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In New Hampshire, 2020 Democrats battle for every voter they can find

Iowa State Fair: Fried food & politics

Ten minutes passed, an iPhone alarm sounded, and half a dozen political organizers rotated clockwise around the room. "We'll begin round two momentarily," Susan Jamback, chair of the Bow Democrats, said as she ping-ponged between wooden coffee tables littered with halved index cards reading "immigration," "healthcare," and "impeachment," among other topics.

Tucked in the Baker Free Library basement, a "campaign speed-dating" event paired individual Merrimack County Democrats with 2020 presidential staffers for intimate Q & A sessions, a compatibility test held 203 days before participants would cast the first Democratic primary ballots.

A regional organizing director for Kamala Harris scribbled notes as one voter bemoaned rising insulin prices. Pete Buttigieg's deputy state director cited the South Bend mayor's re-election statistics when probed about America's "readiness" for a gay president. Bernie Sanders' constituencies director outlined his own experience entering the country as a refugee from Bhutan.

"Yes," one voter pushed back. "But what will Sanders do to reunite separated families on day one?"

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Campaign "speed dating" brings together campaign organizers and primary voters in Bow, New Hampshire.  Nicole Sganga/CBS News

Miles removed from the shiny debate stages of Miami and Detroit, campaign staff and volunteers pitch their choice for president to 2.2% of America's registered voters, all of whom play an outsized role in selecting their party's nominee.

Months before the first-in-the-nation primary, hundreds of political organizers have descended upon Manchester, working day after day to elect the next Democratic presidential nominee. In practice, it's called community organizing. In politics, it's called the ground game. And in New Hampshire, the candidate with the strongest ground game often clinches the February contest.

"The New Hampshire primary is really about developing those one-on-one relationships," state Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley told CBS News. "And while the candidate can't possibly have a one-on-one relationship with every single voter, their supporters do."

"Everyone knows the campaign of Gary Hart because he built such a strong organization and ground game," Buckley said, referencing the Democratic Colorado senator's stunning 1984 upset victory. "It's what made John Kerry in 2004, what saved Hillary in 2008."

Getting involved in the primary is "just part of the culture" of New Hampshire, said Sue Casey, a top Democratic strategist in the state who has worked for numerous primary campaigns, including Hart's. "In Boston, you root for the Red Sox. In New Hampshire, you participate in the most important political thing that happens in our country."

Seasoned Granite State politicos use their own set of metrics in determining a candidate's strength.

"Anyone looking at the polls seven months before the election is focusing on the wrong thing," Ned Helms, a former chair of the state's Democratic Party and a supporter of Joe Biden, said. "How many staffers are here? How many calls are you making? How many doors are you knocking on?"

In diners and debate watch parties, bookstores and barbecues, parks and pride parades, volunteers and hired hands sell their candidates to New Hampshire's skeptical and well-versed electorate. At a phone bank a week after the first presidential debate, former teacher Beth Gildea spent hours making cold calls to strangers on behalf of Kamala Harris.

"I think she's the one to take Donald Trump on," Gildea chirped into a cell phone. The 35-year old spends her time volunteering for the California senator while her two toddlers attend pre-school. "Would you be interested in learning more about the campaign?"

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Volunteers for Kamala Harris make calls at a phone bank in Hollis, New Hampshire.  Nicole Sganga/CBS News

Volunteer Kevin Danielson, leaned over the table to hear results of a CBS News Poll showed a 32% plurality of voters perceived the California Senator to be "strong," with Biden and Elizabeth Warren trailing. "Send that to me," he called out as the poll flashed on another volunteer's iPhone screen.

The self-proclaimed "Reagan Republican" crossed the political aisle in 2016, and Danielson decided to back Harris in June. "I want somebody who can beat Trump. Period, end of sentence."

Harris' Granite State campaign says it will open four offices this month, following their candidate's sixth day campaigning in the state. Harris' team is one of nine campaigns boasting double-digit paid staff in New Hampshire, employing over twenty paid organizers and fellows.

But its Warren's camp that carries the biggest footprint. While the campaign declined to divulge New Hampshire staff numbers, CBS News determined she has over 55 paid staff members the state, not including a handful volunteer fellows. The senator has spent fifteen days working the crowds in New Hampshire since announcing her exploratory bid in January.

Her campaign organizers keep volunteers abreast of her dozens of policy rollouts with "Night School with Warren." Business owner and former attorney Rebecca Prien spends every other Thursday night unraveling Warren's plans via PowerPoint before a dozen voters on New Hampshire's coast.

"Last month, we taught the ultra-millionaire's tax and real corporate profits tax," Prien explained. "A lot of the discussion revolves around, 'how would you implement this?'" Next week's lesson addresses climate change.

Warren represents neighboring Massachusetts, giving her a home-field advantage here when it comes to name recognition and the ability to ferry in volunteers across the state line. Massachusetts candidates tend to do well in New Hampshire: Bay Staters like Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Paul Tsongas and Michael Dukakis have all won the primary.  

Bernie Sanders, who hails from neighboring Vermont, has a similar edge. The winner of the 2016 New Hampshire Primary announced 45 campaign staff in the state and counting last month. The campaign has also accrued the most individual contributions from New Hampshire residents this cycle, in addition to opening six offices and recruiting thousands of volunteers.

One hundred eighty-five of those volunteers knocked on doors one balmy Saturday in late July. Rob Burns, a field organizer for Sanders based in Nashua, waved to a clipboard-equipped canvasser for Warren pacing the very same street, before entering Jeff Brown's front yard.

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Rob Burns, a Nashua field organizer for Bernie Sanders, speaks to voter Jeff Brown while canvassing.  Nicole Sganga/CBS News

Brown, a 60-year-old veteran, recounted his time serving overseas with the Army, the bouts of PTSD that followed, and time spent sleeping "in the woods" before finding work as a dishwasher. "He's a nice guy," Brown said of Sanders. "And he's from around here. But I'd like to have a politician in this frickin' country that's going to put a stop to the s--t." 

Brown wiped his tears. "The same s--t is going on. What has changed?"

All campaigns are looking to tap into that sense of frustration with the status quo. Some candidates, like Sanders, preach revolution. Others, like Biden, pitch something more modest, a restoration to the pre-Trump era.

While berry picking with organizers for Joe Biden in Coos County, Danielle Gilbert talked about 2016. The former police dispatcher and mother of two remembered the first time she spotted a Trump banner.

"There's the one in Belmont that's been up since before Trump announced he was officially running," Gilbert sighed. "That sign never went away. That mentality never went away." 

Seven blueberries disappeared into her bucket. "I don't know if Joe Biden will be a two-term president. Most likely he won't be because of his age. But we need to make sure we take back control of the country."

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Field organizers from Joe Biden's New Hampshire campaign go blueberry picking with supporters in Sanbornton, New Hampshire. Nicole Sganga/CBS News

Biden's team of over forty campaign staff began door-knocking last month, following their candidate's sixth day campaigning in state. August kicked off with a string of community events: A potluck in Keene, trivia in Manchester, a pie tasting in Wolfeboro.

Former ambassador and co-chair of Bill Clinton's campaign Terry Shumaker noted that "every election is different," but that Biden – his choice for the nomination – has "grown his operation quickly" despite a late entry into the race.

Also growing – the campaigns of Beto O'Rourke, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar. Running on a message of what they call "radical hope," O'Rourke's team of 25 paid staff emphasizes community service as they spread the word about the former Texas congressman. They spent this week assembling care packages for the families of victims of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. The weekend before that, they cleaned up beaches on New Hampshire's narrow stretch of coastline.

Gillibrand's entirely female senior staff in the state says they will onboard new organizers this month. They plan on reaching 25 full paid staff in August, following the senator's latest week-long New Hampshire tour. The New York senator has already spent a whopping 22 days campaigning in the state.  

Klobuchar's 18-member team unrolled nine key endorsements last month. The Minnesota senator had previously trekked through New Hampshire's sparsely-populated North Country in search of voters in remote parts of the state.

Pete Buttigieg's operation has 40 paid staffers, and added a data director and four regional organizing directors last week. During the South Bend Mayor's twelve days of New Hampshire retail and town halls, nearly 600 Granite Staters attended multiple candidate events, according to the campaign. Last Sunday, 51 volunteers turned out to canvas alongside Chasten Buttigieg, the candidate's husband, and Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig.

Cory Booker's team of nearly 30 paid staffers and ten interns also canvassed for down-ballot candidates last month, opened 3 field offices in the spring and boasts over four-dozen endorsements. According to the campaign, the New Jersey senator has personally interacted with over 4,000 Granite Staters in selfie lines and house party Q & A sessions.

Metrics aside, how does a campaign know if their ground game is working, if their message resonates, if winning the primary is within reach? 

Just weeks before the 1984 Democratic primary, Sue Casey noted, her candidate had been all but written off by his opponents and the press -- little-known, young, from a faraway state. And then suddenly, almost without warning, Gary Hart caught fire on Election Day Eve.

 "It wasn't until we were sitting on the couch during the six o'clock news," Casey reminisced about the moment she knew it had worked just before the returns rolled in.  "And Dan Rather said, 'We don't know what's going to happen tonight, but we think Gary Hart is going to have a good night.' And we all looked at each other and we thought, could we win this? We could win this."

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