The tiny state of New Hampshire has huge power during primaries

 
Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is the first openly gay Democrat to run for the White House. (photo credit: DARREN GARNICK)
Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is the first openly gay Democrat to run for the White House.
(photo credit: DARREN GARNICK)

US Political Affairs: Hosting the first-in-the-nation primary vote, New Hampshire has a disproportionate influence

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire – For the past six months, I have been one of the most popular people in America. My phone buzzes non-stop with texts and voice mails from Texas, South Dakota, New Mexico, Georgia, Florida and other places where I have no friends or family. These strangers want to know my thoughts on healthcare, global warming, gun control, and, most importantly, who I intend to vote for in the upcoming New Hampshire presidential primary next Tuesday.
“Hi Darren! It’s Chyanna with Bernie 2020. Bernie has been fighting against greed and corruption for decades. That’s why he’s the candidate I trust to take on the billionaire class and make our economy work for all of us. Are you in for Bernie?”
“Hi Darren! I’m Layna with Warren for President. Elizabeth is committed to making sure every family in NH has access to affordable, high-quality childcare and early education. She’ll pay for it using her two-cent ultra-millionaire wealth tax. Have you had a chance to read her plan?”
“Hey Darren, this is Raymond w/Yang2020. Andrew Yang is a job creator who understands the economy. He knows we need to make an unprecedented change toward an economy that focuses on improving everyone’s quality of living – and we need to make it now. On a scale from 1st to 5th of your top presidential candidates, where would you rank Andrew?”
No offense to Chyanna, Layna or Raymond, but my phone ringer is set to silent until Wednesday, February 12, when I will be blissful about nobody caring about my opinion again. Although I don’t enjoy my temporary stay in telemarketing hell, I do look forward to the political circus coming to my home state every four years. As a history buff and news junkie, I love the idea that I can meet the potential next president of the United States – and much of his or her future cabinet – at my local coffee shop or pizzeria.
Following Iowa’s wacky presidential caucus, where voters physically scramble to different corners of a high school gym to choose their top candidate, the New Hampshire primary is the first traditional ballot vote to determine the Republican and Democratic nominees. It’s the 100th anniversary of the primary and whether puny New Hampshire – which ranks 44th in size of US states and 41st in population – deserves its first-in-the-nation status has been a controversial debate in recent years.
It’s understandable why most other states are jealous bordering on resentful. Never mind that places like California and Texas, which both vote on “Super Tuesday” in March, are just too big for candidates to shake every voter’s hand. While candidates might show their face for only a few days for fund-raisers in major US cities – forget about rural flyover country – nearly every New Hampshire town has been trampled by White House hopefuls multiple times.
According to New Hampshire Public Radio’s “Candidate Tracker,” which logs campaign visits since June 2019, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) have been here more than 50 times – and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) are all approaching 100 visits!
So yeah, New Hampshire is spoiled.
Going to a candidate event in our state is like attending a special press conference held just for your friends and neighbors. Even though much of the stump speeches are scripted, of course, there are usually real-time reactions to the day’s news and off-the-cuff Q&A, which makes every appearance different. I’ll usually try to see each candidate two or three times if I can.
I love seeing influential political leaders across the ideological spectrum jump out from behind the TV screen and make direct eye contact with me. I value the opportunity to hear candidates with whom I disagree, despite how depressing it can be to mingle with their die-hard supporters. I also have a chance to directly ask questions, with no media filter, about college debt, drinking water quality, Jared Kushner’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan or any eclectic topic I choose. It’s like jumping inside that TV set.
Speaking of Israel, the subject rarely comes up at New Hampshire primary events – and foreign policy questions in general are equally scarce. There are exceptions, of course. I was unable to attend any Sanders rallies the day he campaigned with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) in December. The state Republican Party blasted her guest appearance, charging it proved “how anti-Israel the modern Democrat base is.”
New Hampshire has a tiny Jewish community of 10,000, representing about 0.7% of the state population. Out of the few dozen events I’ve attended so far, across all of the candidates, I’ve only heard Israel come up once in the Q&A sessions. A young woman from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement introduced herself to Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) as a “Jewish-American ashamed of what Israel is doing in my name to the Palestinians.” She asked the candidate if he would join her right then and there in denouncing Israel and take some kind of anti-Zionist pledge.
When Booker answered that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a complex issue that could not be summed up in a sound bite, the woman brashly demanded a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Without hesitation, Booker replied that if she was looking for a candidate who thought the Middle East was that simple, he was not her candidate. It was a smooth, unapologetic rejection of BDS and I later thanked Booker for his stance.
Some of my more memorable interactions with candidates, however, do not involve hot-button issues. At my hometown’s 4th of July parade, Klobuchar saw my daughter’s Boston Red Sox baseball hat and suggested we would be much happier rooting for her Minnesota Twins (for 2019, anyway, she was correct). When I saw Booker at a house party, I asked him how he chose his contagious campaign theme song that played whenever he entered the room. Turns out that the 1977 song “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers, now enjoying a resurgence from The Secret Life of Pets 2 movie, frequently played on his parents’ turntable when he was a kid.
Sometimes I have fun just watching the candidates engage in political theater – no audio necessary. Such is the case when I celebrated part of New Year’s Day watching the Hawaiian Gabbard surf with locals on the frigid Atlantic Ocean. It was comical seeing some of her campaign supporters walk along the windy shore waving Tulsi signs with absolutely no one on the beach to influence. Once she was in the water, I had no idea which surfer was the presidential candidate – black wet suit silhouettes all look the same from a distance.
Much of the primary is theater. These must be bonanza times for whichever business rents out giant American and New Hampshire state flag backdrops, which seem to instantly appear at every school, restaurant, yoga studio and hotel ballroom. Barns tend to be a favorite venue, with some of them looking too pristine to have ever stored hay or cow manure. Cute “homemade” campaign signs, colored with crayons and markers, are sometimes handed out to supporters to boost the authenticity level.
Former vice president Joe Biden gives his stump speech at Mack’s Apples in Londonderry, New Hampshire in July 2019. Barns are a favorite backdrop for presidential candidates. (Credit: Darren Garnick)Former vice president Joe Biden gives his stump speech at Mack’s Apples in Londonderry, New Hampshire in July 2019. Barns are a favorite backdrop for presidential candidates. (Credit: Darren Garnick)
Theater needs its stars, of course, and some of the more entertaining New Hampshire primary moments involve celebrity cameos. The “Live Free or Die” state has claim to a few famous faces – comedians Adam Sandler, Sarah Silverman and Seth Meyers and Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler among them – but it is not a playground for Hollywood A-listers. So as a pop culture nut, it’s surreal when TV and movie characters come visit us “in the middle of nowhere” to share their political wisdom.
In past primaries, martial arts badass Chuck Norris (campaigning for Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee) held my baby daughter in a pancake house, and NASCAR legend Bobby Allison (campaigning for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson) held her baby carrier at a Harley Davidson dealership while she was sleeping. I also got to hear Martin Sheen, a.k.a. President Josiah Bartlet on the West Wing television series, endorse Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
This year, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield scooped me samples at a Sanders event. Cohen created his own limited-edition flavor of Bernie-themed ice cream with a butter toffee core in the middle of each pint, which he says represents his candidate’s political backbone. I’ve missed multiple opportunities so far to meet actor John Cusack (also a Bernie guy) to ask him about critical scenes in Better Off Dead, but I’m optimistic I’ll get another chance.
Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream founders Ben Cohen (left) and Jerry Greenfield prepare to scoop ice cream for Bernie Sanders supporters outside the New Hampshire State Democratic Convention in September 2019. (Credit: Darren Garnick)Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream founders Ben Cohen (left) and Jerry Greenfield prepare to scoop ice cream for Bernie Sanders supporters outside the New Hampshire State Democratic Convention in September 2019. (Credit: Darren Garnick)
This election cycle, New Hampshire has been overrun by more presidential wannabes than usual. Including the premature dropouts, there have been 28 major Democratic candidates fired up by the chance to oust Republican President Donald Trump. But that figure depends on how you define “major candidate.”
Anyone who pays a $1,000 filing fee and is a native-born US citizen at least 35 years old can get their name on the New Hampshire ballot for history’s sake – it makes a fabulous birthday or retirement gift. These “lesser known” (also called “fringe” or “dark horse”) candidates sometimes draw attention to a single cause, but are mostly ignored by voters. With even several US senators failing to gain momentum and quitting early in 2020, there simply isn’t enough media oxygen to go around.
Nearly overshadowing my responsibility to vote next Tuesday will be all the “victory” parties at night. You can measure the optimism of each candidate by the size of the venue they rent out for campaign volunteers and supporters – and space permitting, anyone is welcome to crash these gatherings. It’s fascinating to bounce between parties and compare the morale, decor and pageantry. In past years, the late sen. John McCain had an ice sculpture greeting guests and provided a meat-carving station. Former Republican speaker of the House Newt Gingrich charged on stage to “You’re The Best Around,” the kitschy fight finale theme from The Karate Kid soundtrack.
Try to believe while the going gets rough
that you gotta hang tough to make it.
History repeats itself, try and you’ll succeed.
Never doubt that you’re the one,
And you can have your dreams.
You’re the best around!
Nothing’s gonna ever keep you down!
Gingrich finished fourth that night in 2012, but I can still picture his grin as he fantasized about karate-kicking front-runner Mitt Romney.
Of course I have my favorite candidate who I want to see fight his or her way to the general election in November. But it doesn’t matter if I am partying with the winners or the losers on primary night. There’s a special camaraderie I will share with my New Hampshire neighbors as the suspense builds and we watch the results trickle in live from each county. As much as other states want to strip away our first-in-the-nation privilege – and dare I say our overinflated sense of importance – we may as well enjoy it while it lasts.
 New Hampshire Pride: A souvenir New Hampshire Primary license plate now selling in the Statehouse gift shop. 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of when the Granite State first voted first in the U.S. presidential primaries. (Credit: Darren Garnick) New Hampshire Pride: A souvenir New Hampshire Primary license plate now selling in the Statehouse gift shop. 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of when the Granite State first voted first in the U.S. presidential primaries. (Credit: Darren Garnick)
The writer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker from New Hampshire.
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