With Vermont securely in the bag for Barack Obama, scores of volunteers are streaming east across the Connecticut River to help push New Hampshire’s four electoral votes into the Democrat’s column on November 4.
On Sunday, a dozen Vermonters carpooled to Lebanon from the Staples Plaza in South Burlington in an effort to pull potential votes away from the Republican nominee John McCain. The volunteers included seasoned Obama hands like Peter Merritt, a Burlingtonian who has been spending most of his weekends in New Hampshire, and first-timers such as Laura Schutz, an engineer at IBM.
Schutz was motivated to make the trip, she said, because “after the past eight years the country definitely needs a big change.” The war in Iraq is of particular concern to Schutz, who views Obama “as the candidate who’s best on that issue.”
One Vermonter working for Obama in New Hampshire is so devoted to the cause that he moved to the southern part of the state two weeks ago and intends to stay there through election day. Tom Brown, a retired air traffic controller from Colchester, said he asked to be assigned to a more conservative section of New Hampshire in hopes of making “a tangible difference for Barack in a state that could play a big role in the election.”
New Hampshire is considered one of a half-dozen states whose electoral votes are considered up for grabs in 2008. But the latest polls suggest that, as they engage voters in Lebanon, Littleton and other Upper Valley towns in the Granite State, the Vermonters are campaigning on increasingly friendly terrain. While the candidates were running almost even in New Hampshire just weeks ago, two recent surveys show Obama has grabbed a double-digit lead over McCain in the state.
On Sunday, Peter Merritt encountered two sets of voters who, while initially identifying themselves as undecided, proved in the course of conversations to be leaning toward Obama. Another Vermonter who spent Sunday going door-to-door in an upscale Lebanon neighborhood said its residents were “very responsive and strongly for Obama.”
But Andrew Smith, head of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center , said that while voters appear to be responding to the Democratic candidate, the contest is still too close to call.
McCain has won the New Hampshire GOP presidential primary on two occasions, and the state’s self-image of flinty independence dovetails with the Republican’s maverick brand, Smith said. McCain continues to visit the state regularly, he added, and his campaign is pumping resources into New Hampshire, including its own cadre of committed volunteers from Vermont.
And while the global financial crisis seems to be driving voters away from Republican candidates, Smith said, “We don’t yet know exactly how it’s going to play out.”
But, he added, “If there’s one Republican who can carry New Hampshire this year, it’s John McCain.”
As for the volunteers who are crossing state lines to campaign, Smith said both sides are attempting to influence a narrow segment of the electorate. More than 85 percent of New Hampshire voters have already made up their minds who they’ll vote for, he said, so the campaign that has the most success reaching the remaining 15 percent could have a real impact on the outcome.
Nonetheless, Paul Erlbaum, a volunteer from East Montpelier who was canvassing in Lebanon on Sunday along with his 17-year-old son Ari, wondered at the end of the day whether the four hours they spent knocking on doors had been worthwhile. Many of the residents of the 40 or so households on a list supplied by Obama’s Lebanon office didn’t respond to the knocks, Erlbaum found.
That experience was shared by a few other Vermont volunteers, leading one to suggest that “NH” actually stands for “Not Home.” Erlbaum said he also got the sense that, after six months of intensive electioneering, “a lot of people around here have had quite enough.”
Might the influx of out-of-state volunteers actually alienate some New Hampshire voters, as it did in 2004 when Vermonters visited Iowa in support of Howard Dean?
Sylvia Peterson, a New Hampshire native sunning herself on the lawn of a West Lebanon condo complex, didn’t think so. “This area of New Hampshire is so affiliated with Vermont,” she observed. “There’s always Vermonters coming through. People here don’t look at them as outsiders.”
A Burlington-based official with the Obama campaign said that, along with volunteers’ efforts in New Hampshire, the campaign is continuing to take care of business in Vermont. This coordinator, who agreed to speak on background because his comments had not been cleared by the candidate’s national press office, explained that even though the state is likely to hand Obama a landslide victory, there’s good reason to continue focusing energy on Vermont.
“The better we do here,” he said, “the better the Democratic Party as a whole is going to do in Vermont.”