ROCHESTER, N.H. — New Hampshire Democrats are on edge ahead of Tuesday’s primary and feeling immense pressure to pick the candidate with the best chance of defeating President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE.
The anxiety over who is best equipped to defeat Trump has blotted out the policy battles and put electability at the forefront of voter minds to an unusual degree.
At town halls and forums across the state, the presidential candidates are being challenged by voters, who above all want to be convinced that their contenders have the ability to go one-on-one with the president.
The new fears about beating Trump come after one of the president’s best weeks since he took office; he was acquitted by the Senate in his impeachment trial, and polls show his job approval rating reaching new highs amid voter optimism about the economy.
Democrats, meanwhile, are fresh off the Iowa caucus debacle and facing the potential for a long primary fight.
“We’re anxious,” said Jim Demers, a veteran Democratic strategist in New Hampshire.
"For a year now, people have been saying that they’ll vote for the candidate they believe has the best chance of beating Trump, and now that the impeachment process is finished and he was acquitted, people are even more anxious about getting this right," he continued. "For most voters, they think the candidates are close enough on the issues that it’s become about who has the best chance of winning. That’s what is front and center on everyone’s minds."
And adding to the tension, voters see reasons for concern about the electability of the top Democrats seeking the nomination.
Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement Briahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices MORE (I-Vt.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Blumenthal calls on Buttigieg to investigate American Airlines-JetBlue partnership LGBT film festival to premiere documentary about Pete Buttigieg MORE are running tight at the top of New Hampshire polls, but some Democrats are worried that Sanders’s embrace of socialism will be a disaster at the ballot box.
Buttigieg, meanwhile, is facing questions about his age and experience.
Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses and may be headed for another tough showing in New Hampshire, further denting his electability argument. The female candidates, led by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFederal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D-Mass.) and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHarris, CBC put weight behind activist-led National Black Voter Day Seven takeaways from California's recall election Live coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate MORE (D-Minn.), have faced questions about whether a woman can defeat Trump.
The electability question dominated Friday night’s debate in the Granite State.
Businessman Tom SteyerTom SteyerOvernight Energy: 'Eye of fire,' Exxon lobbyist's comments fuel renewed attacks on oil industry | Celebrities push Biden to oppose controversial Minnesota pipeline | More than 75 companies ask Congress to pass clean electricity standard Celebrities push Biden to oppose controversial Minnesota pipeline Six things to watch as California heads for recall election MORE repeatedly raised the alarm that Democrats are headed for defeat in November if they don’t nominate a candidate who can cut into Trump’s advantage with the economy.
“No question that after this week, there’s a real threat that Donald Trump can get reelected,” Steyer said.
Both Sanders and Buttigieg are coming under intense fire from their rivals, who are warning that a socialist and a young, relatively inexperienced mayor will get crushed by Trump in the general election.
However, Sanders has pointed to the spike in youth turnout in Iowa and made the case that Democrats need his coalition of energized young people, working-class voters and those who are new to the political process to defeat Trump.
At the famed Politics and Eggs forum this week in Manchester, N.H., Massachusetts businessman Lenny Glynn, a Democrat, told Sanders he’s worried that if the Vermont senator is nominated, then the U.S. election results will mirror the British election results, where Labour Party nominee Jeremy Corbyn “took them to the worst defeat they’ve had in half a century.”
Sanders conceded that Trump is going to be difficult to defeat.
“Is Trump going to be an easy opponent? No,” he responded. “He’s going to be a difficult opponent for a whole lot of reasons.”
Buttigieg, meanwhile, has made the generational case, arguing that it’s time to “turn the page” on the old way of doing things in Washington. The small-town Midwest mayor has said that the best anecdote to Trump is to nominate a candidate who intimately knows the plight of working-class voters in the American heartland.
In Keene, N.H., upward of 1,000 voters from across the state and New England gathered at a Buttigieg rally at Keene State College.
While a number of the attendees said they were still undecided, they were united in their concern that the eventual candidate needs to meet the criteria of being able to defeat Trump.
Vermont voter Margaret Burton, who is undecided but traveled just over the state border to hear what Buttigieg had to say, said she could see Buttigieg holding his own in a head-to-head battle with Trump.
“He’s so smart. I like that he doesn’t get flustered,” she said. “I think he could stand up to a debate with Trump.”
Even the lower-tier candidates are having to answer the question of whether they have what it takes to go up against the president.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval PatrickDeval PatrickOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court sides with oil companies in Baltimore case| White House environmental justice advisers express opposition to nuclear, carbon capture projects | Biden administration to develop performance standards for federal buildings Approving Kristen Clarke's nomination should be a no-brainer To unite America, Biden administration must brace for hate MORE, who is polling low in New Hampshire despite his status as a former New England governor, got the question at an intimate meeting with members of the Islamic Society of New Hampshire in Manchester on Friday.
“The only candidate I want is one that can beat Donald Trump,” a member of the mosque told Patrick. “You’re my ideal candidate, but can you assure us?”
"You’re right. Everyone is focused on beating Donald Trump, and that is the first order of business," Patrick replied. "Interestingly, beating Donald Trump isn’t just up to the candidate; it’s up to all of us."
New Hampshire voters feel another layer of anxiety after the Iowa caucuses failed to produce a clear winner. And while the Granite State is often overlooked as a battleground, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports MORE carried the state by only about 3,000 votes in 2016, and the Trump campaign is eager to flip it into the GOP column.
The first order of business, Democrats say, is to move beyond impeachment and the partisan battles in Washington to hammer home an economic message about how electing Democrats will make people’s lives better.
Guy Cecil — the chairman of Priorities USA, a progressive advocacy organization — has been warning that the general election will be very, very close. In a memo released this week, he urged Democrats to move on from impeachment and to focus on lowering prescription drug costs, expanding access to health care and protecting entitlement programs.
“If Democrats don’t do a better job of putting them front and center, we will lose a very winnable election to Donald Trump,” Cecil said.
Still, many Democrats are bullish about their chances of beating Trump, with everyone agreeing that Democrats will rally around their eventual nominee, whoever it is.
They think Trump will have a hard time expanding his base of support and insist they won’t be caught flat-footed in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, as they were in 2016.
But in the back of their minds, Democrats acknowledge that Trump has shown surprising strength in the face of persistent controversy — and he has a record of winning.
“I wouldn’t say I’m anxious,” said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member from California who has a decades-long tradition of traveling to New Hampshire for the primary. “But I have the jitters.”