door, hoping to win another vote for Clinton. Her argument was simple: Bernie Sanders is nice, but only Hillary Clinton can actually win a general election.

“Hillary is a woman with very strong convictions, just like Bernie,” the volunteer, Lenore Ekwurtzl, said to an older woman who opened the door. “She has just moderated her convictions to say, ‘Well, I can meet the Republicans halfway.’ I don’t know what will happen if Bernie can’t do that.”

“I know, I know,” the older woman at the door replied with a sigh. “I’m not sure that Bernie would even have a chance nationally.”

“Yes,” the volunteer, Ekwurtzl said. “That’s what I’m really worried about.” Then, success: the woman signed a commit-to-vote card, promising to support Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9.

This is how the Clinton campaign hopes converts will be swayed and won in these final snowy days in the New Hampshire primary, where rival Sen. Bernie Sanders is extremely popular among Democrats. Clinton may not be as loved, but she is commonly viewed in this New England state as better prepared to face a Republican in a general election. Clinton’s is a pitch to pragmatism, not passion, and she makes it time and again.

“We need a Democratic nominee who will be able to beat the Republicans and get the job done for Americans,” Clinton on Sunday told a mostly-female audience of around 500 at a planned Parenthood Event in Manchester, N.H, accepting an endorsement from the women’s health organization. “I shudder to think about what the Republicans would do, if given the chance.”

It is a risky bet for Clinton, who is less than three weeks away from the first nominating contest in Iowa. Multiple polls show Clinton does not actually perform better against Republicans than Sanders. And now Sanders has sought to dispel what his campaign believes is Clinton’s myth, with his aides pointing to polling data in Sanders’ favor arguing that he is in fact the more electable candidate against a Republican.

“If people are concerned about electability—and Democrats should be very concerned because we certainly don’t want to see some right-wing extremist in the White House—Bernie Sanders is the candidate,” Sanders said on ABC’s “This Week”on Sunday.

Clinton’s electability pitch is deeply woven into her campaign, and she carries it to college campuses, convention halls, town halls, debate stages and barbecues across the country. She makes the appeal through surrogates and on-the-ground messaging. With Clinton locked in tight races in New Hampshire and Iowa, her staff organizers tell volunteer canvassers like Ekwurtzl to talk about Clinton’s ability to win in a general election. And Clinton and her allies often mention the high stakes in the November election and the danger of losing the White House to a Republican.

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards on Sunday explained her organization’s early endorsement of Clinton: it was in part about the urgency in defeating a GOP presidential nominees.

“It came down to the high stakes in this election: everything that Planned Parenthood has fought for for the past 99 years is on the ballot in November,” Richards told TIME in an interview on Sunday in New Hampshire. “We need somebody who’s not just going to be good and better than the Republicans: we need somebody that’s going to go toe-to-toe with them.”
Clinton’s pitch is making its way onto the New Hampshire and Iowa airwaves, too. In a Clinton campaign advertisement released Friday, a montage of Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and other Republicans is followed by a voiceover: “They’re backward, even dangerous. So ask yourself, who’s is the one candidate who can stop them?” The answer: “Hillary Clinton, tested and tough. To stop them, stand with her.”

Sanders’ top aides scoff at the notion that Clinton is the more electable candidate, saying Clinton is relying on Democrats’ fear over losing to Republicans, rather than the issues. “She is resorting to electability as opposed to substance of issues because she’s losing on that ground,” said Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver.

Recent polls appear to support Sanders’ argument. In a Quinnipiac poll from December, Sanders was shown beating Donald Trump head-to-head by 13 points; Clinton, by 7. Sanders appears to do better than Clinton the early states, too: a new NBC poll from this weekend shows Clinton losing by significant margins to Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio in both Iowa and New Hampshire; Sanders beats all the leading Republicans in both states (though he ties Rubio in Iowa).

Now the question of Clinton’s electability has become hotly debated on the campaign trail. Clinton argues that she will be more palatable to independents and that her more centrist views will attract voters in states such as Ohio and Florida. Her supporters view her as a practical candidate and effective Democratic standard-bearer. Sanders, the white-haired and eccentric self-avowed democratic socialist—with a Brooklyn accent to boot—cannot win the White House, Clinton supporters say.

“Think hard about the people who are presenting themselves to you: their experience, their qualifications, their positions, but particularly for those of us who are Democrats—their electability,” Clinton said at an event in Las Vegas earlier this week.

Sanders argues more and more often on the campaign trail that he, in fact, is the more electable, telling crowds that he can excite voters to turn out at the polls better than his opponent. He boasts that he can generate excitement where Clinton cannot and ride a wave of Democratic support into the White House.

Some New Hampshire voters are getting wise to the Clinton argument—and many are not buying it anymore.

Sanders canvassers sat in their car on Sunday morning in the pouring cold rain, preparing to knock on doors for the Vermont Senator. “One of Hillary’s biggest platforms she is running on is she’s saying the only candidate that can beat Republicans,” said Maggie Barker, one of the Sanders supporters said. “Hillary is too polarizing. People don’t want another dynasty.”

“She’s got too much baggage,” said another canvasser, Chris Liquori.

Whether Clinton wins the debate over her electability in the next couple weeks before the primary could determine her success in the early states, where the races remain very close. For die-hard Clinton supporters like Ekwurtzl, the volunteer, their candidate’s electability is a central part her appeal.

“I’m very concerned that Bernie will be painted red by Republicans,” said Erkwurzel. She got back in her car after she spoke with the volunteer, and drove down the hill toward town. “I like things that Bernie stands for, I just really don’t think he could get through.”

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