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Welcome to Primary Backstage, NHPR's ongoing series that takes you behind the scenes to the places and people who make New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary tick. Sure, the candidates themselves typically grab all the attention when campaign season rolls around. But there's a whole crowd of local folks who make the New Hampshire primary what it is -- to say nothing of the places that have served as backdrops for rallies, meet-and-greets, and spontaneous campaign moments over the years.Whether it's the owners of a Seacoast chowder shack that's played host to generations of candidates, a long-time campaign photographer whose portfolio spans three decades, or the mayor who's canvassed with future presidents, you'll meet them all Backstage.

Accordions, Purple Shirts & Scripted Questions: N.H. Primary is Fertile Ground for Advocates

Sam Evans-Brown
Johnny Clockworks, a member of the Stamp Stampede, performs a song he composed about campaign finance reform at a recent event for Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Stampede is one of many advocacy groups vying for attention in the shadow of the N.H. primary.

If you’ve got an issue -- a single issue -- you want to bring to the nation’s attention, there’s no better place to be right now than New Hampshire.  

The state's position as host of the first presidential primary gives enterprising advocates a chance to seize the attention of would-be White House occupants. But the issues now jockeying for position seem to be proliferating, and advocates' tactics often undercut the image of New Hampshire as a bastion of spontaneous encounters between candidates and ordinary voters.

Here's an incomplete list of some of the different advocacy campaigns now vying for attention:

  • There are two different climate groups: one founded by activist and author Bill McKibben and the other funded by liberal billionaire Tom Steyer;
  • AARP is training folks to ask about defending Social Security;
  • The Budget First Coalition wants candidates to say how they’d fix the federal deficit;
  • And there's the campaign finance reform effort, the New Hampshire Rebellion.

And, of course, there's the Stamp Stampede, another campaign finance reform effort, some of whose members have been known to serenade presidential candidates while playing the accordion.

Sara Plourde for NHPR

These and other groups are thick on the ground in New Hampshire this year for a simple reason: It's where the action is.

“We have all sorts of politicians running amok in the state," said KeithYergeau, part of the Stamp Stampede, "shaking hands, kissing babies, maybe a few bottoms, trying to please people and win over their vote.”

Bird-Dogging, Heckling, Demonstrating

At campaign town-hall meetings these days, for every member of the public who just genuinely has a question to ask there seem to be two people with an agenda.

At a recent event, Brenda Bouchard of Madbury stood to ask Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker about Alzheimer’s disease. Her question was nearly a minute long and packed full of facts.

“By 2050 it’s projected that 28 million baby-boomers will have Alzheimer’s,” she recited, “So my question to you is what will you do in your presidential campaign and beyond to ensure this devastating disease as well as the potential bankruptcy to Medicaid and Medicare get the attention they so greatly need and deserve?”

Among advocacy groups, this technique is called "bird-dogging": The questions are well-rehearsed, crisply delivered, and point the candidate toward a desired answer. Groups offer trainings for how to do this well, and have talking points and scripts on their websites.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

For these folks, the campaign trail is a stage to get a pet issue front and center. And it's in stark contrast with the New Hampshire Primary of myth, where individual voters confront candidates one-on-one, with no agenda other than their own.

And if bird-dogging alone doesn’t work, you can try what college climate activists with 350 New Hampshire did at a Hillary Clinton campaign stop in July: You can heckle.

“Well now wait, wait,” said Clinton as a group of students began chanting “Act on climate!” in response to a question about fossil fuel donations to her campaign.

The chants died down very quickly, and a banner unfurled by student activists was soon obscured as the crowd gave a standing ovation to Clinton. But for one news cycle, everyone was talking about Clinton and climate.

“If as an interest group your goal is simply to draw attention, than this a great way,” says David Redlawsk, a political scientist at Rutgers, who also spent ten years at the University of Iowa, “The media is all over these events in Iowa and New Hampshire, and so you’re standing there asking your question, so there’s a decent chance it’ll be your sound-bite on the evening news.”

Measuring the impact

But do these tactics lead to policy changes?

It’s a complicated question to answer. But if you were to point to one success, it might be the campaign to make healthcare reform a major issue in the 2004 primary campaign.

Brian Hawkins, a union organizer in New Hampshire, was part of that push, which turned out people wearing their trademark purple shirts, asking about healthcare to every campaign event on the calendar.

“I think when you heard candidates start to say things like, ‘Oh I see the purple people are here and they’d start talking about health-care,’ ” Hawkins remembers, “For me, that was a turning point where you started to see people, they really felt like they needed to make it a part of their stump speech.”

Credit Courtesy Photo
In 2004 the SEIU's campaign mowed this message into a corn field near a major airport in Iowa, so candidates would see it as they flew into the state.

This 2004 campaign was paid for by a major national labor union, the SEIU, which had the wherewithal to carry through with the campaign as the primary wore on.

But in New Hampshire it began with asking towns to pass resolutions in favor of quality healthcare in town-meetings, and signing up more than 50,000 New Hampshire residents in a pro-healthcare-reform petition.

John Thyng, another organizer on the campaign, says candidates often try to ignore that one voter who come out to ask about the same issue at every event, but with their campaign “it was different faces, it wasn’t… some of these campaigns they would see the same person over and over again.”

Breaking through

A lot of these campaigns are using the same tactics as the ‘I’m a Healthcare Voter’ campaign. But as the number of groups asking questions like these starts to proliferate, can they break through the noise?

Redlawsk said candidates are starting to get savvier about filtering the questions they are taking at big public events to suit their existing platforms. He thinks these days a quieter approach might be more effective.

“Virtually any candidate will talk to you right now, closed door in particular because they want to hear from you, but they hope to get you to say nice things about them," Redlawsk said. "That approach is going to be a heck of a lot more effective than a bunch of people standing around in T-shirts asking potentially hostile questions to get attention."

And lo-and-behold: There are groups doing just that in New Hampshire this year.

A bipartisan group of local luminaries, called Our Kids New Hampshire, has been meeting privately with presidential candidates. The group is worried about the opportunity gap –the way race, wealth, and background combine to perpetuate inequities for certain kids.

In stark contrast to the rabble-rousers at campaign town halls (such as representatives of the Stamp Stampede, who played the accordion and handed out stickers from the back of a bicycle at Bernie Sanders’ campaign events last week) members of the board of Our Kids declined to discuss on tape how the meetings have been going.

But as the cottage industry of issue campaigns continues to blossom in New Hampshire, there’s likely room for every strategic approach. 

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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