New Hampshire primary: Yard signs out. Social media in. Future? Up for debate.
Nine experts assess the health of the first-in-the-nation presidential race
Democrat Bill Clinton campaigns at a house party in Concord in 1991. A campaign stop today is also a social media blast. (Dan Habib | courtesy of the Concord Monitor)
Long before the Democratic National Committee announced plans in December to boot New Hampshire from the front of the line, the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary has been under threat or deemed over the hill. The Associated Press this month called it “little more than a fairy tale.”
Gone may seem the days when presidential hopefuls had local campaign offices, staff in every county, or a whole lot of yard signs. They aren’t looking for volunteers to stuff envelopes and make phone calls like they once did. But they are visiting the state, more than 15 times since February in the case of a few candidates. A lot of their voter outreach is now via social media, where the conversation is from a distance and goes in one direction.
Secretary of State Dave Scanlan has indicated he’ll set the 2024 primary date for late January. With just four months left for a large field of candidates to close a deal with voters, the Bulletin asked nine Granite Staters who’ve led, advised, or studied New Hampshire political campaigns – many for decades – for their take.
None deemed the New Hampshire primary a fairy tale, though some see trouble ahead. One dismissed doubts about the state’s relevance as “ridiculous.” Some said it’s too early to judge; candidates never make their big New Hampshire push until after the leaves turn color. One wondered if enthusiasm is down because polling suggests President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are unbeatable.
They agreed on this, however: Today’s New Hampshire primary looks and feels a lot different from primaries past. Their disagreements lie in what to make of that.
Here are three takeaways.
Messaging has become more controlled
Karen Hicks, CEO of Civix Strategy Group in Concord, led and advised presidential campaigns for Democrats Howard Dean and John Kerry in the 2004 race and Hillary Clinton four years later.
She said campaigning then meant several house parties a day interspersed with calls to local activists, school board members, and city councilors in search of votes. After big events, local volunteers hit the phones, asking attendees for money.
Candidates did local media interviews, Hicks said, knowing it was a way to reach local voters. Contrast that with today: None of the 10 campaigns contacted for this story returned the Bulletin’s messages.
Hicks said when candidates made a connection with local voters, it benefited both sides. Candidates got votes and voters got a voice.
Hicks recalled Clinton being “stunned” to hear about an opioid crisis during a North Country stop. Clinton started asking audiences if they’d been touched by it and saw half the room raise a hand. Hicks said she began incorporating the crisis in her talking points.
“It was nowhere on her radar,” Hicks recalled, until New Hampshire voters put it there. Hicks is skeptical that voters can still have that kind of influence on candidates when they are increasingly reaching them through social media.
“Twitter is very far from people’s lives,” Hicks said.
Social media has been a campaign tool since the 2008 race when the Barack Obama campaign hired 100 people to manage his digital presence and demonstrated its power to mobilize voters. It’s also a relatively inexpensive way to talk to tens of thousands of voters at once.
Andrew Provencher, a principal at b-fresh consulting in Concord, worked with Republican Jon Huntsman during his 2012 presidential run. He said social media is a draw, too, because campaigns can measure the reach of a tweet or Facebook post and gather demographics on who’s engaging.
“Politics has morphed into new-age baseball,” Provencher said.“It’s kind of like the geeks are in charge with the data and analytics. They can see a direct return on investment.”
But Provencher and others said they see it being used as a complement, not a replacement, for in-person campaigning. Provencher said candidates’ repeat visits to the state are evidence that Granite State voters remain a priority.
Republicans Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy have each visited the state nearly 20 times since February, according to campaign calendars on Ballotpedia and the New Hampshire Journal. And those may reflect only some of their New Hampshire stops. Republican Doug Burgum has made nearly a dozen visits since June. Just behind him are Republicans Tim Scott with at least nine visits and Asa Hutchinson with at least seven.
“It’s as robust as ever,” Provencher said. “If you really like a candidate who is running and you live in New Hampshire, it’s not very hard to sit in a room with that person in the next month or two.”
Neil Levesque, executive director at the New Hampshire Insitute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, has hosted public events with most of the major candidates, and they are drawing big crowds, he said. Haley, for example, unveiled her economic plan at the institute.
Today, those campaign event invites, while still coming, can feel less personal because they are extended via email and text messages. Steve Duprey, who was a senior advisor on Republican John McCain’s 2008 campaign, said events have increasingly become more controlled.
McCain liked to say he welcomed “Republicans, independents, thinking Democrats, vegetarians, and even the occasional socialist,” Duprey said. He’d answer their questions, too.
He contrasted that with McCain’s 2008 challenger Mitt Romney. He said campaign staff handed out Romney pins at events just to Romney supporters to help the candidate identify only those who’d ask a friendly question.
“With the exception of Chris Christie, I don’t think anybody has really done wide-open town halls,” Duprey said.
The ‘ground game’ has changed, a lot
When he was teaching political science, New England College President Wayne Lesperance walked his students down Elm Street in Manchester during primary season, hitting the campaign offices to ask about internships. It would be a quick walk today.
Aside from former President Donald Trump and Ramaswamy, it appears most candidates don’t have New Hampshire campaign offices or at least aren’t making them easy to find. Lespearance said it has also become harder to schedule candidates for the college’s long-running town halls, in part because the campaign decision-makers are out of state. So far, Haley, Ramaswamy, Christie, and Democratic candidate Marianne Williamson have made appearances.
“I’m not talking to anyone here in New Hampshire,” Lesperance said. “I’m talking to folks in Washington D.C. and Chicago, people with no connection to New Hampshire.” Others said the same, citing the increasing role super PACs, which support candidates but are not allowed to coordinate with them, are playing in events and voter outreach.
When Lesperance thinks of a vibrant New Hampshire primary, he sees the movie “Primary Colors” and the television series “The West Wing,” political dramas with New Hampshire campaign scenes that premiered in the late 1990s. Picture a candidate in a school library, a voter in every chair, or surrounded reporters outside a diner.
Lesperance isn’t seeing those scenes anymore and doesn’t share Levesque’s optimism about the state of retail politics and grassroots campaigning.
“There’s no presence,” he said. “I think the interesting piece is that we were all so concerned about the (Democratic National Committee) calendar change and the impact that would have on the primary. It seems what is more concerning is that the campaigns are not behaving in any recognizable way when it comes to the primary.”
Lucas Meyer, chairperson of 603 Forward, a progressive advocacy group, shares Lesperance’s concerns. During the 2020 primary, he helped candidates organize their local staff and volunteers. “Everyone was deep with door knockers,” he said. A Google search still turns up Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s guide to door-knocking. It reads: “This campaign is a people-powered grassroots movement and would not be possible without people like you.”
Meyer said he isn’t seeing the same grassroots approach this time.
“The Republicans are beating their chest about the New Hampshire primary and how the Democrats and Joe Biden and the (Democratic National Committee) are screwing over New Hampshire,” he said. “But (Republican candidates) aren’t putting on the best show right now. Show us what it is.”
A few pointed to Haley and Ramaswamy as notable exceptions.
Haley’s campaign stops have included small northern towns like Lancaster and large town hall events, and she’s been visiting the state since February, longer than most Republican candidates.
Ramaswamy has opened three offices, in Manchester, Stratham, and Keene, and will soon have a fourth in Alton, according to his New Hampshire senior advisor Rep. Fred Doucette, a Salem Republican who was Trump’s state chair in 2016 and 2020.
Doucette said the Ramaswamy campaign won’t hire what he called out-of-state “mercenaries,” but only locals who support the campaign’s priorities. A Ron DeSantis super PAC, Never Back Down, announced this month it had knocked on two million doors in early states, including New Hampshire, but it has been criticized for hiring workers through job ads, not by recruiting local supporters.
Ramaswamy is holding town halls where he builds in at least an hour for questions, Doucette said.
“Retail politics is what we do in New Hampshire and you can’t do retail politics without a ground game,” he said. “People have forgotten what connection with the electorate is. We can’t go for that in New Hampshire.”
Levesque at Saint Anselm College challenged that.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years and every single campaign feels different because they are,” he said. “The way they get the votes, the way they are touching voters, all of that has definitely changed. Television ads on three major stations have dropped off. You have Facebook and Twitter (because) people are looking at it. As long as voters change, the campaigns are going to find new ways to target them.”
A win is best but second isn’t a loss
Steve Marchand of Portsmouth, a former candidate for governor who advised Democratic presidential campaigns, has wondered whether polls giving huge leads to Biden and Trump are contributing to what he sees as candidates’ lackluster investment in the New Hampshire Primary.
“To me, the big factor in this cycle is that Donald Trump… is acting like a wet blanket over everybody else,” Marchand said. “It’s been a month since the first debate, which was supposed to be a big deal, and I don’t really see any difference in the polling.”
He believes an investment in an “old-school” grassroots New Hampshire campaign, if done soon, could give some of the candidates a shot at winning. He noted Democrat Gary Hart’s 1984 come-from-behind surprise win in New Hampshire. The New York Times reported then that no other candidate had a stronger New Hampshire campaign – Hart had tapped now-Sen. Jeanne Shaheen to manage it.
Provencher, whose candidate Huntsman placed third in the 2012 Republican primary, would tell candidates winning the primary isn’t the only success. A strong New Hampshire campaign that ends with second place is a good position to be in if the front-runner falters and voters are looking for a new candidate.
“If it isn’t Trump, are you (voters’) No. 2?’,” he said.
Dean Spiliotes, a political science professor at Southern New Hampshire University, said there’s another reason to take New Hampshire seriously: It’s an opportunity to test your message early in front of Granite State voters who take their role of vetting candidates seriously.
That’s still true, Spiliotes said, even as presidential campaigns have become nationalized, both in how campaigns are run and the issues candidates prioritize.
“We’re not talking about New Hampshire issues. We may be talking about what is being pushed by outside groups, like abortion, guns, climate change,” he said “That feels really different to me. There is a lot more outside stuff coming into the state in a way that just didn’t happen 20 years ago.”
He hasn’t written the New Hampshire primary off yet, though, similar to Tom Rath, a Concord lawyer who has served as a national adviser to multiple Republican candidates, most recently George W. Bush.
“I think we usually hear (predictions the primary is dead) about this time in the cycle,” Rath said. “(Campaigning) may be less visible but I think that may be the nature of the game. We may not see yard signs anymore or bumper stickers. But in a few weeks, I think we will be saying, ‘Please get all those ads off television.’ ”
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