What could be better for a politics nerd than spending a few days in the cold and snow of New Hampshire following wannabe Presidents of the United States?
That is how I passed the last few days in the run up to the Democratic and Republican Party primaries which are taking place tomorrow.
There’s a saying that while, ‘the people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents’. For a small state (45th out of 50 in the US) it has a big role to play in influencing which candidate will represent their party in the electoral contest for the White House.
New Hampshire holds the first primary vote (as opposed to caucus, which takes place in Iowa a week earlier) – and as such is known as a major testing ground for the candidates.
It is therefore a great place to view American politics up close. All the candidates – Democrat and Republican – rush around the state pressing the flesh, kissing babies and trying desperately to ooze empathy and understanding in a monumental effort to impress upon locals that they are the best man or woman for the job.
In my forty eight hours in New Hampshire I got the full immersive experience seeing three Republican candidates (John Kasich, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie) at small town hall meetings, and also attending a major Democratic gathering which hosted speeches by both Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
At this time, New Hampshire is crammed – seemingly at every corner – with campaign posters, activists, journalists, and political obsessives like myself who have come to witness the action.
For me, the experience was telling in what it said about both about American democracy , American society, and the candidates themselves.
In no particular order these are my observations:
- A carnival of American democracy.
Those aspiring for the office of leader of the most powerful nation on earth have to face the voters in small and intimate settings and make their case to be the candidate. I saw John Kasich – Governor of Ohio in a draughty barn take questions for almost an hour on issues ranging from funding for schools, to internet access in rural areas, as well as American involvement in Syria. People had turned up (no invitations necessary) despite the falling snow from throughout New Hampshire as well as neighbouring states, to ask their questions and get a measure of the candidate. This speaks to a facet of American society that is sometimes missed from overseas. America is a society founded on what was in the 18th century the revolutionary idea that leaders are there to serve the people, not the other way around. This streak of accountability still runs deep, and the primaries are a powerful demonstration that this mindset is alive and well. It is uplifting to see this democratic spirit in meeting rooms and community centers of 21st century small town New Hampshire, and is a testament to one of the great strengths of the USA.
- The meekness of the media
That spirit of holding potential leaders accountable may be observed by ordinary people but it does not seem to extend to the media. Despite the wall to wall attention on TV, there was an almost deferential regard for the candidates. Watching Jake Tapper – one of CNN’s main heavyweight hosts – interviewing Donald Trump was akin to witnessing someone being beaten with a feather. Tapper asked Trump gently about a statement he’d made calling for a return to waterboarding and methods ‘a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding’ for suspected Islamist militants – despite such actions being war crimes under US law. The mogul responded with a potted answer about changing the law once he was President, while confirming that he was ‘fine’ with ‘beyond waterboarding’. That answer seemingly satisfied Tapper who then moved to more urgent matters such as the mathematics of the forthcoming electoral battle in New Hampshire. There was no follow up, rather Trump was allowed to run rhetorically riot unchallenged. Tapper’s flaccid interviewing is par for the course with the mainstream cable and network news outlets. They seem more concerned with losing access to the ‘stars’ like Trump than the pursuit of journalistic inquiry (as happened to Fox after Megan Kelly had the temerity to question Trump’s offensive comments about women).
- The Republican divide – between right and hard right
The USA is deeply split not only between left and right, but also within those respective camps, reflecting a deep sense that something has gone wrong with the political system and the society it is meant to serve. On the Republican side, there is a battle between the hard right insurgents and those of the more moderate ‘establishment’. I attended a rally for Ted Cruz – the banner holder for the evangelical and ‘tea party’ wings of the party. In the packed gym of an elementary school, he spent just as much time railing against the Republican establishment as he did against President Obama. The mood of the audience was angry, booing mentions of Washington DC and calling for Democratic Party opponents to be, ‘put in jail’. There was a sense from these people – overwhelmingly white, less well-off and from outside the main cities – that the America they knew had been taken from them by sell-out politicians from the left and right, and that they had to fight (electorally) to get it back.
- The Democrats – a battle between the head and the heart
That sense of disillusionment is also alive among Democrats, although not as deeply or angrily felt among Republicans. At a major Democratic Party event held in the city of Manchester, Hillary and Bernie Sander’s supporters sat on opposite sides of an indoor stadium chanting and waving banners for their respective champions. Sander’s followers – overwhelmingly youthful – spoke of him in breathless terms normally reserved by teenagers boy bands. For them Bernie was the real deal, who spoke in simple, uncompromising terms about what was needed to make the country right in the face of growing economic inequality, foreign adventurism and more. No matter that he’s unelectable as President, for them, he is authentic particularly in comparison to Hilary. When asked what they would do if she became candidate , a group of college students said they would probably choose not to vote. There is no doubt that seeing Hilary in action is also to witness her vulnerability. Her speech hit all the right buttons, but even its apparent passion seem manufactured and market tested. With her experience, polish and power she should have swatted Bernie to one side by now, but instead she is in the trenches of a hard fought political battle – and this is even before she has to face the real opposition of the Republican candidate for President.
- The only sure thing is uncertainty
There is a sense in talking to people who have witnessed many Presidential contests that this one is somewhat different. There is a real battle underway about the future of the country – not just about policy but also about its very essence. Moving between Republican and Democratic supporters is to enter different cultural universes, where attitudes – on homosexuality, guns, religion and a host of other issues – sit in direct opposition to each other. Political commentators have been predicating the fall of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders since they first appeared as candidates – and yet these two opposites continue to flourish. The opinion polls which once could be depended upon to provide some guide to what will happen have been confounded by the unpredictability of the voters.
Witnessing the fight for New Hampshire primary is an education in the both the positives and negatives of American electoral contests. It is also an eye-opener on the raw divisions in American society. And while every election is important, this one is highly significant given the uncertainty about the state of the country and where it is heading. So in anticipation of the vote tomorrow and of the others to come, I am fastening my seat belt for the rough and eventful ride in the coming year