On Eve of Midterms, Rising Political Divisions Have N.H. Voters on Edge

Nov 5, 2018

In politics today, it seems like everyone’s choosing sides. That can be particularly tough in small towns, where personal opinions often enter the public sphere. Now, there’s increasingly hard divisions along party lines, even on local issues that have little to do with national debates.

To get at some of these tensions, NHPR stopped recently in rural communities across the Upper Valley. We talked to voters about how things have changed for them since the last election, and how they’re feeling now, on the eve of the midterms.

In Enfield, Bob Gill and his wife Heidi Hauri-Gill were having lunch at the House of Pizza, in a small strip mall on Route 4. It’s one of few restaurants in the area, few places to hang out.  

Bob voted for Donald Trump in 2016, with some hesitation. He supports Trump’s policies, he said, but finds his personal behavior to be childish, an embarrassment.

As for Heidi, she couldn’t bring herself to cast a ballot in the presidential race. She didn’t like either choice.

Bob and Heidi agree on a lot of things politically but also have their differences, Bob generally being more conservative.

It’s been hard for them to be on social media lately, hard to even watch the news, they said. Things have just gotten so intense.

“We need more Walter Cronkites,” Bob said, lamenting the partisanship he sees in media today.

'Why can't somebody just read the news?'

“Why can’t somebody just read the news?” said Heidi. “No eye expression, no body language, no highlighting certain accents and words. Just read the news.”

But it’s not just on the news, all this polarization. It’s also trickling down to their day-to-day.

They have a home on a main road, they said, and someone asked them just the day before to put a campaign sign in their yard. Usually, that’d be fine, but this year, Heidi just doesn’t want to jump into the fray. 

“I can’t really get behind any candidates right now because I can’t get behind people who are like, ‘Well we’re just going to take over,’” she said. “The job is work together.”

As for her vote this week? “I have no idea how it’s going to go,” she said. “I have no idea.”

A scarecrow along Mascoma Lake in Enfield.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

She and Bob run a horse farm, and healthcare is a big concern. Their risk of injury is high, and they don’t have a correspondingly high income to cover expenses, they said.

But healthcare reform is an enormously complex issue, one that Heidi doesn’t trust either side to take care of completely.

“It ovewhelms me when I think about it because there’s so many facets to all of these things that we need to have both sides working on it so that we don’t miss a facet,” she said. “Nobody’s  working on it. They’re just fighting about how one is one side, and the other is the other side.”

Enfield, where Bob and Heidi live, is in an area of the state that’s about as closely politically divided as you’ll find in New Hampshire. The town itself leans left, but neighboring communities to the north, east, and south are more conservative. In many of these rural towns, elections are decided by less than 100 votes.

Route 4 gets increasingly rural as you head east out of Lebanon, crossing into the towns of Enfield, Canaan and Grafton.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

All the bitterness in national politics has some people turning away, simply choosing not to bring it up around town, with neighbors, or at the local dump.

But others are digging in.

About 10 miles down the road from the pizza shop, Martha Popp and Alix Olson were prepping for an event with a local candidate at their home.

They’re lifelong Democrats, and they’re known around town for their activism. They moved here a little more than 5 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin, a community where they felt at home in their political views.

“We would always say, in Madison, if you have a concern, you get on the phone and within a half hour you have a whole mob of people who are willing to take to the streets and protest,” Popp said. “It’s not like that here.”

In some ways, they’re doing what they’ve always done this year, trying to get the word out about candidates they support, trying to get out the vote. But things also changed for them after the 2016 election.

'Our level of anger has really risen.'

“I think it’s that our level of anger has really risen,” Popp said. “Just being so adamant about wanting to make things change, and seeing all the problems that we have right here in our town.”

More than half the people they’ve encountered as they’ve been out canvassing have identified as independents, they said. Nearly everyone is courteous, and they’ve had conversations they’ve really value with those on the other side. Still, this year, Olson said, they’re aware that even knocking on doors can be perceived as a threat.

“In fact, one of our canvassers was shoved by a guy a couple weeks ago. She managed to diffuse the situation, but it’s very scary,” she said. “You know, you’re going to places that are way away from anywhere. You don’t have cell service out here a lot. And you’re only two people. You don’t know what’s waiting on the other side of the door.”

It’d be great to have a coffee shop or a space somewhere to relax and talk to neighbors, Popp said, especially outside of the intensity of a campaign season where it seems there’s so little middle ground. But in this area, nothing quite like that exists.