MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and New Hampshire Democratic primary voters seem to be in the same boat with each other: They might not be each other’s first choice, but they’re at least checking the requisite boxes just in case.
Granite State voters—who relish their many opportunities to hear from presidential candidates directly—are being courted by almost two dozen of them, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who won the New Hampshire primary in 2016 and owns a commanding share of support here, according to several recent polls.
Meanwhile, of the top-tier candidates, Harris so far seems to have her sights set furthest beyond the first-in-the-nation primary state. Of course, it’s still early into the Democratic presidential primary; one high-polling candidate, Joe Biden, is only just kicking off his campaign this week. But since kicking off her bid in February, Harris has been a far more frequent presence in other early primary states, notably South Carolina, which she has visited four times. She has also hit Iowa four times and launched a “camp” for organizers in the first caucus state, scheduled for this summer.
This week, Harris made her second swing through New Hampshire. Since her last visit, Harris raised some eyebrows for suggesting during an appearance on The Daily Show that New Hampshire insiders assumed she wouldn’t make the state a priority because it is overwhelmingly white.
“The first line of questioning I got was, ‘You’re in New Hampshire, and we heard you’re not going to come to New Hampshire. We thought you weren’t going to compete in New Hampshire,’” Harris told Trevor Noah. “And what no one said, but the inference was, well, the demographic of New Hampshire is not who you are in terms of your race and who you are.”
After a town hall event at Keene State College on Tuesday, a reporter raised again the question to Harris of how important New Hampshire would be to her campaign.
“It is very important for me to be here,” Harris responded. “I intend on coming back frequently and making it a significant time when I’m here.”
The first-term California senator did meet enthusiastic and good-size crowds during her quick trip through the state, where she appeared at town hall events at Keene and Dartmouth College, and spoke to Democratic activists in downtown Manchester.
But there were few committed supporters in the crowds—at least not from New Hampshire, anyway. Mary Lou Szulborski, an attorney who stood out for her black “Kamala Harris for the People” shirt, took off work to make the 40-mile drive to the Keene town hall from Massachusetts, where she lives.
“I think anybody can win up here if they put the time in,” she said, but noted that the New Hampshire primary might not be as central as it once was. “The world’s changed,” she said. “Thirty years ago, this used to be the place to go. You’ve gotta know where to cut your losses.” Harris, she predicted, could do very well in Massachusetts.
New Hampshire natives, meanwhile, guard their first-in-the-nation privileges—and the attention that comes with them—as jealously as ever. Barely four months into the primary, local activists are already swapping tales of hour-long lunches with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and personal calls from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
Keeping with state tradition, many voters came to the town halls to hear Harris out with an open mind. Joanna Jasperson, a voter from the central New Hampshire town of Lyme, said after Harris’ event at Dartmouth that she wasn’t wowed by the candidate—she prefers Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana—but felt she should show up and listen.
“I’m giving people a chance,” she said.
Jaclyn Headings, a Democrat from Keene, was wearing a big Harris button on her lapel but said she wasn’t totally committed to the candidate yet. She was impressed, however, with Harris’ town hall performance, which ran nearly an hour and covered questions on topics from health care to what she most enjoys doing outside of work—it’s cooking—to America’s standing in the world.
“She was spot on, very articulate,” Headings said. “You have to spend a lot of time here in New Hampshire to be heard,” she added. “I think she’s putting in the work. I really do have the sense she has that vision.”
Other Democrats didn’t begrudge Harris for pointing out New Hampshire’s whiteness, either. “She’s right!” exclaimed Harold Judd, a consultant in Concord, after hearing her speak at a bar in Manchester on Monday night.
But Harris, who is of Indian and Jamaican descent, clearly sees a path to the Democratic nomination that depends on winning over voters of color in the party’s coalition. South Carolina is seen as a bellwether for black voters, and Harris has invested significant resources there and rolled out fresh rounds of endorsements from state activists and politicians on a regular basis.
According to Dante Scala, a professor of politics at the University of New Hampshire, Harris’ travel log is revealing of her strategy, which seems to invest in Iowa as the earliest state prize and banks on South Carolina and her home state of California, whose primary was moved up to March 3, to propel her to the nomination.
“It’s a long way still, and campaigns have lots of time to adjust how they are allocating their resources,” Scala told The Daily Beast. “So far, at least, it appears [Harris] and her campaign aren’t devoting a lot of time to New Hampshire—the sort of time that suggests they see New Hampshire as vital to the nomination.”