For Surging Bernie Sanders, The Crowds Have Come Before The Campaign

CONCORD, N.H. -- A cell phone pressed to his ear, the New Hampshire state director for Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential run paced the vestibule of the Vermont senator’s dimly lit campaign headquarters on a recent drizzly evening.

Sanders’ command post in Concord sits in a strip mall next to a Cash For Gold pawnshop and a Shear Magic hair salon. That day it had all the charm of a construction site. And that’s not far from what it was -- the place didn’t even open until last week.

In a separate, windowless room, a few feet past the dozens of “Bernie For President” T-shirts sprawled across the blue carpet, three young men and a woman sat on folding chairs at an elementary school cafeteria-style table. They were Sanders’ two New Hampshire field staffers, his operations manager and an intern.

In total, this group represented the entirety of the insurgent Democratic candidate’s New Hampshire team.

Surprising just about everyone, including himself, Sanders has risen to within 8 percentage points of Hillary Clinton in the first-in-the-nation primary state, according to a recent CNN/WMUR poll.

That he is already within striking distance of the Democratic frontrunner in New Hampshire is a nice problem for his campaign to have, but it would be an understatement to say that his aides weren’t quite ready for the onslaught of interest. The state campaign director, longtime New Hampshire Democratic activist Kurt Ehrenberg, said that he and his small staff were just trying to catch up with the budding “movement” that Sanders has generated around the country.

“Our job is to prove that he can win and to get people who don't know Bernie a chance to get to know him,” said Ehrenberg, who previously led the effort to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) into the 2016 race.

In progressive strongholds -- from Burlington, Vermont, to Madison, Wisconsin, and Portland, Maine -- Sanders has headlined rallies that have attracted thousands of people, generating by far the largest crowds of any White House contender from either party thus far. But here in New Hampshire -- a state he almost certainly has to win, if he has any shot at becoming the nominee -- Sanders’ campaign remains very much a boutique operation. Despite all the grassroots enthusiasm that appears to be on the underdog’s side, the 73-year-old self-described democratic socialist is playing catch-up to Clinton when it comes to that all-important facet of any successful New Hampshire campaign: organization.

David Axelrod, who spearheaded Barack Obama’s underdog bid for the Democratic nomination against Clinton in 2008, said that the situation Sanders now finds himself in is akin to being “shot out of a cannon” and that it presents a “real logistical challenge” for him.

“To some degree, you don't have a lot of control, so you just have to enjoy the ride,” Axelrod told The Huffington Post. “One day, you are a relative unknown. The next day, you are fielding scheduling and media requests by the boatload. You suddenly have a press entourage that requires care and feeding and a flood of folks who want to volunteer, asking what they can do. You are raising money you had never imagined, and with that comes legal and organizational demands.”

The contrast on the ground between Sanders’ barebones operation and the frontrunner’s already humming New Hampshire machine could scarcely be more glaring.

By design, it is not easy to find Clinton’s state campaign headquarters. It is tucked into a third-floor suite behind a brick facade on the north end of Elm Street -- the main drag running through downtown Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city and just the kind of blue-collar town that figures to be a Clinton stronghold in February’s primary.

The building’s directory offers no indication of the Democratic candidate’s presence among the real estate agents, chiropractors and other businesses located there. And unlike the pet store-style windows that leave the Sanders headquarters on view to passersby, the Clinton shop’s far more sterile digs are protected from prying eyes by a reception area and double doors that require scheduled guests to be buzzed in.

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Just outside the office on a recent afternoon, dozens of bright-eyed, unpaid campaign “fellows” were walking up and down Elm Street with clipboards in hand and Clinton stickers adorning their chests, approaching people at random and signing up the small fraction who were willing to give away their contact information. This is a campaign that can afford to devote resources to just such a fishing operation.

Clinton currently has 24 paid staffers and five field offices in New Hampshire and recently completed its first concerted statewide canvassing day. Additionally, it is sponsoring a slew of more localized volunteer-organizing events this week around the southern part of the state.

It all presents quite a formidable opposing force to Sanders, a candidate who barely has enough New Hampshire staff to form a starting lineup for a basketball team.

The Sanders campaign claims not to be worried about this disparity, noting that it has already signed up 14,000 people in New Hampshire as prospective volunteers. But with his campaign still getting off the ground, that number is more aspirational than operational.

The huge crowds that Sanders is generating may serve as shiny objects that grab the attention of the media and potential supporters, but the Clinton camp remains confident that the stirring images are no substitute for the edge they maintain in completing the old-fashioned grunt work required to win.

“I think there are a lot of people who’re frustrated with the way things have happened, and I think Bernie has something to say, and I think it’s good that it’s happening,” said Democratic National Committeeman Bill Shaheen, who is once again backing Clinton, as he did when he co-chaired her 2008 campaign in New Hampshire. “We all want the same things. But the question, in the final analysis, is who’s going to be the person who is going to deliver it for you, and that’s why I easily come down for Hillary.”

So far, it has almost been as if Clinton and Sanders were operating in two entirely separate political universes -- the former in which money and staff are essentially limitless and the latter in which volunteers hand out envelopes at events for people to donate whatever few bucks they happen to have in their wallets.

But it isn’t just loose change that is funding the super PAC-eschewing Sanders’ insurgent bid. While just one-third of Clinton’s total, the $15 million that Sanders’ campaign has raised since its late-April launch is inarguably impressive. And it's more than enough to fund a serious campaign organization here and in the other early-voting states.

Plans are in the works to dramatically expand Sanders’ New Hampshire operation in the coming weeks, and resumes are pouring in steadily.

Ron Abramson, a lawyer from the town of Bow, recently hosted a well-attended house party for Sanders -- an event that he characterized as a “smashing success” in a young campaign that has already seen many of them.

“It was incredibly surprising to see how much interest and enthusiasm there seems to be, even among people who I might not have thought would line up behind Bernie,” Abramson said. “My perspective is anyone who approaches this election with an open mind has no choice but to give Bernie Sanders a second look.”



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