CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE - For many across the country, the 2020 presidential campaign is still a distant thought, even while 18 Democrats have signaled their candidacy.
But in New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation primary, residents say they’re excited to participate in what they call their state sport: politics.
“It’s not early to be campaigning,” Danny Arnold, a Dover, New Hampshire, resident, said while waiting for New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to speak at a local coffee shop.
“I want to hear all the candidates before I make any decisions on who I’m going to vote for,” he added.
Never too early
And given the large field vying for the nomination to unseat President Donald Trump, neither New Hampshire residents nor the candidates think it’s ever too early to begin campaigning in the key state. In fact, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, the first Democrat to declare his candidacy, began visiting New Hampshire in 2017.
During the past weekend, three 2020 hopefuls — Gillibrand, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, held town halls, meet and greets, and house parties across the state. Because New Hampshire holds the first primary in U.S. presidential elections, voters here play a unique role in helping to shape the course of presidential elections.
And that role is not a responsibility voters take lightly.
“I really think people take that responsibility very seriously to try and make sure they’re as well-informed as possible and make the right decision,” said Seth Facey, a high school student in Amherst who will be voting in a presidential election for the first time next fall.
Dozens of New Hampshire residents devoted their entire Saturdays to attending multiple events — as many as three in one day — to try to hear and form opinions on every candidate who comes to speak.
The high level of political activity in April 2019, roughly 10 months before the New Hampshire primary, is only unusual because of the large number of candidates running to be the Democratic nominee, according to Neil Levesque, a political scientist at St. Anselm College.
“What it is, is that we have so many candidates so early,” Levesque told VOA. “So, there is a tremendous amount of activity. New Hampshire voters are enjoying it. They’re going out. And like you said, on any given weekend, you can see that their schedules (are) for three or four or five candidates in New Hampshire.”
Who's leading now?
While analysts say it is far too soon to declare a front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are leading the pack in the early going, with each capturing roughly a quarter of the vote, according to RealClear Politics averages of recent polls. Senators Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas are also attracting interest, according to polling.
WATCH: 2020 Presidential Hopefuls Woo New Hampshire Voters
Of the 18 Democrats who have officially declared their candidacy or formed a presidential exploratory committee, six are U.S. senators, three are House members, one is a governor and one is a former governor. And in this wide field, candidates are working hard to distinguish themselves from one another.
“My story is very different. I come from a rural part of New York state. My first house district was a two-to-one Republican district. I won that district twice,” Gillibrand told VOA.
Gillibrand, who spoke with voters in Dover and Concord, New Hampshire, during the weekend, boasts that she has voted against more of Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees than any other senator, claiming that her “bravery” is what is required to defeat Trump in the general elections next November.
“We need a president who will stand up for what’s right, and do what’s right, and restore that moral fabric that’s been lost under this administration,” she said.
?Candidates stress uniqueness
Booker, her fellow senator from the neighboring state of New Jersey, said his experience as a mayor of a large city, Newark, New Jersey, makes him a unique candidate.
“I don’t know of anybody who has run a large city and succeeded in creating its biggest economic resurgence in 60 years,” he said, speaking after a house party for his campaign hosted by New Hampshire state Sen. Shannon Chandley.
“But then, I’ve also been a United States senator and got a lot of significant pieces of legislation done, as well as a lot of legislation reforming our nuclear regulatory laws, all the way to dealing with issues of racial disparities in our country,” Booker added.
Of course, Booker is not the only candidate drawing on his mayoral experience.
Buttigieg, mayor of a city of just more than 100,000 people, is 37 years old. But he argues that his executive experience as mayor rivals that of his fellow candidates.
Buttigieg or Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard, who is also 37, would be the youngest president in U.S. history if elected.
“I think that we certainly represent something that is not like the others,” Buttigieg told reporters after an event at the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire, from which nearly 200 people were turned away as the room reached capacity.
“You can see the energy from people of all generations around the idea of a campaign that’s focused on the future,” he added.
Right behind Biden in early New Hampshire polls is Sanders, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2016, though he ultimately lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton.
Sanders is likely to do well in New Hampshire, drawing on his popularity from the previous election and his far-left stances often qualified as Democratic Socialism.
But among so many choices, Democrat voters are primarily concerned with one question: Which candidate has what it takes to beat Trump.
“Trump is a force to be reckoned with,” Levesque said, noting that in 2016, Trump competed with 14 “top name” Republicans and defeated them all.
“And so, Democrats really have to be looking at who can beat Donald Trump in a general election.