PORTSMOUTH, NEW HAMPSHIRE — Minutes after opening a new field office on the New Hampshire coast and firing up a crowd of local supporters, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) shuffled over to reporters, a grin replacing his usually gruff expression.
“We’re feeling really good about New Hampshire,” he said. “It kind of blows me away the number of people we have coming up, who are prepared to volunteer for the campaign. We’re going to do well in New Hampshire and Iowa, and if we win those two states, I think we’ll do quite well on Super Tuesday, and we’ve got a path to a victory.” He chuckled, his lined face bathed in the light of several TV cameras. “Welcome to the political revolution, guys.”
Sanders has good reason to feel confident. For weeks, polls have shown him several points ahead of Hillary Clinton — despite her almost universal name recognition. He’s also been drawing bigger crowds across the state. Among voters under 45 years old, his lead is even wider. This past Sunday night, his town hall at the University of New Hampshire in Durham drew about five times as many people as Hillary Clinton attracted to a forum at the same campus two days before.
A recent poll also found that New Hampshire voters view Sanders as more trustworthy and understanding of the needs of “everyday people,” though Clinton polled better on level of experience and the ability to win the general election. Another poll found Sanders dominating in voter enthusiasm, with 78 percent of his backers voicing “enthusiastic support” compared to Clinton’s 39 percent.
Asked to explain his success in the Granite State, Sanders told reporters: “I increasingly believe there’s a real desire in this country to move away from establishment politics and create a government that works for all of us, not just a handful of billionaires. Across the political spectrum, I find a profound disgust with a campaign finance system that’s allowing billionaires to try to buy this election.”
Many of the voters who spoke to ThinkProgress in Manchester, Laconia, Seaport, and Portsmouth agreed, naming money in politics as one of their top issues.
“I think Bernie’s a genuine guy, and the least tainted by money,” said Leslie Haslam, a teacher from Exeter, New Hampshire who works with adult immigrants. “He really speaks his beliefs and doesn’t seem to be beholden to whomever. That’s important, because the amount of corporate money that’s controlling this country right now is frightening.”
“Hillary’s got the super PACs and all the bank money, and Bernie wants to fix that,” added student Robin Miller, who drove several hours with her mother to attend Sanders’ town hall in Seaport. “He’s here, he’s at a middle school, reaching out to people instead of to the banks.”
Though Clinton has put out a comprehensive plan to combat big money in politics, which would create more transparency and stricter regulations, she has also taken much more money than Sanders from corporations, Wall Street banks, and hedge funds. The vast majority of the individual donations she has received are at the legal maximum of $2700, while Sanders has bragged that the average donation to his campaign is $31.30. As Sanders repeatedly tells supporters in New Hampshire and across the country, he is proud to not have a super PAC.
Along with this rejection of big money, Miller and other voters said Sanders’ air of authenticity — from his loose, wrinkled clothing and unkempt hair to his fiery speeches on inequality and racism — won them over.
“So much of politics seems plastic and formatted but he’s truthful, he’s actually a decent guy,” she gushed. “I would love to see him be president. I feel like he could make America everything I learned it could be in school.”
19-year-old Elijah Kendrick, the youth coordinator for the Manchester NAACP, told ThinkProgress he is “definitely” voting for Bernie Sanders, saying: “He speaks for us. He’s trying to protect us, I feel like. He wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He called out Donald Trump for his racism.”
Explaining his support, Manchester native Matt Lawrence cited Sanders’ repeated confrontations with activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, who repeatedly protested during his speeches earlier this year, and motivated the candidate to release a comprehensive agenda to achieve racial justice.
“You know what he did? He turned around and addressed it, and said, ‘You’re right. There is an issue with racial discrimination here in the country that has yet to be addressed,’” Lawrence told ThinkProgress. “I think Hillary needs to take a stronger, more firm stance on it. She’s said it’s a problem, but that’s really all she said.”
Clinton does not plan to go down quietly in the Granite State. In recent week’s she has picked up endorsements from the state’s popular Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Governor Maggie Hassan, and from Governor Peter Shumlin of neighboring New Hampshire. Introducing Clinton at a forum last week in Laconia, New Hampshire, Shumlin told the sea of mainly older, white voters that the stakes of the election are high.
“Next November, we will make the most important decision about the future of America,” he said. “Here we have a candidate who listens, who will get things done in Washington, D.C.”
The supporters, packed into the local Boys and Girls Club, enthusiastically agreed. Majid Shiraz, who came to the event with his 16-year-old son, told ThinkProgress he loves “everything” about Clinton, and feels she is “more qualified” than her rivals for the nomination.
“Having Bill Clinton backing her up is a big plus too,” he said.
New Hampshire native Sandy Strait, echoed this feeling. “Two Clintons in the White House is payday,’” she said. A retiree who has been volunteering for the past few months with the Clinton campaign, Strait praised Hillary Clinton as “a savvy, intelligent woman” who will “stand up for her convictions.” She told ThinkProgress she finds Sanders’ policies “extreme,” saying of his proposal for single-payer health insurance and free college education, “the funds are going to run out eventually, and I don’t see a plan for that.”
Strait and other voters who spoke to ThinkProgress lamented the rise of Bernie Sanders, and said if more people could talk to Clinton, they would be won over.
“My own house is divided,” said Linda Megaro from North Sandwich, New Hampshire. “My kids think Sanders is cool, but this is about so much more than cool. Hillary and I have similar values.”
Clinton tried to hammer those values home in a speech to the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s convention in Manchester, which drew wide praise from pundits and had a stadium full of voters on their feet.
“If you want a president who will tell you everything that is wrong with America and who is to blame for it, you’ve got plenty of other choices,” Clinton said to a cheering crowd. “But if you want a president who will listen to you, work her heart out to make your life better, and together to build a stronger, fairer, better country, then you are looking at her.”
Yet nearly a quarter of voters polled in the state remain undecided. Leslie Haslam is one of them, telling ThinkProgress she is torn on who to back in New Hampshire’s important first-in-the-nation February primary.
“I would love to have a woman president. However, I’m concerned about some of Hillary’s issues,” she said. “I think she’s smart and capable, but I’m not comfortable with where she is on the environment, and she’s got a lot of baggage. She’s part of the machine.”
Haslam and other voters also had mixed views about the scandal over Clinton’s personal e-mail server, with some dismissing it as a Republican scheme against her, and others highlighting it as a real problem. “I’m not so much concerned she was hiding something, but I think it was foolish for her to do that,” Halsam said. “People may think there’s some impropriety there that she’s trying to cover up, and ask how she’s going to be as a leader. Has it been blown out of proportion? Probably.”
Conservative groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads have tried to seize on the issue, blanketing New Hampshire with attack ads focusing on the email scandal.
Yet this doesn’t sway firm Hillary supporters like Strait — who called it “much ado about nothing” and “a Republican ploy to discredit her” — or Shiraz, who responded to the accusations, “Republicans lie all the time. Didn’t you see the last debate?”
But even for voters who have no personal feelings about the email scandal, like Jay Smith from the Manchester suburbs, are worried the issue could hurt Democrats’ chance at winning the White House. “Besides the fact that I just don’t like her as much as I like the other candidates, I think she has the most chance of losing to an idiot [in the general election] — to another Bush, or god help us, a Cruz or Trump.”
New Hampshire voters will head to the polls for the nation’s first primary in February.