PLYMOUTH, N.H. — Tim Smith is 35, relatively young compared with other voters. He calls himself an independent, which is common here in New Hampshire. And he’s uneasy about the political establishment and Democratic Party standard-bearers.
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Mr. Smith voted for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the 2016 Democratic primary. Mr. Sanders was exactly the sort of outsider Mr. Smith said he was looking to support four years ago.
But he won’t be voting for Mr. Sanders this time around. Instead, Mr. Smith said, he is leaning toward two other candidates who have, in their own ways, taken on outsider and anti-establishment labels: the entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
“I don’t want Trump to win in 2020, and I want someone who I think can beat him,” Mr. Smith said, minutes before Mr. Yang arrived at an event to open a campaign office in Plymouth last week. “Though I love a lot of what Bernie says, I think he’s not going to pull some of those voters over who are in the middle — especially those a little bit on the right. I think Andrew Yang and Tulsi can; they’re a little more moderate.”
The popularity of Mr. Yang and Ms. Gabbard in New Hampshire among young people, libertarians, disaffected Democrats and independent voters poses a potential threat to Mr. Sanders in the state’s crucial Feb. 11 primary — a contest that, for Mr. Sanders, is close to a must-win. These voters flocked to Mr. Sanders in 2016, when he crushed Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire with 60 percent of the vote, and he is counting on their support next month in what is expected to be a tight contest between himself, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
Yet Mr. Yang and Ms. Gabbard appear to have inspired and energized these voters far more than Mrs. Clinton did in 2016, creating the very real possibility that they will siphon off some of the support for Mr. Sanders and make New Hampshire even more competitive. While neither Mr. Yang nor Ms. Gabbard is in striking distance of winning New Hampshire — and they appear even less viable in Iowa — it is their strongest early state.
New Hampshire polling averages published by FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics, along with a new Monmouth University poll released Thursday, show a close four-way contest at the top between Mr. Sanders, Mr. Biden, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren, who are all separated by just a few percentage points. Mr. Yang and Ms. Gabbard draw 3 to 4 percent support each. In such a tight race in which no candidate has a commanding lead, polling analysts said, the defection of even a modest number of Mr. Sanders’s past supporters to Mr. Yang or Ms. Gabbard could hurt his chances to win here again.
Interviews with voters at campaign events, as well as the polls themselves, suggest that a sizable share of the New Hampshire voters backing Mr. Yang and Ms. Gabbard are the very sorts of voters who propelled Mr. Sanders to victory here in 2016. That year, he had the support of 72 percent of independents, who are known as undeclared voters in New Hampshire and are allowed to cast ballots in the Democratic primary. (They accounted for 40 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls.) Mr. Sanders also won 83 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 in his binary contest with Mrs. Clinton.
Now Mr. Sanders is facing much stiffer competition for those voters, including from Ms. Gabbard and Mr. Yang. In Thursday’s Monmouth poll, Mr. Sanders drew the support of 20 percent of non-Democrats, while Ms. Gabbard had 8 percent and Mr. Yang 3 percent.
And in a Quinnipiac University poll from November, Mr. Sanders was the first choice of 29 percent of voters ages 18 to 34, leading all candidates among that group, but Mr. Yang had 12 percent support, and Ms. Gabbard 4 percent.
To be sure, independents and younger voters are also supporting Mr. Biden, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren, who have often performed better than Ms. Gabbard and Mr. Yang among those demographics in surveys. And some of the Monmouth survey results suggested that Mr. Sanders would not immediately benefit if Mr. Yang left the race.
But Doug Schwartz, the director of the Quinnipiac poll, said Mr. Sanders and Mr. Yang do appear to be “appealing to some of the same voters.”
“Is Yang cutting into Sanders’s support? Potentially,” he said.
Though the Quinnipiac poll showed that voters who support Mr. Sanders overwhelmingly picked Ms. Warren as their second choice, a noticeable share — 8 percent — chose Mr. Yang. It is possible, Mr. Schwartz said, that Mr. Yang may make a “small dent” in Mr. Sanders’s support that could play an outsize role in determining who wins a tight primary contest.
Like Mr. Sanders, both Mr. Yang and Ms. Gabbard have attracted an eclectic, loyal and passionate following in New Hampshire, a state that has sometimes shown an appetite for the unorthodox. Voters here said they were drawn to all three candidates because of their outsider credentials. Some who said they were choosing between Mr. Yang and Mr. Sanders said they liked that both candidates had refreshingly blunt messages about the country’s problems and were offering ambitious solutions, like Mr. Yang’s plan to provide a universal basic income to every American adult, and Mr. Sanders’s push for a $15 minimum wage.
Both Mr. Yang and Ms. Gabbard have said they supported Mr. Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. Mr. Yang has at times even pitched himself to voters directly as a younger, more technologically savvy and “more Asian” version of the septuagenarian Vermonter. And in many ways, his campaign is reminiscent of Mr. Sanders’s 2016 run, powered by a significant online presence and millions of dollars from grass-roots donors. Last fall, Mr. Yang’s campaign even scooped up the advertising firm Devine Mulvey Longabaugh, which helped orchestrate Mr. Sanders’s insurgent campaign four years ago.
Several voters who said they had supported Mr. Sanders in 2016 and were switching to Mr. Yang said they had become worried about Mr. Sanders’s health after he had a heart attack in the fall. Many said they found Mr. Yang’s ideas to be fresher, and some thought he might be better able to compromise with Republicans in Congress to get legislation passed.
“I think a president has to be more of a coalition builder,” said Paul Phillips, 59, of Plymouth. He added of Mr. Sanders, “I’m concerned he’s not really someone who works well with others.”
Many undecided voters at the Yang events also said Ms. Gabbard, 38, was at the top of their lists. They praised her military service, foreign policy stances and willingness to buck Democratic Party leaders.
“I did have some interest in Bernie Sanders, and I appreciate him,” said Jennifer Schwartz, 47, an independent from Wolfeboro who said she was drawn to both Ms. Gabbard and Mr. Yang. “But as far as the message goes, what I hear from Bernie Sanders sounds a lot like class warfare.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Sanders’s campaign said that it was confident in its efforts in the state, and that Mr. Sanders planned to win New Hampshire a second time.
Both Mr. Yang and Ms. Gabbard also appear to be banking on success in New Hampshire. Thursday was the 14th consecutive day Ms. Gabbard had campaigned in the state, and a spokesman for her campaign tweeted that she had opened her first campaign office in New Hampshire this week. The spokesman declined to comment for this article.
Mr. Yang did a four-day swing in New Hampshire over the New Year’s holiday, went to Iowa and has now returned for another five days of campaigning.
Steve Marchand, one of the Yang campaign’s senior advisers and a former mayor of Portsmouth, N.H., said that the state’s large subset of undeclared voters tended to be “willing and eager to look for new, interesting, outsider candidates.” As such, he said, New Hampshire represents a real chance for candidates like Mr. Yang to surprise.
Some of Mr. Yang’s supporters said they were acutely aware of how important it is for him to do well here. And those who supported Mr. Sanders four years ago said they had given considerable thought to how to ensure their vote has the most impact.
Kia Sinclair, 28, of Grafton, N.H., said that if she lived in a different state, she might wait to see which candidates had the best chance to win the Democratic nomination, and possibly then vote for Mr. Sanders.
But Ms. Sinclair said she no longer “feels the Bern” as she did in 2016. And while she is worried that shifting her vote to Mr. Yang could result in a candidate like Mr. Buttigieg winning, she said, “my stronger thought is that Yang deserves a real, fair shot.”
“My New Hampshire vote counts a lot,” she said. “And it’s really important to make a statement.”
Adam Rhodes, 37, of Walpole, N.H., said his calculus was slightly different. He supports both Mr. Sanders and Mr. Yang and is still doing the math in his head.
“I wouldn’t want Bernie to lose New Hampshire, but if Yang doesn’t get a big enough turnout, that could impact the rest of his campaign nationwide,” Mr. Rhodes said, sounding slightly exasperated. “That’s why I’m torn!”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
Get more stuff like this
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.