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Sanders Campaign Chipping Into Clinton's Blue-Collar Coalition

Allegra Boverman

Jason Kirkwood, a machinist born and raised in Rochester, came to a Bernie Sanders campaign rally after work on Thursday.

While he’s has come across plenty of Clinton fans here in his hometown, “I think there’s a lot of Bernie supporters. I think it’s kind of divided,” he said, “I think there’s a lot of Hillary supporters but I personally don’t like her because I truly think she’s a pawn in the game to the corporate leaders.”

If you looked at the map of election results in 2008, you’d see places like Rochester – with voters like Kirkwood – were Clinton’s stronghold. This city delivered for Clinton in a big way: she won it by 16 points. Across New Hampshire, this was the story in a lot of working-class cities. Claremont, Berlin, Manchester: together these old mill cities, full of working-class Democrats, helped propel her to victory over Barack Obama.

But that might not be the case this year, which explains why Sanders is spending lots of time in the final days before the primary in places like Rochester, delivering his message about “the rigged economy.”

“So here’s a radical idea, are you guys in Rochester for a radical idea?” he declared at the rally, “Together we are going to create an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent.”

“Obama Coalition Plus”

“Well the good news for the Sanders campaign is that it’s the Obama coalition plus,” says Dante Scala, professor of political science at UNH, “Typically we see upscale democrats and working class democrats go different ways. This time around… at least so far… that’s not the case.”

Especially early in the race, many pundits thought Sanders’ message – which includes single-payer healthcare and government funded college – would catch in the state’s liberal strongholds but wouldn’t necessarily resonate in places like Rochester.

But, there’s a lot to like in this message if you’re a low-income voter.

“Certainly a $15 dollar minimum wage is something they can understand. Doesn’t take a PhD to understand that,” explained another Lilac City resident and Sanders supporter Andy Bridger at the Rochester rally.

This could lead to worries in the Clinton camp that her 2008 coalition is fragmenting.

“I’m a lunch-pail, blue-collar guy, and yeah, I get what he’s saying,” said Rob Dean, an elevator mechanic, from Arundel, Maine who comes over the border frequently to catch Sanders at events, “When people find out what he’s really about, and that he’s about what their about, I think that he’s going to get the support that he deserves and we’ll be able to push him into the oval office.”

But will they show up?

Sanders’ overwhelming focus on income inequality is reaching a lot of folks in places like Rochester, even those not at the rallies.

In front of a Friendly’s downtown, Bruce Tibbets took his dog out for a bathroom break. “I think Bernie Sanders is… I think a lot of people maybe don’t want to hear it, maybe he’s real to the point of what’s happening and how it really is,” Tibbets said, explaining he’s talking about the economy, “More realistic.”

But the question is to what degree this message has penetrated into the state’s working class communities. Scala says, the Sanders message not only has to energize these voters, but activate them.

“Blue-collar voters don’t necessarily show up at the same rates as suburban, college-educated, fifty-year-old women,” he notes, “Which is Clinton’s hard-core vote.”

In other words, this will be, in part, a test for the actual machinery of the Sanders’ campaign – all of those volunteers and field organizers – on Primary Day.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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