New Hampshire set to be grueling battle between Warren, Sanders

New Hampshire set to be grueling battle between Warren, Sanders
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New Hampshire is set to become ground zero for the ultimate match-up between Sens. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides MORE (D-Mass.).

The two leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination hail from neighboring states, and both have reasons to think they should do well in the New Hampshire primary.

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Sanders won big in the state during the 2016 primary and currently leads Warren in the latest polls, but she is quickly gaining ground ahead of the first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 11. 

The state is critical to both candidates’ strategies.

Warren is seen as a favorite in the Iowa caucuses, which could propel her further in New Hampshire if she wins. If she falters in Iowa, it will raise the importance of New Hampshire all the more for her campaign.

Sanders also hopes to win Iowa, but if he does not, it could be very difficult for him to move forward with back-to-back losses in the first two states to Warren.

“It's awfully close between the two of them,” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, summing up the horse race between the two senators. 

“What strikes me about Sanders is how popular and likable New Hampshire still finds him four years later, despite all the talk that Democrats were unhappy with Sanders with how he treated Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Manafort sought to hurt Clinton 2016 campaign efforts in key states: NYT MORE,” Scala said. 

But he also described Warren’s campaign as “the most effective” in New Hampshire. “They've invested a lot of time and resources,” he said.

Warren has seen her standing rise in Granite State polls.

At the beginning of the year, she was polling at around 10 percent. Since then, she has made significant inroads with New Hampshire voters and is now right at Sanders’s back.

This week, a CNN poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire showed that Sanders maintains a small lead over Warren, 21 percent to 18 percent among likely voters in the state. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides MORE trails behind the two senators at 15 percent. 

The poll is reflective of the battle Sanders faces against Warren in the state, political observers say.

A few analysts are critical of Sanders, suggesting he comes too close to taking the state for granted.

For the Sanders campaign, “there seems to have been an expectation that everyone who voted for him in 2016 will vote for him again,” said Christopher Galdieri, an associate professor of political science at Saint Anselm College. 

“They were slow to realize that it’s one thing to be the insurgent candidate but it’s another to be one of several progressive candidates” in a large field, he added. 

Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College, said Sanders also got off to a slow start. 

“For awhile Bernie was kind of missing in action,” Lesperance said. “Some folks were asking if he was taking the state for granted and it opened the door for voters to take a look at other candidates,” including Warren.

Galdieri said he wonders if Warren has “maxed out” on progressive voters, including college-educated women, one of her core demographics. 

“She’s doing well with those you’d expect her to do well with,” Galdieri said. “The question is are there enough voters out there who will respond to her approach.”

Splitting the progressive vote could also complicate the delegate math for the two senators.

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In 2016, Sanders defeated Clinton in New Hampshire by 22 points, but Clinton still received 9 delegates while Sanders claimed 15.

“I think both sides know this is going to be the nail-biter of nail-biters,” said one Democratic strategist who is unaffiliated with a campaign. “Even though they both have their own base of support, in many ways they will be fighting for the same supporters and there just aren’t that many to go around."

“They could very well break even,” the strategist said. 

With nearly 100 days to go until the New Hampshire primary, political observers and strategists say it’s a toss-up. But the strategist said the pressure is on Sanders to deliver because of his history in the state. 

“It would almost look bad if he didn’t win,” the strategist said. “New Hampshire is his territory and he has to be worried about Warren coming so close with a few months left to go. 

In recent weeks the Massachusetts senator expanded her presence on the ground, with half a dozen field offices throughout the state, allies say, and they expect it to grow. 

“I do think the energy is there for Warren,” Lesperance said. “What’s been her greatest strength has been her grassroots approach to winning voters one at a time.”