The biggest presidential primary campaign team in New Hampshire is tucked on a Manchester side street inside a four-story brick building and it belongs to the best-financed candidate seeking nomination: President Barack Obama.
The office is one of seven in the state and his re-election campaign has about 20 paid employees. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, the two front-runners in the Republican presidential primary after they emerged first and second in the Iowa caucuses, each have one office. Romney has nine paid staffers in the state and Santorum has eight.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who skipped Iowa to campaign full time in New Hampshire, showed up at more than 150 public events and recruited almost 1,000 volunteers, said Michael Levoff, a Huntsman spokesman. Since Obama announced his candidacy, his Granite State volunteers have held 500 events, including house parties, phone banks and training sessions.
The Obama camp’s short-term goal is the same as the Republican primary rivals, to turn out the vote on Jan. 10, primary night. While his nomination isn’t on the line, his support in the state has plunged. His team can use the event to test its operations and score bragging rights if the party’s turnout measures competitively with that in the contested Republican primary.
“The word is out that they want Democrats to show up and vote in the primary and that they see this is an important test run, they’re going to be identifying their voters,” said Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover. “And that’s what it’s all about it in a tight state.”
Although the state controls just four Electoral College votes, David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, and Jim Messina, his campaign manager, told reporters at a Dec. 13 briefing that New Hampshire is one of the eight states where the general election will be fought and won.
The Granite State has shown a fickle nature in recent elections.
Obama took the state by 9 percentage points against John McCain in 2008, though he lost the primary to Hillary Clinton 39 percent to 37 percent. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, carried the state in 2004 and then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, a Republican, won New Hampshire in 2000.
‘Very Tight Race’
In 2010, two years after Obama’s victory, Republicans swept the House and Senate races in the state. In a Nov. 10 Bloomberg poll of likely New Hampshire primary voters, Romney was ahead of Obama by 10 points, 50 percent to 40 percent.
“This is going to be a very tight race and therefore you need to pay careful attention to all of the states that are in play, even a small one like New Hampshire,” said Fowler, noting that if Democrat Al Gore had won New Hampshire in 2000 the outcome in Florida, determined after a recount fight went to the U.S. Supreme Court, wouldn’t have mattered.
Evidence of the Obama re-election campaign’s extensive ramp-up program lies beyond New Hampshire. There are 62 “tested, trained and mobilized neighborhood teams” in Michigan and 71 in Colorado, Messina said in a Jan. 4 conference call with reporters. The re-election operation has contacted more than 511,000 voters in Nevada and the Florida branch has organized 2,633 events such as door-to-door canvasses and phone banks.
“One of the most important things to remember about New Hampshire is that we never left,” said Frank Benenati, an Obama campaign spokesman, referring to “networks and relationships” built over two and a half years by Organizing for America, the president’s political arm outside the White House. Benenati said the primary is a way to “further expand our organization.”
On Dec. 27, a half-dozen Obama volunteers huddled on a rainy, 30-degree night at an old beer brewery that is now home to the campaign’s Portsmouth office. A Christmas tree strung with multi-colored lights stood in the back of the room.
Mary McCarthy, a stay-at-home mother, spends four hours a week at the Portsmouth office calling registered Democrats and independents reminding them to vote in the primary. Most people she calls say they will support the president though many of them don’t know the primary date.
“Everyone in New Hampshire knows there’s a primary coming, unless you live in your closet, but some need to be told the date,” said McCarthy, 54. “Some think it’s just a Republican primary and we remind them that no, it’s not a Republican primary, it’s a primary for everybody.”
Over in Concord, the location of the campaign’s headquarters is behind a small “2012” sign on a side door of a three-story Victorian-style house that sits along a two-lane street and is also home to the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s headquarters.
In an empty room where volunteers make nightly calls, a dry erase board is filled with persuasive messages: “8,300: # of New Hampshire young people who have health coverage because of the Affordable Care Act” and “$1,980 Obama’s payroll tax cut for typical Granite State family.” A calendar lists daily phone banks from 5 to 8 p.m. during the week of Jan. 2.
Obama, 50, has more money to build his organization in the states. His campaign reported raising $88 million through Sept. 30, up from $80 million in 2007. That is more than twice the amount of money raised by Romney, the leading Republican presidential fundraiser.
The president, whose name is one of 14 on the Democratic ballot, also has another advantage of a sitting president: when he visits, people show up.
Romney and Huntsman, the only candidates to visit the state in the last week of December, were drawing 100 to 200 voters. Romney leads his Republican rivals with 40 percent of likely voters in their party’s New Hampshire primary, according to a Suffolk University/7 News tracking poll taken Jan. 4-5.
On Dec. 27, about 200 people showed up at Geno’s Chowder and Sandwich Shop, a gray clapboard restaurant on the banks of the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth, to listen to Romney.
Since Obama took office, the president has made three trips to New Hampshire, filling a Manchester high school auditorium to capacity with 1,300 people on Nov. 22.