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Sanders Resonates With N.H. Voters. Is It Because He's From Vermont?


All right, it will be a major surprise if Bernie Sanders does not win today's New Hampshire primary. New Hampshire, we should say, has produced its share of surprises, but Sanders is polling far ahead of Hillary Clinton in a state that was once seen as Clinton country. The Clinton campaign says this is just because Sanders is from next door in Vermont. But supporters say they are not just backing Sanders because he's a neighbor. Here's NPR's Ailsa Chang.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Nine months ago, a rumpled and sweaty Bernie Sanders appeared on a horse farm in Epping, N.H., making his case to a small gathering. It was the day after he kicked off his campaign in Burlington, Vt., in front of thousands of people. But next door in New Hampshire, last May, there weren't any crowds like that.


BERNIE SANDERS: There are large parts of the state where people have no clue as to who Bernie Sanders is.


SANDERS: And for better or worse, they will soon know who Bernie Sanders is. We're going to be all over this state.

CHANG: Now, when more than a thousand people gather for Sanders in New Hampshire, it's not really news.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie...

CHANG: Now they sing songs about him in New Hampshire.


ALEX EBERT: (Singing) Feel the Bern. Feel the heat in our eyes.

CHANG: When Sanders started campaigning last spring, he trailed Clinton by about 50 points in New Hampshire. This was Clinton country. It's where she won in 2008. It's where her husband became the comeback kid during his run for president. Clinton reminisced about that yesterday.


HILLARY CLINTON: You know, New Hampshire means a lot to us, going all the way back to 1992 when New Hampshire gave Bill a chance really to come out of here with momentum and head toward the nomination. And we've never forgotten that.

CHANG: But it's probably a distant memory now. Clinton's bracing for a likely loss in New Hampshire. How did this happen? The Clinton camp's explanation - Sanders is a next-door neighbor. He's the senator from Vermont. It's a theory that honestly baffles people who've lived in New Hampshire for years, like Brenda Marotto of Brentwood.

BRENDA MAROTTO: Really true New Hampshire people don't necessarily like what's going on in Vermont. They view Vermont as New Yorkers.

CHANG: Why is that?

MAROTTO: They've seen it as, oh, it's always been a really liberal place. It's always been different. It has New York values. It's - we're sort of the true flannel people. We don't have to, you know, dress in our stylish flannel or whatever.

CHANG: But flannel and flannel have come together to support Sanders. In a state known for usually embracing more fiscally conservative, moderate Democrats, Marotto says Sanders' message about minimum wage and reining in Wall Street connects with the fiercely independent working-class voters in New Hampshire in a way Clinton never could.

MAROTTO: I think for the first time, the Democratic Party is tapping into what I would call the working-class or blue-collar vote. Traditionally, that's been their vote, but they've moved away from it, and they lost it for a while. But I think Bernie is resonating with them again.

CHANG: He's also resonating with young voters here. And that concerns Clinton's supporters because they say Sanders would never win a general election. Here's Penny Eggleston, a retired schoolteacher.

PENNY EGGLESTON: You know, they're voting with their hearts - oh, this is the guy. I mean, this is what we really want. Why should I compromise? Compromise is what keeps this country together.

CHANG: But to that, 23-year-old Veronica St. Cyr says compromise, or pragmatism - that begins with the kind of ideals Sanders represents.

VERONICA ST. CYR: The first step before you start to take pragmatic action would be to have some form of idealism that you believe in. And I think ideas are kind of what built the world that we're all a part of.

CHANG: Those ideas propelled Sanders to a virtual tie with Clinton in Iowa. And tonight, he's hoping for a decisive margin of victory. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, Manchester, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.

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