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Clinton Makes Risky Bet on Electability in New Hampshire

7 minute read

The volunteer for Hillary Clinton drove up a long hill and parked outside a house on a crusty snowbank. With a campaign clipboard tucked under her arm and ice cleats on her boots, the woman walked up to the back door, hoping to win another vote for Clinton. Her argument was simple: Bernie Sanders is nice, but only Hillary Clinton can actually win a general election.

“Hillary is a woman with very strong convictions, just like Bernie,” the volunteer, Lenore Ekwurtzel, said to an older woman who opened the door. “She has just moderated her convictions to say, ‘Well, I can meet the Republicans halfway.’ I don’t know what will happen if Bernie can’t do that.”

“I know, I know,” the older woman at the door replied with a sigh. “I’m not sure that Bernie would even have a chance nationally.”

“Yes,” the volunteer, Ekwurtzel, said. “That’s what I’m really worried about.” Then, success: the woman signed a commit-to-vote card, promising to support Clinton in the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9.

This is how the Clinton campaign hopes converts will be swayed and won in these final snowy days in the New Hampshire primary, where rival Senator Sanders is extremely popular among Democrats. Clinton may not be as loved, but she is commonly viewed in this New England state as better prepared to face a Republican in a general election. Clinton’s is a pitch to pragmatism, not passion, and she makes it time and again.

“We need a Democratic nominee who will be able to beat the Republicans and get the job done for Americans,” Clinton on Sunday told a mostly female audience of around 500 at a planned Parenthood Event in Manchester, N.H, accepting an endorsement from the women’s-health organization. “I shudder to think about what the Republicans would do, if given the chance.”

Read More: Lena Dunham Brings Clinton Millennial Cred in New Hampshire

It is a risky bet for Clinton, who is less than three weeks away from the first nominating contest in Iowa. Several polls show Clinton does not currently perform better against Republicans than Sanders. And now Sanders has sought to dispel what his campaign believes is Clinton’s myth, with his aides pointing to polling data in Sanders’ favor arguing that he is in fact the more electable candidate against a Republican.

“If people are concerned about electability — and Democrats should be very concerned because we certainly don’t want to see some right-wing extremist in the White House — Bernie Sanders is the candidate,” Sanders said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.

Clinton’s electability pitch is deeply woven into her campaign, and she carries it to college campuses, convention halls, town halls, debate stages and barbecues across the country. She makes the appeal through surrogates and on-the-ground messaging. With Clinton locked in tight races in New Hampshire and Iowa, her staff organizers tell volunteer canvassers like Ekwurtzel to talk about Clinton’s ability to win in a general election. And Clinton and her allies often mention the high stakes in the November election and the danger of losing the White House to a Republican.

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards on Sunday explained her organization’s early endorsement of Clinton: it was in part about the urgency in defeating a GOP presidential nominee.

See Hillary Clinton's Evolution in 20 Photos

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Teenager: Hillary Rodham poses in her 1965 senior class portrait from Park Ridge East High School in Illinois. AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Law School Student: Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham pose for a snapshot at Yale Law School in 1972. They married in 1975.Clinton Presidential Library
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Mother: Clinton poses with her husband, Bill, then in his first term as governor, with their week-old daughter, Chelsea, on March 5, 1980.Donald R. Broyles—AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Campaign Companion: Clinton celebrates her husband's victory in a Democratic runoff in Little Rock, Ark. on June 8, 1982.AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Arkansas First Lady: Clinton is seen in her inaugural ball gown in 1985. A. Lynn—AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Political Wife: Clinton celebrates her husband's inauguration in Little Rock on Sept. 20, 1991.Danny Johnston—AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Dignitary: Clinton receives an honorary law degree from Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., on May 30, 1992.Chris Ocken—AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Campaigner: Clinton speaks at a meeting during the presidential campaign for her husband in Buffalo, N.Y., on April 4, 1992.Bill Sikes—AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton
First Lady: Clinton appears at the MTV Inauguration Ball at the Washington Convention Center on Jan. 20, 1993. Shayna Brennan—AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Second-Term First Lady: Clinton attends the Inaugural Ball after her husband was sworn in to a second term on Jan. 20, 1997. Brooks Kraft—Corbis
Hillary Rodham Clinton
New York Senator: Clinton speaks at a press conference with female Democratic senators in Washington on June 21, 2006. Brooks Kraft—Corbis
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Committee Member: Clinton listens to the testimony of Lt. General David Petraeus to the Senate Armed Forces Committee at a hearing on Capital Hill in Washington on Jan. 23, 2007. Brooks Kraft—Corbis
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Candidate: Clinton holds a a campaign event in Portsmouth, N.H., while running for the Democratic presidential nomination on Sept. 2, 2007. Brooks Kraft—Corbis
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Campaigner: Clinton speaks at a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Jan. 2, 2008. Brooks Kraft—Corbis
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State: Clinton kisses President Obama at a joint session of Congress in Washington on Feb. 24, 2009. Brooks Kraft—Corbis
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Witness: Clinton joins Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Dec. 3, 2009. Brooks Kraft—Corbis
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Witness: Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Jan. 23, 2013.J. Scott Applewhite—AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Author: Clinton attends a signing memoir, "Hard Choices," at a Costco in Arlington, Va., on June 14, 2014. Brooks Kraft—Corbis
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Grandmother: Clinton holds her granddaughter Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City on Sept. 27, 2014.Office of President Clinton/AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Once and Future Candidate: Clinton speaks at Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's annual Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, on Sept. 14, 2014. Brooks Kraft—Corbis

“It came down to the high stakes in this election: everything that Planned Parenthood has fought for for the past 99 years is on the ballot in November,” Richards told TIME in an interview on Sunday in New Hampshire. “We need somebody who’s not just going to be good and better than the Republicans: we need somebody that’s going to go toe-to-toe with them.”

Read More: Iowa Caucus Math Poses Expectations Challenge for Clinton Campaign

Clinton’s pitch is making its way onto the New Hampshire and Iowa airwaves too. In a Clinton campaign advertisement released Friday, a montage of Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz and other Republicans is followed by a voiceover: “They’re backward, even dangerous. So ask yourself, who is the one candidate who can stop them?” The answer: “Hillary Clinton, tested and tough. To stop them, stand with her.”

Sanders’ top aides scoff at the notion that Clinton is the more electable candidate, saying Clinton is relying on Democrats’ fear over losing to Republicans rather than the issues. “She is resorting to electability as opposed to substance of issues because she’s losing on that ground,” said Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver.

Recent polls appear to support Sanders’ argument. In a Quinnipiac poll from December, Sanders was shown beating Trump head-to-head by 13 points; Clinton, by 7. Sanders appears to do better than Clinton the early states too: a new NBC poll from this weekend shows Clinton losing by significant margins to Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio in both Iowa and New Hampshire; Sanders beats all the leading Republicans in both states (though he ties Rubio in Iowa).

Now the question of Clinton’s electability has become hotly debated on the campaign trail. Clinton argues that she will be more palatable to independents and that her more centrist views will attract voters in states such as Ohio and Florida. Her supporters view her as a practical candidate and effective Democratic standard-bearer. Sanders, the white-haired and eccentric self-avowed democratic socialist — with a Brooklyn accent to boot — cannot win the White House, Clinton supporters say.

“Think hard about the people who are presenting themselves to you: their experience, their qualifications, their positions, but particularly for those of us who are Democrats — their electability,” Clinton said at an event in Las Vegas earlier this week.

Read More: Elizabeth Warren Says a Female President Would Be a Role Model for Men

Sanders argues more and more often on the campaign trail that he, in fact, is the more electable, telling crowds that he can excite voters to turn out at the polls better than his opponent. He boasts that he can generate excitement where Clinton cannot and ride a wave of Democratic support into the White House.

Some New Hampshire voters are getting wise to the Clinton argument — and many are not buying it anymore.

Sanders canvassers sat in their car on Sunday morning in the pouring cold rain, preparing to knock on doors for the Vermont Senator. “One of Hillary’s biggest platforms she is running on is saying she’s the only candidate that can beat Republicans,” said Maggie Barker, one of the Sanders supporters. “Hillary is too polarizing. People don’t want another dynasty.”

“She’s got too much baggage,” said another canvasser, Chris Liquori.

Whether Clinton wins the debate over her electability in the next couple of weeks before the primary could determine her success in the early states, where the races remain very close. For diehard Clinton supporters like Ekwurtzel, the volunteer, their candidate’s electability is a central part of her appeal.

“I’m very concerned that Bernie will be painted red by Republicans,” said Ekwurtzel. She got back in her car after she spoke with the volunteer and drove down the hill toward town. “I like things that Bernie stands for, I just really don’t think he could get through.”

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