OCATION, N.H. – “In our town, we like to know the facts about everybody.”
The words were Thornton Wilder’s, they were written more than three-quarters of a century ago, and they can be found in the lines of “Our Town,” the quintessential New Hampshire drama – quintessential, that is, unless you are talking about the drama that just now is unfolding in small North Country hamlets like this one or in the cities in the central and southern parts of the state.
Because what began taking form last week here in the site of the first primary of the 2020 presidential election has the makings of quite a drama. As many as 20 candidates.
New faces, familiar faces, some very old faces. Lust for the White House after two years of Donald J. Trump as president.
This is where the knowing all the facts about everyone comes in. Hart’s Location, with a population of 41, is the smallest town in New Hampshire and one of a handful permitted what is known as “midnight voting,” the privilege of casting ballots at the very first moment of Election Day. Everyone knows all the facts about everyone in a place like this, but the broader point is that everyone knows the facts about all the candidates in a state like this.
Before long the state will be overrun by candidates. “If politicians show up in New Hampshire this season without skis,” says Manchester immigration lawyer Ron Abramson, “they’re running for president.”
Voters here get to scrutinize the candidates in multiple encounters. The presidential race in New Hampshire – a contest to choose the commander in chief of the most powerful armed forces in the history of the world, the chief executive of a formidable economic power – has the character of a contest for town selectman.
Before the ball fell on the revelry at Times Square, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts declared her candidacy. Later this week, Sen. Kamala Harris of California will essentially do the same as she conducts book unveilings in New York City and Washington, D.C.; a political figure widely mentioned as a presidential candidate doesn’t write a biography published the year before the election if her aspirations are merely to exchange her seat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for one on Foreign Relations.
After her, the deluge. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey? Certainly. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York? Bet on it. Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota? Don’t be surprised; they just won big battles for their third terms. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania?
Anything’s possible. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas? Some of his supporters don’t know a thing about him. And that’s without mentioning those who have sat in governors’ chairs: Terry McAuliffe of Virginia and Steve Bullock of Montana. Never heard of them? Had you heard of Sen. Barack Obama in 2006 ... or Gov. Jimmy Carter in 1974?
The big questions involve two old guys, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. (78 on Inauguration Day) and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (79 on Inauguration Day). Both have run for president before, and both fell short. Both are symbols of opposition to President Donald J. Trump, and both have big dreams.
One thing unites the Democratic activists who are just now evaluating the field but who, in the months to come, will comprise the ground troops of New Hampshire presidential politics. “We need someone who has built a career on unification,” says the Concord lobbyist Jim Demers, who has been prominent in the state’s politics and who already has signed up with Booker. “People are tired of divide-and-conquer leadership.”
The problem is that the 2020 Democratic nomination struggle has all the characteristics of divide without the inevitability of conquer.
With as many as 20 Democratic candidates, the vote here and in Iowa, which holds its caucuses eight days before New Hampshire’s primary, necessarily will be deeply divided. It won’t be like the 2000 New Hampshire primary, when Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey accounted for 95 percent of the vote as the only major contestants.
A field of 20 almost certainly will result in a winner with a small margin of victory – and little momentum for succeeding contests in Nevada and South Carolina.
There’s one way for Democrats to avoid that problem, and that would be for an early entry of Biden and perhaps Sanders. “Sometimes if the big names get in,” says Neil Levesque, who directs the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College in Goffstown, “it might suck the oxygen, which is to say the money, out of the process.”
The key is the word “sometimes.” Though Sanders’ 2016 activists have distributed a poll saying 76 percent of his convention delegates remain loyal, some of the senator’s backers are peeling away, in part because of complaints of sexism. “There was a window for being ideological and idealistic,” says Abramson, who was host for a Sanders event at his home and was on his 2016 steering committee here. “But right now, we just need to be practical.”
Being practical in the parlance of 2020 politics means finding a candidate who can topple Trump, who came within less than a percentage point of winning this state in the general election in 2016.
There’s more than one dimension to politics 2020 here. A year-end NPR/PBS NewsHour poll conducted by the respected Marist Institute for Public Opinion showed that seven in 10 Americans believe political rancor in Washington to have grown since Trump’s ascendancy. (The press does not escape blame for this development.)
Will the tone of Granite State politics simply intensify that rancor? “There is nothing that a New Englander so nearly worships,” the famous cleric Henry Ward Beecher said in 1887, “as an argument.”
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected]