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Sanders looks for a big swing from small towns

Upstate NY is at the heart of Sanders’ Tuesday playbook, but it will be a tug of war between demographics and longstanding personal ties to Clinton.
Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at rally in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, April 17, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)
Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, April 17, 2016.

SCHUYLERVILLE, New York — Bernie Sanders’ path to victory in the New York primary runs through places like the dairy farm Ed King’s family owns here, just outside of Saratoga Springs.

On paper, Saratoga County looks like solid Sanders country.

Two years ago, it was one of the best areas in the state for Zephyr Teachout, an ideological ally of Sanders who ran an expectations-beating primary campaign against Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Clinton ally. Demographically, the region mirrors Sanders strongholds like New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

But King, whose family has been farming in the area for 110 years, got to know Hillary Clinton when she was New York’s senator. He's siding with her.

Today King's sons run the farm, which has grown from a modest milk producer to an enterprise with 1,600 head of cattle and a burgeoning door-to-door food delivery business. The brothers just invested in a gleaming new bottling plant in an old cow barn, which will soon allow them to sell milk in nostalgic glass bottles under their King Brothers Dairy brand.

King attributes the success at least in part to Clinton, who he said was way ahead of the curve in promoting farm-to-table food.

She won a Senate seat from a state she had never lived in 2000 by doing the tedious work of visiting all 57 counties and meeting with people like King, whom she once called “New York’s biggest dairy farmer” -- a reference, he jokes, to his size, not that of his farm.

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“She’s been there for us,” said King, who served as a deputy secretary of agriculture under Gov. Mario Cuomo. “I was actually disappointed when she accepted the secretary of state position because we lost her.”

The Hudson Valley is at the heart of Sanders’ New York playbook, but it will be a tug of war between demographics on one side and and longstanding personal ties to Clinton on the other.

“I think we’re going to win upstate. The question is how close can we get in the New York City. And if we get really close or do really well we’re going to win,” top Sanders strategist Tad Devine said. “No one’s denying that Secretary Clinton has very strong connections in her home state.”

Teachout won a huge swath of the New York, including every county on the state’s eastern border north of Westchester County, all the way up to the Canadian line. She also took a corridor jutting due West of Albany, past Ithaca.

Teachout bloodied Cuomo’s nose and pushed him to the left on some key issues, like fracking, but ultimately lost by nearly 30 points.

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The Clinton and Sanders campaigns have studied the 2014 primary, which bears many parallels to Tuesday’s race. “That was a great demonstration that progressive politics is alive and well in New York Democratic politics," said Devine, "and I think Bernie is very happy to support her."

The problem for Sanders is similar to the one Teachout encountered: There aren’t enough voters in the "Teachout Corridor" alone to win statewide.

One Clinton campaign aide said the former secretary of state could lose Upstate by as many as 30 percentage points and still carry the state, thanks to her strength in the five boroughs.

New York City overshadows the state for a reason: Its media market contains roughly 70 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, and that’s where Clinton has focused the vast majority of her time and energy this year.

If you add in the Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany media markets, you reach close to 90 percent of likely Democratic primary voters.

Clinton made a single trip to each city this year, and never ventured outside those areas. They look like favorable terrain for her, with higher portions of non-white voters than the rural Sanders strongholds.

Cuomo won three of the four counties that contain the largest cities above the Tapen Zee Bridge, with Buffalo's Erie County giving the governor one of his biggest wins in the entire state.

Sanders has spent more than Clinton campaigning Upstate, and visited smaller towns, like Binghamton and Poughkeepsie, and he heads into Election Day with some advantages Teachout did not have.

Teachout was widely unknown in the state, with 85 percent of Democrats saying they had no opinion of her in a mid-August Quinnipiac survey, just a month before the September election. The national spotlight has made Sanders almost universally known.

And while Cuomo was still in office, there are some signs Clinton’s connections to the state have begun to fray in the eight years since she left the Senate, especially with younger voters.

Vinnie Whipple, an 18-year-old from Ballston Spa who was spending her Sunday as a human statue outside a bookstore on Saratoga Spring’s main drag, said everyone her parents’ age is a Republican and everyone her age likes Sanders.

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“I don’t know anyone who likes Hillary,” Whipple said. “I really don’t like her. I’d have her over Trump, though.”

Richard French, who had been marching up and down the street with a Sanders sign could hardly hike more than half a block before being stopped by someone wanting to take his picture or chant with him for a moment. “I’m walking this street and I’m telling you, there’s an undertow for Bernie,” he said.

French estimated he had 40 interactions with people by the early afternoon and said 80 percent were for pro-Sanders, while the remainder were split between Clinton and Trump.

Teachout beat Cuomo in Saratoga County 67 percent to 30 percent, but Ed King and others will make sure Clinton is not blown out.

Eileen Snyder, a retired chef who lives in Saratoga Springs and winters in Tennessee, likes Sanders but is voting for Clinton.

"I would like before I drop dead to see a woman president," she says. "I like them both but I want Hillary to win."