Democratic Candidates Scramble Through N.H. As Next Debate Deadline Approaches

Aug 19, 2019

Montana Governor Steve Bullock campaigning in Concord at the house of former N.H. Senate President Sylvia Larsen.
Credit Josh Rogers | NHPR

While late summer can be a quiet time on the presidential primary campaign trail, many Democratic candidates face a crucial test in the coming days: either qualify for the next round of televised debates, or risk losing relevance. 

That urgency was on display as candidates made the rounds this weekend in New Hampshire.

As he campaigned in Concord Saturday, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock cited dystopian science fiction to describe running in the 2020 Democratic prrimary:

“The way this Hunger Games has been set up -- you are supposed to have your moment, and your moment is actually six months before you guys actually make the decision. So it really is now about clicks, and raising money and stuff like that, which isn’t good for our party and our democracy.”

This may sound like something a candidate at risk of being left out of the next debate would say. But if you paid attention at a Democratic Party picnic In Greenfield Sunday, an event that drew more than half a dozen presidential candidates, you saw some of these new imperatives at work.

When Andrew Yang took the stage, just about the first thing out of his mouth was a question: Had the crowd caught a viral social media video?

“How many of you saw me dance this past weekend? So that was very unexpected. I was just in South Carolina and I ended up Jazzercising with some South Carolinians."

Andrew Yang makes time for a selfie with a voter at at a Democratic Party picnic in Greenfield.
Credit Josh Rogers | NHPR

The other would-be presidents mostly reserved their talk of viral moments - or lack thereof - to their interactions with reporters. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar volunteered she wasn’t banking on any coming, but was keeping her eyes peeled.

“I never expected that we would have some sudden surge and suddenly go viral. Although maybe this moment with those dogs in the background. Come on!”

Klobuchar and Yang have already qualified for the next Democratic debate scheduled for mid-September. For candidates not yet in, the DNC debate rules, which require candidates to hit thresholds in early state polls and online campaign contributions, are a touchy subject. Here’s former Maryland congressman John Delaney.

“I think in the fullness of time we will look back at this decision in somewhat horror, at the bad incentives that the DNC has created. You talk to people all over Iowa and New Hampshire and they we tell you there are fewer candidates campaigning, even though there [are] 25 of us. There are fewer people on the ground, because people are running around chasing one-dollar donations, It’s kind of crazy, actually.”

With seven candidates in attendance, the Greenfield picnic felt pretty full. So while local Democrats got some face to face interaction, when the candidates left the stage, they also moved quickly towards a small tent where cable networks had posted reporters to query candidates - in this case Julian Castro - on the news of the day:

Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro makes his way to the cable TV tent in Greenfield Sunday.
Credit Josh Rogers | NHPR

“So obviously there is a trade war going on right with China right now. How would you handle the economy differently than president Trump?”

Castro is on the bubble for the next debate. He says he expects to make it, but that it will take doing.

“Look we need one more poll in the next twelve days. I’m travelling like crazy to these early states. We are also investing money in ads and online so this is a sprint.”

What Castro is describing may be reality for many candidates – the need to sprint towards donors, or the nearest cable TV truck, in hopes of making that debate in these final days. But the frenzy is at odds with norms, where the late summer is a time where candidates and voters are still just getting to know each other.

That’s especially true this year, with such a big field, says Roger Lessard. He chairs the Hillsborough County Democrats and organized the picnic.

“You know what I compare it to is a hot air balloon festival. When they start off, all you see is the baskets. It’s not until the balloons become inflated and they start lifting off that you really start to distinguish one from the other, then, you pick the one you like the best.”

For plenty of these candidates, though, achieving lift off remains a challenge. 

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