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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

In New Hampshire, a balancing act

Rebecca Luanda is 19 and attends NHTI-Concord's Community

Rebecca Luanda is 19 and attends NHTI-Concord's Community College in New Hampshire. Credit: Newsday/Mark Chiusano

CONCORD, N.H.

The snow over Concord on Thursday meant classes were canceled at NHTI-Concord's Community College. That meant Rebecca Luanda could go to work.

Luanda, 19, works 50 hours a week at Burger King and takes four classes toward an associate’s degree. She recently finished 1,000 hours shadowing a dental assistant, her planned career. But these days she is also figuring out whom to vote for in her first presidential primary, the crucial New Hampshire contest on Tuesday.

That’s what took Luanda to her school for an event for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar Tuesday. It’s what makes her view video clips and ads about the candidates.

Luanda is part of a vital constituency for Democrats — new voters whose excitement, or lack thereof, will help dictate the general election. (That's if they’re not discouraged from voting: a new residency law in New Hampshire has sown some confusion among out-of-state students.)

Luanda is also an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who first saw snow when she came here at age 5. She recently became a citizen, understanding her experience is central to the national political conversation.

She wants her choice to be “not the default,” but a determined decision — the way she chews Juicy Fruit gum to concentrate on her homework, which she was doing on her pink laptop on Thursday as she waited on call for a Burger King shift.

So no surprise she had a thoughtful reaction to Klobuchar: “kind and engaging,” she says. Of businessman Tom Steyer’s candidacy, “he does too much,” she says of his commercials. So where is she leaning?

Of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the octogenarian candidate of American youth, she says, “I haven’t heard a college student who doesn’t like Bernie.” Exaggerating, but only slightly.

Sanders visited her high school in Concord during the 2016 campaign, says Luanda. It was after school and not required, but virtually every senior came. It was a different vibe than Wednesday's adult-heavy Klobuchar event. Another difference: in New Hampshire, as elsewhere, Sanders focused and focuses on college affordability and the student loan crisis.

“He speaks on it,” says Luanda. “That’s what makes him appealing.”

Sanders’ college debt forgiveness and free public college plan, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren's similar plan, bulge eyeballs with the establishment Democratic Party. But it appeals to Luanda and many in her cohort. She hasn’t needed student loans thanks to a mix of scholarships and financial aid, but she works long days in the Burger King kitchen at $10.50 an hour to pay around $5,000 a semester, she says, with help from her parents.

So the money question is real. It’s also a reason Sanders appeals more to Luanda than the other top contender out of Iowa: Pete Buttigieg. The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor has a college-affordability plan, too, but it doesn’t go as far as the progressive flank’s proposal.

Maybe that’s part of the reason Buttigieg struggles with some young voters. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll this week of likely New Hampshire voters found Buttigieg trailing only Sanders for the lead, but with barely more than a quarter of Sanders’ support in the 18-to-35 category.

Yet Buttigieg is much more amenable to the party establishment even as he angles his pitch to moderate Republicans: those “future former Republicans” Buttigieg talks about on the trail.

Despite being a millennial himself, Buttigieg doesn’t fire up young people — because he’s not exactly reaching them in their places and on their issues. Even an openminded voter like Luanda.  

The proof is in Luanda’s fingers. She says that when she scrolls on her glowing social media feeds, she mostly sees clips of Warren — and Sanders.

Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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