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Why Is Bernie Sanders Surging in New Hampshire? It's Simple.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

New Hampshire residents don't like being told what to do. It even says so on the license plate—and that motto, “Live Free or Die,” spells trouble for Hillary Clinton.

“Politically, we are an ornery lot. We relish the opportunity to challenge the media’s tired parade of the same political elite,” said Nashua resident Greg Montine. “We have always hated being told who to vote for.” 

Herb Pence, a railroad retiree turned freelance transportation writer and a longtime resident of Manchester, put it simply: “We don’t like coronations.”

The scenario was decidedly different in January 2008. Having won the Iowa Caucus Barack Obama, had become the frontrunner and showed signs of running the table. New Hampshire expressed its independence by delivering its first-in-the-nation primary to then-Senator Hillary Clinton, 39.1 to 36.5 percent. But today, Clinton is an even more formidable frontrunner than Obama was, and recent polls suggests the state's independent streak might boost Clinton's upstart opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

If the New Hampshire primary were held today, according to a Suffolk University poll released Tuesday, 41 percent of Democrats would vote for Clinton, versus 31 percent for Sanders. These results align with a Morning Consult poll released Sunday, which showed a lead of 44 to 32 percent for Clinton. In the Suffolk poll, Clinton has the lion’s share of women voters (47 to 28 percent), but among pollees who say they are familiar with both candidates, Clinton is ahead by only three points. Among likely voters who identified themselves as “moderate” in the Suffolk poll, Clinton is ahead of Sanders by 20 points; among self-described “liberals,” they are tied with 39 percent.

“Hillary Rodham Clinton seems to be expected to get the nomination and essentially has been running—even if most of the time it was unofficially—unopposed,” said Catherine Poulin, a history teacher at Nashua High School South. “Not everyone supports her, and they want to express it in some way.” (Alyssa Gillen, a student at the same school, has a different interpretation: “Some people in this country are sexist and probably aren’t supporting her just because she is a woman, which I feel is not right.”)

But Sanders' rising poll numbers isn't merely to protest Clinton's dominance. Some New Hampshire residents simply prefer Sanders, whose aversion to bullshit resonates with the no-nonsense Yankees.

“Granite Staters seem to prefer their candidates plain-spoken and direct, rather than the highly polished ‘products’ of the political process,” said Jen Phillips of Nottingham, who described herself as an undecided independent. Nashua resident Matt Froment agrees: “Do I think he can win? No. But I do like the somewhat fresh take of being a straight shooter, and his willingness to put his ideas out there for all to discuss, no matter how drastic or unpopular some might be.”

Sanders is also much less familiar to voters, which has its advantages.

“Bernie’s big secret is that he has no big secrets,” said Jay Chittidi, a recent graduate of Nashua High School South and a Clinton campaign volunteer (work he began before Sanders announced his candidacy, though he says he’ll likely stay with Clinton because he joined her campaign through friends). “Here is an individual who has no baggage to bring to the presidency, no scandal, no corporate influence, and no strings attached.”

Vermont’s reputation for hacky sacks, craft beer, and environmentalism stands in contrast to tax-free New Hampshire’s business friendliness, but Sanders supporters say the Green Mountain State has a lot to teach us. Keith Williams, of Mason, has lived in New Hampshire for 21 years since moving from Bristol, Vermont. “[Residents here] are battling pipelines filled with toxic fossil fuels while Vermont is spreading increasing areas of windmills and solar panels; a bright idea. Vermont is a model approach to opioid addiction in funding and law-enforcement conduct. New Hampshire is gutting services to mental health, escalating addiction and overdose; a sick idea.”

Sanders's supporters are nothing if not passionate, and that holds just as true in New Hampshire as anywhere else. One man told me that Sanders “makes the rest of the pack look shoddy in comparison,” another claimed the independent senator is "beyond partisanship," and a third said, “He’s more authentic and likable than any candidate in the last 50 years.”

Dan Brien, a game designer and technical writer in Manchester, throws cold water on such hyperbole.

“To me,” he said, “he seems to be one of those mild distractions of idealism that are common in the early stages of an election. As soon as the ‘socialist’ word comes out in more national exposure, Hillary will stomp him.”