NASHUA, New Hampshire – Alex Mendola, a 19-year-old from Amherst, New Hampshire who will be casting his first ballot in next month’s presidential primary, is exactly the type of young voter who has helped fuel Sen. Bernie Sanders’ improbable lead over Hillary Clinton in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
And Mendola was a firm Sanders supporter -- that is until Monday, when he walked into Nashua Community College Monday morning to hear Bill Clinton pitch voters on his wife.
“I was a solid Bernie voter, but now I’m not so sure,” Mendola said after listening to the former president’s remarks, which focused on the stakes of the election and Hillary Clinton's experience. “If Bernie won the primary and lost the general election, I think that would be disaster. So even if don’t like Hillary as much as Bernie, I feel more confident that she would win the general election. And I think that’s what’s going to persuade me to vote for Hillary if I do.”
He was not the only one to express that view here, and the Clinton campaign is hoping many more voters will follow.
As the calendar turned to the new year, Clinton seemed to zero in on one message: The stakes of this year’s presidential election. And her opening argument of 2016 is also her closing argument of the Democratic presidential primary. By reminding Democrats of the stakes, she invites voters to question whether they're wiling to risk so much in an untested candidate like Sanders.
With the accomplishments of the Obama presidency and the Supreme Court on the line, now is no time to gamble, the subtext suggests. Even if voters might not be in love with Clinton, the suggestion is that their choice is either Clinton or a Republican.
“We've made a lot of progress under President Obama on the environment, saving the auto industry, advances for LGBT rights, trying to work out the extreme difficulties involved in supporting immigration,” Bill Clinton said during his first solo campaign stop for his wife of the 2016 campaign. All that “will be reversed if you get a Republican Congress and a Republican President.”
Hillary Clinton made a similar point in her first speech of the year Sunday. "We're gonna have a great debate in the general election. I can’t wait. You know I really can't wait,” she said in New Hampshire.
And she continued to hammer it on Monday as she campaigned across Iowa. “So when I think about what's at stake in this election, I don't think the stakes could be higher,” she said in Davenport. “The stakes are so high for Iowa and America," she said in Des Moines.
The message taps into a deep vein among Democratic voters, including some Sanders supporters, who view Clinton as the stronger general election candidate.
That’s evident even in New Hampshire, Sanders’ strongest and most important state. The same December CNN poll that found Sanders leading Clinton by 10 percentage points overall also showed that 70% of Democratic primary voters think Clinton had the best chance of winning in the general election, compared to just 17% who picked Sanders.
A separate CNN poll found 59% of Democrats nationally said Clinton has the best chance to win the presidency, compared to 38% who opted for “someone else.”
Now Clinton’s campaign has to convince voters that they should make their decision in the primary on who is best capable of winning the general.
Her campaign has been highlighting specific Obama administration accomplishments that would be jeopardized if a Republican wins in November, from gun control to the Affordable Care Act. “I know that a Republican president would delight in the very first day, reversing executive orders that President Obama has made,” Clinton said in a statement sent to reporters this week.
The campaign almost never mentions Sanders by name, even as it reminds supporters not to let their guard down and to take his challenge seriously. “We cannot underestimate our opponent,” campaign manager Robby Mook said in a fundraising email to supporters Monday. “He’s raising a lot of money and building a big ground operation in Iowa, because he knows the results there will set the tone for the rest of this primary.”
The electability argument may not be the most inspiring approach. While Sanders invites supporters to dream about a revolution that leads to a better world, Clinton pulls voters back down to Earth by reminding them they're actually more likely to make things far worse if Democrats can't just hold the line.
While the argument may not stir the spirits, it does seems to be working, at least with some voters. Waiting for Hillary Clinton to speak at Iowa's State Historical Museum Monday, Barbara Nunn, 80, and her friend Barbara Borst, 74, told MSNBC they were torn as the caucus date neared.
Both spoke highly of Sanders -- Borst praised his "everyman" style and stance on campaign finance reform while Nunn cited his youth appeal -- but they were uncommitted in part due to concerns about whether Sanders could make it through a brutal general election and then enact his agenda.
"I'm not sure Bernie can carry everyone," Borst said. "Hillary has the experience, she has the connections and she's polished."
"I'm scared to death of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz," Nunn said. "I just want the one who will carry the election because we can't have either of them."