Today brings the final push in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary season, drawing this unique trial in the American democratic experience to a climax. Even though I’ve already written of the state’s uncanny ability as a test market for White House hopefuls and of the event’s roots in the town meeting tradition each March – plus the widespread involvement of the public in political party work and decision-making – I’m still reminded of our editor-in-chief’s counsel all those years ago, You’ve never experienced anything quite like this.
The television camera crews try to relate some of the story, but I fear their very presence distorts it. It’s hard for a candidate to get close to the voters when there’s a convoy of nearly 100 video camera operators plus reporters in pursuit. I remember looking up in my nearly empty newsroom one Saturday afternoon and seeing their faces pressed against the hallway windows while a candidate was being interviewed by one of our own in a corner office, completely out of their sight.
This is my seventh round through the cycle – and my first thoroughly extricated from the newsroom. My first primary was a snowy one, and what I remember most vividly is the seemingly endless row of BUSH signs stuck in the white mounds down the middle of Elm Street through Manchester. For what it’s worth, we’ve had Bush signs for the majority of my presidential primaries here.
One change I’m seeing is a shift away from face-to-face campaigning, the kind that presents a fairly level playing field. Apart from a few big donors’ homes – and a very select guest list – the GOP has largely eschewed the living room presentations this season. The Republican candidates essentially have relied on broadcast advertising and phone calls (often of the robot variety) to bombard potential voters with canned messages rather than live, candid interactions. Let me add, the phone calls have been relentless since before Thanksgiving. Those that identify themselves on caller ID tend to be from out of state – California, Las Vegas, Louisiana, Washington state, Utah, and so on – or from Cell Phone NH. Some evenings, in the midst of our Advent devotional reading, we’d have to pause for three calls to go to voicemail, if they dared. (They didn’t.) And that was before the campaigning really heated up.
As I’ve previously mentioned, the primary encounters have taught me to take a close look at a candidate’s campaign organization. How well does it operate? Is it all paid staff or instead include a significant number of interns and welcome volunteers for canvassing and phone banking?
It has felt a little strange not having campaign volunteers camping out in our house this time. We’re in the midst of some major renovations – starting with the bathroom – but we have memories, mostly positive, of our guests from previous primaries.
Today, of course, is a candidate’s last day to sway undecided voters or to at least cast doubt over the rivals in an attempt to weaken their support. Things are likely to rise to an emotional pitch, perhaps even including tears.
And to think, we’re still nine months out from the national election, November 8.
It will be interesting to see how the races continue from here.