New Hampshire Travelogue - The Sports Car Primary

From Manchester, New Hampshire — I first covered the New Hampshire Primary in 1992, and coming back every four years for this election ritual has morphed into the comforting feeling one might get when you return to a favorite family vacation spot, as you recognize the familiar sights and think of how things were years earlier.

While a lot has changed since I found my way to the Dover Elks Club to hear Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas give his famous "I'll stick with you 'til the last dog dies" speech, the feel is much the same.

The schedule is packed. So are the parking lots of the rallies you are trying to attend. There always seems to be somewhere to go, someone to interview, a story that you should have filed.  An event you should have gone to see.

But it's always so much fun.

So, here's a quick review of my eighth New Hampshire Primary:

+ Trust your eyes and ears. The most important part of covering a campaign is being there in person to see what's going on.  I always mentally note which TV network big shots I see out in the field.  Sure, you can watch many of the New Hampshire campaign events on C-SPAN or on your computer while sitting in a warm hotel or restaurant. But that's no fun. Getting out to see the candidates, to watch their organizations, to see what's really going on is what the campaign trail is all about. For example, it was obvious right away that Pete Buttigieg had a lot of interest in his campaign in New Hampshire. And it was obvious starting on Saturday that Amy Klobuchar was seeing a surge, going from just some interested voters to hundreds of interested voters. 

+ Behind the scenes. I saw Elizabeth Warren do a campaign rally for the first time back in June in Miami, just before the first Democratic debate. Many months later, her campaign speech was pretty much the same - but it was important to watch her again on the ground in New Hampshire. After seeing her in Derry, I wrote one of my friends saying the crowd was decent, but 'they wouldn't burn down the building for her.' In other words, there wasn't any momentum in the room. And when she botched a closing line at a Sunday rally by saying, "And now it's up to you, Massachusetts," it was one more item which made you wonder. I went to two Warren events over the past week - in each one, the campaign internet for the press did not work. That may have been emblematic of a larger issue in the Granite State.

+ Debates still matter. As much as the presidential debates have become campaign cattle calls dressed up as PR events for a television network news operation, there are a lot of voters who use the late debates to make up their mind. That was really driven home by last Friday's debate in New Hampshire, where Amy Klobuchar made a good impression on the crowd, and it brought a big bump for her on primary night. It also can go the other way, as Joe Biden began the debate by basically saying he wasn't going to win in New Hampshire, and then spent the weekend trying to dig out of that hole. It didn't work. Klobuchar surged. Biden sunk. And he left town early before the results were even in on Tuesday night.

+ The Primary Focus.  Much of the action in New Hampshire is centered along the roads from Nashua north to Manchester and on to the state capital of Concord. There are some reporters who barely make it out of Manchester, which is the unofficial center of the universe for the Primary, especially the Doubletree Hotel on Elm Street. You can literally sit in the lobby of that hotel and find an endless supply of famous people and campaign pundits who will provide you with all of the necessary quotes to cover a campaign.  But that's not the same as getting in your car and driving somewhere, as it will reward you with something nice - like this photo of the New Hampshire State Capitol.  One staple of the campaign which does not seem to happen anymore was the candidates addressing the state legislature before the primary. That was always a fun event to cover. 

+ The other places I could go. The best piece of advice that I would give to any reporter covering the New Hampshire Primary is to get out of the Nashua-Manchester-Concord corridor, and go to some of the smaller towns which dot the Granite State. I checked another two off the list in this campaign, when I drove over to Keene State College to see a Buttigieg rally, and then to Franklin Pierce University in Rindge to see a Sanders rally on Monday. I don't know how many times over the years I had thought about taking the 90 minute drive through the back roads of New Hampshire to get there - but I never did. So, chalk up a few more small colleges that I've seen on my many years on the campaign trail.

+ Celebrity campaigning. I don't worry very much about which celebrity comes out on the campaign trail for what candidate, but I did see some famous types over the course of this past week. Actor Kevin Costner showed up at a Buttigieg rally on Monday in Exeter. Actress Cynthia Nixon - who had backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 - spoke for Bernie Sanders at a pre-primary rally. And actor Michael J. Fox showed up on Saturday to speak on behalf of Buttigieg at Keene State College. The reaction to Fox was priceless. A guy behind me in the crowd exclaimed, "I thought he was dead!" Another guy hurriedly dialed a friend on his cell phone to relate the news. "MICHAEL J. EFFIN' FOX IS HERE. YEAH, DUDE. MICHAEL J. FREAKING FOX!" I'm not sure any of it matters, but star power is still a big deal in politics.

+ The campaign music. You learn a little about each campaign from the music they play while waiting for a rally to start. As a reporter, a few years later you will hear a song on the radio and it will trigger a memory from a past campaign.  Like President Trump still using the Rolling Stones, 'You Can't Always Get What You Want,' or Hillary Clinton in 2008 using 'Suddenly I See' from Katie Tunstall. That's why my ears perked up as I sat in Exeter High School on Monday evening waiting for a Pete Buttigieg rally to begin, when a cover of the Johnny Cash song "Ring of Fire" came on the speakers. It's probably the first time I've ever heard Social Distortion at a campaign stop. My love for covering campaigns might be more like the Social Distortion song, "Ball and Chain."

+ A first for the first-in-the-nation primary. Four years ago in Iowa, I had to take a 'transit van' because the rental car company had run out of regular cars. Then in New Hampshire, my 2016 car was a bright red car which you couldn't miss in the parking lot. This year, I dragged my luggage off the plane and to the rental car counter and was rewarded with something that I had never had for a primary week - a sports car. It wasn't really the vehicle of choice for multiple days of snow and ice, but that's what was there, and you do what you have to do.   Yes, there was a bit of fishtailing one day, but I survived just fine, even though my GPS tried to test my winter driving skills.

+ Big Blue is Back. On the campaign trail, you tend to run into friends who are journalists, which gives it a home town feel while you are driving pell mell across yet another state. Four years ago in Iowa, Greg Bluestein of the Atlanta Journal Constitution joined me for a day of driving all over Iowa, as we chased down Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. When Bluestein emailed me with his coverage plans for Sunday as he drove up from the Boston airport, I advised the whippersnapper that he might need to change his plans, which involved driving all the way up to Lebanon. It was great to see him - and many others along the way.

+ The Press.  For the press, it's the same routine in the last week of the campaign.  You rush to get to a rally, try to claim some workspace, listen to the candidate and some voters, then grab your equipment and dash for the next event.  I have to say that it is quite something to watch all of my colleagues from various fields - whether the TV groups, other radio reporters, the print press, and the still photographers - they all have their own rhythms and routines on the campaign trail, all doing their own jobs.

Thanks, New Hampshire.  It was another fun visit.  Maybe we can do it again in 2024.

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