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N.H. Democrats divided on different visions for helping middle class

February 8, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
New Hampshire Democrats, weighing votes for either Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders, say that economic issues and the strength of the middle class are their biggest concerns. Both candidates have offered ideas about boosting jobs, reducing college costs and making health care more affordable. Political director Lisa Desjardins explores how their policies are appealing to different voters.

GWEN IFILL: Over the years, it’s become the mantra of nearly every presidential campaign, improving the lives of the American middle class.

Political director Lisa Desjardins is back with a report on how Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton differ in their approach.

LISA DESJARDINS: For centuries, New Hampshire’s rivers and towns have watched the rise, and sometimes fall, of the American middle class. Now Democrats here are focused on the economy today.

HILLARY CLINTON, Democratic Presidential Candidate: We do have to take on income inequality. We do have to create more good jobs.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, Democratic Presidential Candidate: Together, we are going to create an economy that works for working families and not just the 1 percent.

LISA DESJARDINS: Joanne Wood doesn’t have time for a campaign event right now.

JOANNE CYNTHIA WOOD, Uber Driver: And now we’re discoverable to anyone nearby who needs a ride.

LISA DESJARDINS: The 25-year-old is looking for her first fare of the day as an Uber driver, a new economy job for a relatively new worker. Joanne is a decided Bernie Sanders voter because she wants the sea change for the middle and lower classes that Sanders is calling for.

JOANNE CYNTHIA WOOD: I think the economy is really up in the air. It’s concerning, because there are so many people that are just in so much debt, you know, myself and my family included.

LISA DESJARDINS: One ride at a time, she brings in up to $1,000 a week.

JOANNE CYNTHIA WOOD: I just got a request.

LISA DESJARDINS: But Joanne is still far from breaking even. With $30,000 in student debt and bills left over from her mom’s heart attack two years ago, she believes in Sanders’ aggressive economic rewrite.

JOANNE CYNTHIA WOOD: I don’t have any specific sort of animosity toward Clinton, but I love Bernie for his authenticity, and, honestly, his policies.

LISA DESJARDINS: New Hampshire has an enviably low unemployment rate, just 3.1 percent, but wages here, like in many parts of the country, have risen just slightly in the past decade. And add to that the fact that Granite State residents have mountains of debt, the second highest student loan debt in the country. And per-person health care costs are in the top 10.

ANDREW SMITH, University of New Hampshire: How many of you would say that your friends are really knowledgeable about politics?

LISA DESJARDINS: Andy Smith directs the University of New Hampshire’s survey center.

ANDREW SMITH: We are seeing the most important issue that is mentioned by Democrats for why they’re going to choose who to support are economic issues.

LISA DESJARDINS: He’s been talking with his classes about the candidates.

ANDREW SMITH: The problem that Clinton has this year is that she is much, much further behind Sanders than she was behind Obama in 2008.

LISA DESJARDINS: Sanders and Clinton’s middle-class policies differ in scope. Both would spend on infrastructure, a stimulus plan to create jobs, Clinton’s plan $275 billion, Sanders $1 trillion. Clinton aims to make public universities cost a lot less. Sanders would make them tuition-free.

Clinton, she’d cut out-of-pocket health care costs. Sanders, he proposes government-provided single-payer health care for all.

HILLARY CLINTON: It’s a beautiful day in Manchester.

LISA DESJARDINS: On the trail, a big rift has opened over the definition of the middle class. Both candidates would raise some taxes on the wealthy. But Sanders’ would start at lower income levels, which Clinton implies would hit the middle class.

HILLARY CLINTON: And I’m the only candidate standing here tonight who has said I will not raise taxes on the middle class.

LISA DESJARDINS: Sanders has said his health care plan will be a net gain for many. But it’s not clear which income levels benefit and lose. He focuses more on income inequality in general.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The concept of the rigged economy, what does that mean? You all know what it means. What it means is that most people are working longer hours for low wages, while at the same time almost all new income and wealth goes to the top 1 percent.

LISA DESJARDINS: Smith at the University of New Hampshire thinks the issue of economic struggle gives more leverage to one candidate.

ANDREW SMITH: In my view, they are playing on Bernie Sanders’ turf here, and Bernie Sanders is controlling the debate. I think Clinton has moved much more closely toward Sanders’ position.

LISA DESJARDINS: But even if Sanders set the terms, Clinton hopes to win on execution and with voters like this one. Tracy Hahn-Burkett is many things, a former civil rights advocate, a full-time mother and a freelance writer with a well-known New Hampshire blog called Uncharted Parent. From her den, she writes about teen angst, guns and sometimes politics.

TRACY HAHN-BURKETT, Blogger, “Uncharted Parent”: I try not to make it too political. But, sometimes, if it’s relevant…

LISA DESJARDINS: Her family isn’t worried about making the mortgage — husband Paul is an attorney — and they’re grateful. But Tracy has multiple chronic health conditions and doctors’ bills. And while they are firmly middle class now, she doesn’t feel secure.

TRACY HAHN-BURKETT: I think the middle class is in trouble. I think it’s incontrovertible that the middle class is shrinking. And the middle class has always really been — it sounds like a cliche to say it, but the middle class has really been the backbone of the country.

LISA DESJARDINS: The family has a very particular concern creeping up in just four years.

TRACY HAHN-BURKETT: I don’t know how we’re going to pay for my kids’ college. There’s a part of me that says, well, we will just work it out, like everybody else does. But then I sit there and look at the numbers, and I see the way that the costs are going up all the time.

LISA DESJARDINS: When she looks at the Democratic candidates, Tracy sees two that she likes, but one that gets her vote.

TRACY HAHN-BURKETT: I think Hillary Clinton is best equipped to actually get things accomplished. That doesn’t mean that I dislike Bernie Sanders or his policies.

LISA DESJARDINS: As Tracy looks for middle-class results, Sanders supporter Joanne is looking for big vision.

JOANNE CYNTHIA WOOD: I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with being an idealist.

LISA DESJARDINS: In New Hampshire, Democrats know there is a middle-class question. But they’re divided on which candidate has the answer.

For the “PBS NewsHour” in Manchester, I’m Lisa Desjardins.