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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.

When Political Junkies Come Calling, These Two N.H. Wonks Pick Up the Phone

UNH Communication and Public Affairs
Andy Smith (L) and Dante Scala. The pair are perhaps the best known, and most quoted, commentators on New Hampshire's political scene.

Every four years, as interest in New Hampshire’s presidential primary rises, two UNH political scientists find their services in high demand. Now, the professors are preparing to offer their insights to the general public through a new online course.

Even if you don’t know their names, you’ve probably read their quotes or heard their soundbites, in news articles, on websites, and maybe even on this public radio station: They're Dante Scala and Andy Smith. As political scientists at the University of New Hampshire who specialize in American politics, they occupy a niche that becomes particularly relevant right about now.

Sara Plourde for NHPR

In just the past few weeks alone, they’ve been quoted in international newspapers like the Guardian, national news outlets like CNN, and local papers like the Concord Monitor.

Scala explains the pair's appeal this way:

“The laws of supply and demand work in our favor. I mean there’s an awful lot of demand for informed commentary on New Hampshire. And there just aren’t that many – there are a fair number of political scientists in New Hampshire, but fewer that study American politics, and even fewer still who make it their business to study New Hampshire politics.

Politics as business, and pleasure

Sporting wire-rim glasses and a somewhat quizzical air, Scala looks the part of someone whose business it is to study New Hampshire politics. But that's probably putting it a little too lightly. Scala is a professor of political science at UNH, he’s authored a book on the New Hampshire primary, and he's spent the past 15 years developing a network of New Hampshire insiders who help him understand the nuances of the state’s politics. But for all his impressive credentials, it’s clear that Scala finds more than just professional satisfaction in his job.

[Listen: A Grab Bag of First-in-the-Nation Primary Wisdom, from N.H.'s Top Political Wonks]

“My favorite time is five minutes after the polls close, and results come in from one place or another, and I get to find out whether I was right or not," he said. "I don’t necessarily have a big stake in who wins and who loses, I mean everyone has their personal favorites, but I’ve got most at stake in being right. I really want to be right. The polls close, and then it’s like opening a present.”

Andy Smith, who carries a certain Midwestern sturdiness about himself, is the other half of this political tag-team. He also teaches political science at UNH, has also written a book on the New Hampshire primary, and he runs the UNH Survey Center, which produces some of the most closely watched polls of the presidential primary every four years.

Together they strike a jovial, if wonky, dynamic, building on each other’s ideas to create a series of what feel like political proverbs.

And while the two of them have been making all of this political know-how available to students and reporters for years, now they’re offering it to the general public through a massive open online course, or MOOC. They’re calling it ‘First!’ and you can probably guess by now that it’s about the New Hampshire presidential primary.

“I think the hardest thing about it was taking all of the information that we have between us and coalescing it and distilling it into short, digestible segments," Smith said.

Credit UNH Communication and Public Affairs
Andy Smith and Dante Scala prepare to record one of the video lectures for their online course.

The free course will offer those digestible segments buffet-style, so students can pick and choose from content including short video lectures, readings, and even participate in group discussions moderated by Andy and Dante.

“We think it’s for the person who goes home at the end of the work day, she’s not a political professional, but she enjoys watching politics," Scala explained. "She’s what we would call affectionately a politics junkie.”

“I think another audience is just people in New Hampshire who see the primary every four years," Smith said. "They may not be completely engaged in it, they may not know that much about it, but they’ve seen it and this provides an opportunity for them to get a better understanding of what actually goes on.”

Challenging the myths of the N.H. Primary

In previewing some of the course material, the duo reveal themselves to be the political mythbusters. Among the sacred cows to suffer their examination are the ideas that New Hampshire voters are particularly engaged in politics; that candidates are always rewarded for spending more time in the state; and that there ever was such a thing as a truly independent voter.

Events of the current primary will also feature heavily in the course, and that’s something both professors hope will make better primary participants of us all.

“My hope is that when they’re listening to pundits talk on Fox or MSNBC or they hear one of us talking, that they might say, ‘Wait a minute, that might be the case but maybe it’s actually this or that,' with the benefit of what they’ve learned," Scala said.

“That’s a scary thought, that we’re creating a thousand more political pundits out there," Smith joked.

“But wise pundits," Scala said.

For anyone looking to become a one of those wise pundits, the online course starts Monday.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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