What It's Like for a New Hampshire Reporter to Cover Her First Primary

Feb 12, 2016

The candidates have flown out, the national cameras have shifted focus, and soon the yard signs will begin to disappear.

But for the local media, who'll stay put as the campaigns continue onward – it all feels so sudden.

Crews dismantle the national broadcast sets in Manchester, the morning after the nation's first presidential primary on Feb. 10, 2016.
Credit Jim Cole/AP

It's as if we’ve spent months shopping for Christmas. And then it arrives -- everyone opens their presents and then immediately leaves, without even saying goodbye.

It’s hard not to think: Now what? What was life like before these candidates took over our Gmail calendars and inboxes. It's enough to make a reporter feel nostalgic.

So in the spirit of that, here’s a look back at my first time covering the First in the Nation Primary.

Businessman Donald Trump makes a stop in New Hampshire in March 2015 as he considers a presidential bid.
Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR

When I was hired at NHPR back in March, politicians had already begun flocking to the Granite State as they toyed with the idea of running for president. My first story actually was covering Donald Trump. He attended a house party in Amherst, and I left thinking, “Pretty neat -- I got to see a celebrity, but he won’t be back to New Hampshire.” Boy, was I wrong.

As the weeks passed, more and more visited the state and soon after they began declaring their candidacies. Eventually, we ended up with 17 on the Republican side and six on the Democratic.

I got the chance to see everyone in action, in those classic New Hampshire Primary settings: shaking hands at a diner, fielding questions at a town hall or giving a stump speech at some VFW.

I also had the pleasure of seeing most of them file for president in Secretary State Bill Gardner’s office, including one candidate who wears a boot on his head. You should know, Gardner's office is not as Trump might describe it -- "huge.” It’s quite the opposite. The key to capturing this scene is get there early, stand your ground and use the restroom beforehand, because in that media scrum the rules were simple: “You snooze, you lose.”

NHPR's Paige Sutherland interviews N.H. Secretary of State Bill Gardner at the State House during the presidential filing period.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

There were some more off the beaten path moments as well. Martin O’Malley accompanying himself on guitar to “This Land is Your Land” at a local pub. Lindsey Graham teaching me how to shoot my first gunBen Carson's Christmas Spectacular concert in Concord, where I got to see Carson’s wife Candy rock out on the violin.

Out on the trail I also had the pleasure of meeting those who campaigned for the candidates: Door knocking with Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston, meeting the host of Cake Boss, and spending time with actor Ted Danson who, as I learned after being told by my boss, is the star from the 80's sitcom Cheers.

Martin O'Malley played and sung "This Land Is Your Land" to the crowd at a campaign stop in Nashua.
Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR

But for most of my time on the campaign trail, I was not an active participant, merely an observer. And what I got to see was how New Hampshire vets the candidates and truly puts them to the test.

I got to witness the passion and dedication residents took in their First in the Nation status – meeting one woman who attended nearly 70 events before making up her mind and another who quit her job to join one of the campaigns.

I heard the countless questions voters asked, and the pushback given when some of the candidates didn’t provide a sufficient answer.

With one primary under my belt, I don’t dare claim to be an expert – if anything I’m far from it. Of the three candidates I was assigned, two called it quits before Primary Day, and the third barely made it past New Hampshire: Martin O’Malley, Lindsey Graham and Chris Christie.

So maybe I don’t know what a winning campaign looks like, but what I do know - is that democracy is still alive and thriving, at least in New Hampshire.