DURHAM, N.H. — Hillary Clinton, campaigning here Wednesday with Sen. Bernie Sanders, worked to sway millennial voters by promoting a plan to make public college tuition-free for working families.
In a University of New Hampshire gym packed with students, Clinton sought to connect with those facing sometimes insurmountable college debt. Clinton said that when she graduated from college herself, she repaid her loans as a percentage of her income, which allowed her to take a low-paying public service job with the Children’s Defense Fund.
“I could never have done that if I had the kind of interest rates a lot of people are facing,” she told a crowd estimated at 1,200. “We are going to fix it. This is wrong.”
Clinton said when she taught law in Arkansas she met many students who scraped together money for tuition but were sidelined by financial hardships, including broken-down cars or child-care problems.
“The American dream is big enough for everyone, and education is absolutely essential to it,” she said.
Clinton noted that New Hampshire has the highest proportion of students with debt and the second-highest average debt per student. She said she aims to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000 per year, to make community college free, and to help students refinance their college debt.
“When you add it up, our plan will help millions of people save thousands of dollars,” she said.
Sanders, introducing Clinton, called the tuition-free proposal “revolutionary” and said it would spare students from “outrageous levels” of debt. He and Clinton worked together on the proposal after the Democratic presidential primaries.
“When you have Republicans telling us that it is OK to give tens and tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the richest people in this country, do not tell me that we cannot afford to make public colleges and universities tuition free,” he said.
The rally marks Clinton and Sanders’ second joint appearance in New Hampshire, a battleground state where Al Gore’s loss to George W., Bush in the 2000 election remains a painful memory for Democrats. Audience members were given placards with the website, Iwillvote.com, which disseminates voter registration information.
Sanders, I-Vt., aims to help transfer to Clinton more support from the young adults who helped fuel his unexpectedly strong performance in the Democratic primaries. Clinton is underperforming with young adults, a surprisingly large percentage of whom are turning to third-party candidates.
Sanders said New Hampshire could decide the outcome of the election.
“I am asking you here today not only to vote for Secretary Clinton but to work hard to get your uncles and your aunts, to get your friends to vote,” Sanders said. “It is imperative that we elect Hillary Clinton as our next president.”
Clinton leads Trump in the state by an average 5.4 points, according to RealClearPolitics. But Democrats are taking nothing for granted in the state. Many believe Gore lost New Hampshire to Bush because of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader’s presence on the ballot.
“New Hampshire Democrats are haunted by what happened to Gore in 2000,” said Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “They’re haunted by Ralph Nader. They look back and say look, Al Gore would have never had to worry about Florida if he had spent more time, money and attention in New Hampshire.”
Sanders trounced Clinton in New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary, winning more votes than any candidate in the primary’s history with the help of young people, new voters and independents. Donald Trump overwhelmingly won the state’s GOP primary.
In July, Sanders endorsed Clinton in a joint appearance in New Hampshire and returned to the state to campaign for her on Labor Day. Following that appearance, Democrats saw an uptick in new volunteer activity at all of their 26 regional offices, said Raymond Buckley, chairman of the state party.
“There is a unique relationship between many, many New Hampshire voters and Sen. Sanders,” he said. “It’s a very deep and personal relationship.”
Buckley said the 2000 election is constantly on his mind.
“I’m not sure there’s been more than a couple of days in a row over the past 16 years where I’ve not thought about it,” he said. “It was traumatic for us, understanding that what happened in those eight years, the Bush years, occurred because frankly we weren’t organized enough, we weren’t strong enough and we didn’t do enough of a good job.”
State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester said Clinton’s decision to campaign with Sanders in New Hampshire is “very good politics” because she needs to get more young people to vote.
“They think she’s old-school,” D’Allesandro said. “Well, she’s the best school. That’s the message we’ve got to get across.”
Clinton’s choice of New Hampshire for her second appearance with Sanders shows how important the state has become for her as Ohio leans toward Trump, Scala said.
“It’s part of the last line of defense to make sure that all the electoral votes are there for Clinton in a narrow race,” he said. “It’s a worst-case scenario.”
D’Allesandro said he and former president Bill Clinton had hamburgers and commiserated over Gore’s fate after the election, both concluding that spending more time in New Hampshire and Tennessee could have made the difference. Bush had 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 266. Had Gore won New Hampshire, the state’s four electoral votes would have given him the 270 needed to win.
“These four votes are key,” he said. “It’s very meaningful for her.”
Nader captured just 3.7% of the popular vote in New Hampshire in 2000, compared 48.07% for Bush and 46.8% for Gore. D’Allesandro said Nader was a factor only because Gore didn’t spend enough time and effort in the state.
“The Nader votes were our votes, but you had to get them,” he said.
This year, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson together capture nearly 16% support in New Hampshire, with 13% for Johnson and 2.7% for Stein, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls.
Third-party candidates remain a threat because of the nature of the race, D’Allesandro said.
“The body politic is mad,” he said. “They believe that even though the economy has improved, their status in life hasn’t changed.”
But this year’s third-party candidates don’t appear to have significant resources or organizations in the state, D’Allesandro and Buckley said. New Hampshire Democrats, meanwhile, have “radically reorganized the state party” and trained thousands of activists since 2000, Buckley said, adding that the party will certainly try to make inroads with progressive voters who are considering voting for an alternative.
“As Bernie has said, the choice is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and it is essential that it not be Donald Trump (who is) elected,” he said.
Gaudiano reported from Washington