The Big Roundtable

Love and Loathing in New Hampshire

February 17, 2016

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My search for connection on the campaign trail

Lindsey Graham was looking into my eyes. He was talking in a soft Southern drawl, answering a question I had asked, and the room around us had emptied. Or had it? No matter. I was looking into his Carolina blue eyes and something was happening.

We were in the events hall of a retirement home in Exeter, New Hampshire, and suddenly, and unexpectedly, he had stepped away from the people he was talking to and, simply because I had asked, he was talking to me. Just me.

I came to New Hampshire to observe the spectacle that descends on this small, white, distinctly New England state every four years, to watch normal citizens engage with the gaggle of presidential candidates in overcrowded elementary school cafeterias and roadside diners, to find out what happens when the men and women hoping to ascend to the most powerful office in the world look into the eyes of the public and say, for all intents and purposes, me. Choose me. Want me. Not him. Not her. Me.

In state after state, week after week, in a primary season that runs through the spring, leading to the summer nominating conventions that, in turn, leads to autumn’s general election, there is a minute in which we, the voters, and they, the candidates, dance. As the presidential campaign moves across the country, its sheer size and ubiquity make it difficult, and at times impossible, to see what is really taking place.

New Hampshire makes it easy, though. It is small and its primary is first, and when the candidates and their people and the media arrive it is as if everyone—them, us—has packed into a tiny room, eyeing each other, watching, listening, assessing, deciding.

I hadn’t realized this was going to be a love story. New Hampshire is the singles bar, the speed-dating room, where the interactions are quick and intense but certain. New Hampshire is where someone like me can come to watch. And then get swept up in the fever and fall in love, like everyone else.

***

On cold, damp, fall days in New Hampshire you drive along rainy secondary highways lined by trees clinging to the last bit of foliage. Manchester, Concord, Exeter, Keene. Hotel, gymnasium, retirement home, VFW hall. You get sucked into a vortex where everything is political and everyone is interested.

You speak to people—home-school mothers, retired jingle writers, businessmen who bring their children to see the candidate. They’re nice, welcoming, passionate, and sure of themselves. They’ve shown up on this gray afternoon or wet evening hoping for a look, an interaction. You feel that, more than a set of policies to support, they hope for a connection.

My 2016 primary campaign began in Manchester on November 10, the night of the fourth Republican debate. On the five-hour drive up from New York City, I imagined main streets lined by brick buildings, campaign signs posted on front lawns, people talking politics with strangers in diners and bars—a sort of New England carnival for democracy. What I found instead, at least at first, were the dark and mostly deserted sidewalks of Elm Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare, lined by banks and restaurants and Irish bars showing the Celtics game.

Somehow I had expected more. I knew this was unrealistic, but I thought prospective voters would be posted up on bar stools shushing other patrons as Fox News or MSNBC covered the debate pregame. Maybe there would be people passing out bumper stickers and buttons for the various candidates. Eventually, I did find a bar with “Carson For President” signs in the window, and that’s how I ended up hovering on the edges of a Ben Carson watch party, sipping beer as forty people nodded along with the candidate.

Campaign-11

Photo by Pete Vernon

The next morning, I drove through early-morning rain and arrived at the Radisson an hour before Donald Trump’s Politics and Eggs (yes, that’s a thing) was scheduled to begin. The line to enter was already more than a hundred people deep, and I soon realized that everyone else had a ticket. I did not. The organizers made me wait until just before the event started, and then let me and a few other ticketless stragglers in.

Having been introduced as “the only candidate with his own men’s clothing line, his own board game, his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,” Trump took the stage to Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It, his theme music. There were more than 700 people seated at tables laid out with breakfast settings in the old armory building attached to the hotel. The room had an exposed brick wall and an A-frame roof, and Trump stood on stage at one end with an American flag over his right shoulder and a giant “Make America Great Again” banner hanging on a side wall.

The audience was made up of couples, elderly men, families. Nearly everyone was white, and not in the sense that New Hampshire is overwhelmingly demographically pale, but in the sense that in a room of 700, I counted four people of color. One was a security guard. I talked to two others who said they were there to try to ask the candidate difficult questions about police violence and the environment. They did not plan to support him.

Pretty much everyone else in the room did. Trump got cheers on immigration (“We’re gonna build a wall!”), education (“I’m a big fan of education”), and military justice (on Bowe Bergdahl: “Years ago, what would we have done?”—Trump made a finger gun motion. “Bing!”). The crowd ate it up, though another reporter who had been covering Trump for months told me that this wasn’t even close to the highest level of enthusiasm that she’d seen Trump elicit. Maybe it was still too early in the day.

What were they looking for? What do they want? What makes them fall for one candidate at the expense of all the others?

“It is a courtship,” Professor Andrew Smith of the University of New Hampshire told me. Smith teaches political science and has co-authored a book, The First Primary, on the state’s political process. “Because you can’t give them anything—you gotta be nice to them, have lunch with them, talk to them, mention them, send them Christmas cards, all of these things that don’t cost much money but take a lot of time. So it is much more of a courtship than a business relationship.”

After the Trump rally, I spoke with Joe Espinola, who had driven up from Massachusetts with his two sons and a nephew. The kids, all under twelve, were dressed in suits. “They love him. That’s their Trump suit,” Espinola said. “Trump has changed the complexion of the race. He wins. He’s gotten people off their couches. People are angry. Maybe we should start listening to the angry Americans.”

This feeling of anger was everywhere. At every event I attended—Democrat, Republican, frontrunner, also-ran—there was a sense that something had gone wrong in this nation. Make America Great Again. Take Back Our Country. Feel the Bern. And with it came the longing for a candidate who assured them that their anger was justified and that he, or she, was going to make things right again.

People came to rallies and demanded answers about drug addiction, fixing the economy, fixing their lives. The candidates spent most of their time talking about what is wrong with the country and its leaders. They spoke to people whom they invariably portrayed as the good, the noble, the righteously outraged, the incorruptible. Institutions—Congress, the media, the Washington cartel, nebulous forces beyond control—were cast as enemies, like some shadowy organization in a thriller that secretly works to control the levers of power and screw over the little guy. Each candidate offered himself or herself as the champion of the downtrodden, the forgotten. The crowds cheered, sometimes roared, in approval. Everyone was aggrieved. Everyone was hurting.

In Kingston, Robin Dudley stood with her husband and three of her sons as the VFW hall that hosted Ted Cruz on Veterans’ Day slowly emptied. She wore a “Ted” sticker on her jacket and spoke glowingly of the Texas senator. “He doesn’t like the media much,” she said of her husband, who looked over his shoulder, tight-lipped, in my direction. This was the third or fourth time she’d seen Cruz live (and I would run into her again the next morning at another Cruz event), and she was hoping to shake his hand and say a few words. “If he becomes president it will be cool to have shaken his hand and looked him in the eye. I think you can tell a lot about a person that way.”

New Hampshire citizens like to think of their primary as the most important. In 1988, then-governor John H. Sununu famously quipped, “The people of Iowa pick corn. The people of New Hampshire pick presidents.” Because of its prominence as the first primary in the nation, presidential hopefuls crisscross this small state (it ranks 46th and 42nd in size and population, respectively) for months in the run-up to the voting. By the day of the primary, John Kasich will have held 100 town halls in the state, celebrating his final event with confetti and a snowball fight with the media.

New Hampshire offers opportunities for political courtship in a way no other place does. “You can go to the events, you meet somebody, you can tell your friends and neighbors that you met the president,” said Professor Smith. “The president might send you a Christmas card because you worked on his or her campaign—that’s a special thing.”

For many of the state’s residents, the memories of their interactions stretch back decades. At a Hillary Clinton town hall in Dover, I met Mike Maskwa, who began reminiscing about his time as a high school senior wearing red, white, and blue shoes to introduce Edmund Muskie in 1972. When I visited him at his home, in a rural development outside of town, a couple of weeks later, Maskwa spoke of past political figures with a familiarity and personal connection that I imagine impossible in most other places. He described both former Los Angeles Mayor (and unsuccessful 1972 Democratic primary candidate) Sam Yorty and former Senator John Edwards as “jerks.” He said he supported George McGovern in 1972 because he was “a great guy.”

I asked him about an interaction that may have changed his mind about a politician, and he brought up Ronald Reagan. In 1976, Maskwa was sitting on his fraternity lawn at the University of New Hampshire when Ronald and Nancy Reagan walked out of a house across the street. “He and Nancy come out give us a wave, and we’re hoisting the red cups going, ‘Hey, Ronny, come over for a beer.’ And he looks around and says ‘Okay,’ and he comes over to us. He wades in and we’re shooting the breeze, and we’re talking about Notre Dame football. Politically, I have real problems with him, but as just a person—a good guy. He was very engaging and easy-going and so was she. And he stayed and drank the beer! He didn’t just have a sip and pass it on. They sat and finished the beer and then left. That’s the genuineness that you can understand.”

As I attended more and more events, I saw members of the audience seeming to find that sort of genuineness with various politicians. I was drawn to the people who managed to ask questions and speak directly to the candidates. At the same Clinton event where I met Maskwa, I asked Monica Race of Portsmouth, who spoke to Hillary about energy policy and the future for her coal-mining son, about her interaction with the candidate. “I’ve had goose bumps since I walked through the door,” Race said. “Tears came to my eyes when we spoke.”

This was what I’ve been looking for, and I was hearing more and more of it. People confessed that they envisioned an encounter with the candidate they’d come to see. They were here for the candidates to see them.

This was Glen Merkle, 58, after having his picture taken with Marco Rubio: “I like Trump, I like Cruz, but I think Rubio’s great. I love him. He’s just a notch above those other guys.” Did that brief connection make a difference? “My wife and I got a picture when we shook his hand. It has to persuade people. The fact that he’s standing up there taking pictures…I mean, we went to Trump today, and after he’s done he signed a couple of cards. Then he left.”

Teri Zuidema, of Hamstead, came to the same Rubio event unsure if she’d be supporting him. By the end of the evening, she was committed. “When I saw him walk in the door I realized how personable he was, how approachable he was,” she said. “He just seemed like a real person to me. You can feel the chemistry, the body language.”

Elizabeth McKay was waiting for that connection. I met her at a Jeb Bush town hall. She sat in the front row. Elizabeth, who is 20, was touring the state with a group from Mercer University in Georgia. “I’m a moderate Republican, as many college Republicans are. The face-to-face interaction makes a huge difference,” she said. “I’m going to see Marco and Kasich this afternoon and that’s honestly going to make the difference in who I support.” Marco. Not Rubio. Marco. Like Bernie and Hillary, Carly and Jeb.

Donald Trump—hard not to fall back on the last name when it’s seemingly everyplace, TV, tall buildings, cologne—had eschewed intimacy. He went big. YOUUGE. His events were unlike any others. They were held in large hotel ballrooms and cavernous athletic facilities. I drove to one at a ski resort through a cold rain that turned to icy slush. I arrived just after 5 p.m. and took my place near the other reporters, credentialed with lanyards and laptops and cameras on tripods.

Trump stood at a podium, the ubiquitous “Make America Great Again” banner behind him. He had Secret Service protection by then, and began by bragging about his poll numbers. He got big cheers for talking about gun rights, supporting veterans, and repealing Obamacare. On immigration he said, “We’re gonna build a wall. It’s gonna be a great wall. It’s gonna be a real wall.”

I turned my attention away from the stage and focused on the audience. Trump consistently brought out the biggest crowds in the state, and though I thought some must be here just for the spectacle, most seemed to nod along with each of his blustery pronouncements. There was a disquieting rage simmering throughout the room. When Trump mentioned Hillary Clinton’s name, the viciousness of the boos was visceral.

These people were making a connection too, but it was of a very different kind than I had seen at other events. As Trump stood above the crowd at his podium, people grunted affirmations in response to his invective. When the first questioner began by praising Trump for standing up to the media and saying things others won’t, a bearded man standing near me turned to the woman to his right and said, “I love this.” They were together, connected to him and to one another, channeling their anger and bitterness and frustration through the man at the podium. It was a deeply rooted loathing of the system, the state of the country, and all those who are not like them. More than anything else, it was frightening.

In the darkness, I found myself feeling disconnected from the bright lights and passionate communities that came together around these events. The courtship between Trump and these people felt like something I could observe but not experience. When I watched Trump dismiss a protestor chanting “Black Lives Matter!” with a shrug, saying, “These people. They’re just the worst,” I left early, without talking to anyone.

The next morning, I drove to my tenth event in New Hampshire, through the first sunny afternoon I’d seen in the state, feeling somewhat let down. I had come here hoping to understand, on a visceral level, what drew people by the hundred and sometimes thousands, to these face-to-face interactions with candidates. So far, though, I’d felt left out, as if I was watching from the street as a couple shared a cozy dinner on the other side of a restaurant window.

The Trump rallies, in particular, weighed on me. Whatever was going on, it was not something to which I felt connected. In speaking with people at any of these events, I was an outsider. I could observe the intimacy they describe, I could write down their words, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel what they felt.

And then I met Lindsey Graham.

***

I arrived at the RiverWoods Retirement Community to see the soft-spoken South Carolina senator—who was languishing, at that time, at around one percent in the polls—talk to around one hundred senior citizens. Wearing a headset microphone and strolling a room dominated by a thirty-foot Christmas tree, Graham seemed almost resigned to his fate as an also-ran as he spoke about bipartisanship and castigated the extreme wing of his party. His soft drawl was calm and professorial. At one point, a resident yelled out for him to speak up. The event ended with polite applause, and I hung around to talk with some of the audience. Of the half dozen people I interviewed, none had anything bad to say about Graham, but they were quick to pivot to the front runners, bringing up Hillary and Trump. No one seemed to feel much passion for the day’s speaker.

As the senior citizens headed off, I peeked back into the auditorium, where Graham was clustered with a few of his staffers. I walked over and hung by the edge of the group. The senator made eye contact and stepped away from his clique. We shook hands and I introduced myself, asking if he minded answering a few questions.

Suddenly we were talking about the race, about emotion and rationality, and I found myself enthralled. He was wearing a dark blue suit and a red tie, and I remember thinking that the children’s ornaments on the Christmas tree behind him looked somehow absurd. We stood off to the side of the room, couched in a dim area away from the bright lights still shining on the podium up front. “I’m trying to get their hearts,” he said of the voters. “But if you’re looking for a cartoon, I’m not your guy.”

His words were measured and confident, and listening to him I felt comforted, that he was someone I could trust. I had talked to other candidates before, but only as a part of the media scrum that gathered after an event. Standing there, alone with Lindsey Graham, time slowed down, and I realized, even in the moment, that something was happening to me. I felt that connection that I’ve heard about from others. He wasn’t some abstract figure.

Graham was shorter than I had expected, but he wore an air of power, of importance, of authenticity. We only spoke for a few minutes, but somehow I finally understood the power of a handshake, a political courtship. Something real was exchanged in this empty room. We looked each other in the eye and the connection, however fleeting, felt real.

I walked out and called my dad, who is considering voting Republican after forty years of supporting Democrats, and told him that if he must commit, I may have found the guy who deserved it. He was surprised, somewhat baffled, and asked me, Why? What happened? I tried to talk in concrete terms, but knew I was coming up short. In the end, it was a love I could not explain.

***

Photo by Pete Vernon

Photo by Pete Vernon

I returned to New Hampshire in January and found the place changed. The political carnival had finally arrived. Instead of a few candidates passing through for a couple of days at a time, the schedule was packed, with nearly everyone still in the race holding event after event. The town halls where, the first time around, I would have shown up half an hour early and found half full, now had lines massing before the doors opened. People stood bundled against winter winds, anticipating what was to come. It was not just the voters who were showing more interest—the media presence, too, had intensified. At a Bernie Sanders rally in Rindge I stopped counting the video cameras after twenty.

And by this time, many people I spoke with had already made up their minds. At the Sanders rally, for instance, I stood in line next to Bob Zukowski, a seventy-two-year-old retired teacher, who had driven from just over the state line in Massachusetts. He had been volunteering on the campaign, spending his weekends trudging up long driveways in this rural town, to knock on doors and talk to people about his candidate. “Kennedy has always been my president,” Zukowski said. “I was in the Marine Corps then, and we were all in these trucks when they told has he had been assassinated, and two out of three guys were crying. If they had said, ‘Will anybody take Kennedy’s place right now?’ Two out of three guys would have done it. Kennedy had something that hasn’t been around for a long time. Bernie is the only guy that has inspired me since. He doesn’t just tell people what they want to hear. I love him.”

The night before, in Salem, Gary DiPiero arrived at a Ted Cruz town hall carrying an American flag and wearing a Cruz T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Reigniting the Promise of America.”

I asked him if he’d ever felt so strongly about a politician. “Never,” he replied. “I’ve never felt like this. He’s never let us down. He’s a constitutionalist, and he’s always fighting for us. We’ve been waiting a lifetime.”

Like Zukowski, DePiero had been knocking on doors for his man. “We got our shirts, our bumper stickers, our cars, our houses, everything we got is loaded with Ted Cruz stuff. It’s do-or-die. I got two little kids, a four- and a six-year-old. The economy’s done. Obama doubled the debt. The media gets away with everything. ISIS is taking over; we got ‘em in our kids’ school pandering to Muslim religions and taking out Christianity, so I gotta put my kids in private Catholic school. Costs me twenty grand a year. Ted’s gonna get rid of common core, He’s gonna get rid of the IRS, ’cause I’m a businessman so that’s my biggest fear. He’s gonna give us a sixteen percent flat tax. He’s gonna defund Planned Parenthood and prosecute all these people that are corrupt. I mean, you can’t go wrong with the guy.”

***

I went on a search for the undecided, people who were perhaps overwhelmed by so many choices. I found exactly this person—two of them, actually—at a John Kasich town hall in Merrimack.

By chance I sat next to Mark and Heather Stagnone, and we began talking. Mark is a chiropractor and Heather a retired schoolteacher. They have two kids in high school and another in college at nearby Saint Anselm. They described themselves as moderate Republicans who hadn’t been all that interested in politics until recently, and they weren’t yet sure who to vote for. They were open and unsure and concerned. They were also two of the nicest people I’d ever met.

A week later, I was seated at Mark and Heather’s dinner table in Litchfield, eating with them and their high-school-aged son and daughter. It was the night of the last Republican debate before the primary, and they’d invited me to watch it with them. (Heather had also offered a spare bedroom to sleep in whenever I was in town, which, given my tour of the La Quinta franchises in the southern New Hampshire region, was tempting). Over stew and steak, we discussed their son’s college search and my time working in Africa. They talked about concerns over funding their children’s college fees, healthcare costs, taxes, and the country their kids will inherit.

We moved to the living room for the debate, and watched Chris Christie go on the offensive against Marco Rubio. The Stagnones found Trump ridiculous, Cruz extreme, and Ben Carson a nonfactor, but they saw things to like in each of the other candidates. Their youngest daughter, Sarah, mostly kept her thoughts to herself. Both parents wished Carly Fiorina had been on the stage.

Mark and Heather were torn. When Chris Christie attacked Marco Rubio’s record and rehearsed talking points, Heather whispered, “Oh, Christie can get really nasty.” As Rubio stumbled, repeating his words, Mark laughed, “Oh man, I like the way Christie comes back. He’s gaining points right now.” Heather, reconsidering, admitted, “He’s going to come out higher in this.”

The night stretched on, and the Stagnones remained unconvinced. The televised debate hadn’t given them the sort of connection they were looking for. As midnight approached and I got ready to leave, both Mark and Heather said that they were going to try to get out to see the candidates in person over the next few days. They said they’d let me know when they came to a decision.

Two days later, I got a text from Heather at 9:30 p.m., just after she had seen Chris Christie at a Greek Orthodox Church in Manchester on the night before the primary. “And the final answer is…Christie. Three months ago I would have said, NEVER, but he totally won me over tonight. Hope I don’t regret it, but the lawn sign, mine at least, is Christie’s.”

When I asked Mark about his vote, he admitted feeling unsure. “I was really on the fence. I was down to Kasich, Carly, and Christie. I can’t say that I had a firm decision in mind, but then Heather was so impressed by the Christie event, I just kind of said, well, I’ll let her sway me, I’ll trust her judgment. I might have felt the same way if I was there.” Some forms of love, it seems, carry more weight than politics.
After clearing the snow from her driveway on Tuesday morning, Heather headed to her polling place at the high school—a few hundred yards from her house. Mark had already been there, standing in line before the polls opened, to cast his vote. I spoke to Heather that afternoon, a couple of hours before the polls closed, and asked her what had made the difference. In every conversation with her up to this point she had been hesitant to commit, unsure of herself and the candidates. Now, on the phone, she explained, over the course of two separate, uninterrupted soliloquies, what happened to her when she saw Chris Christie.

At the event in Manchester, Heather said that Christie came across as “very sympathetic, very genuine.” She went on about his attention to detail and his willingness to answer the tough questions, then returned to the emotional component: “He had the crowd in tears by the end. He told some very personal stories about his mom passing away. He literally had people welling up and crying, which, you know, personalized him a little bit, made him a little bit more human to all of us.” She retold the story about Christie’s final conversation with his mom, and it was indeed emotional, to the point that I felt it through the phone.

I asked Heather if she was certain, if she’d found someone she feels good about committing to. She laughed, “I may have buyer’s remorse tomorrow. I joked with Mark: Is this like the first date, where you’re totally infatuated because the guy said everything you wanted to hear and then you wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh, maybe he doesn’t look so good in the daylight’?”

***

Photo by Pete Vernon

Photo by Pete Vernon

My final New Hampshire event was a Jeb Bush town hall in an elementary school. I had not seen him before. The setting was at this point familiar—chairs arranged in a semi-circle facing a wooden stool sitting in an open square of linoleum, a big American flag behind the candidate, people packed into standing-room-only clusters behind the seated early-arrivals, media cordoned off in the back. The campaign playlist boomed out over loudspeakers until ten or fifteen minutes after the event was scheduled to start.

A side door opened and the candidate entered with his entourage. Through the waving signs and smartphone cameras held aloft, I saw Jeb, a few inches over six feet, above the crowd. Then, just behind him, I saw a familiar figure. Lindsey Graham. He was back.

By now he was out of the race, and campaigning for Bush. I felt a surge of excitement and swung my camera away from Bush to Graham. I knew I was being irrational but I couldn’t help it. I agree with little of what Graham believes. And yet I couldn’t deny that I felt a connection to him. Lindsey Graham gave me—just me—five minutes in an empty room two months ago. That mattered.

While Jeb spoke, I watched Lindsey, who sat in the front row. It was crazy, and I knew that, but it was happening anyway. When it was finally time to leave, with the voting set to begin in just over twenty-four hours, I lingered in the nearly empty elementary school cafeteria. Bush, Graham, and most of those who had come to see him had left the building. I was reluctant to follow them out into the cold.

It was not just the candidate, and not even just the connection to Lindsey Graham, as clear as that felt. I’d been coming here for three months, and I was suddenly struck by the fact that I didn’t want this thing to end. This odd circus, this democratic thing, this communal gathering, this rehearsed yet genuine set of events, these moment when the speeches end and the candidates take a few questions from ordinary people, this chance for hope and love—I did not want it to be over.

I got into my car and threw my notes on the passenger seat. My suitcases lay piled in the back with empty coffee cups and a stack of campaign paraphernalia—buttons, bumper stickers, placards.

I turned out of one entrance to the school just as Jeb’s bus exited from another. We headed in the same direction, with the candidate’s vehicle looming in my rearview mirror. We approached an intersection and I turned left, south towards the Massachusetts state line, and home.

Jeb, with Lindsey Graham at his side, turned north, driving deeper into New Hampshire, heading for another event and another group of people looking for someone, maybe him, to love.

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