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Tired of Campaign 'Manipulation' N.H. Voters Get Trained in the Art of the Bird Dog

Jason Moon / NHPR
Birddoggers in action in Dover, NH.

Presidential campaigns do all they can to make sure their events stay on message: candidates who pivot out of tough questions, campaign staff who keep a tight grip on the microphone while a voter is asking a question.

But now, more and more, voters are coming to campaign events with their own bag of tricks. With the help of advocacy groups around the state, they’re getting trained in an art known as birddogging.

The birddogging metaphor is borrowed from hunting. In it, voters stalk the fields of a campaign event, waiting for their moment. They get called on for a question. Or they manage to get close enough for a handshake with the candidate.

Then – they strike. They ask a question so specific and inescapable that the candidate’s true position on an issue is flushed out into the open.

That’s the idea anyways, but like any good hunter practice makes perfect.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

On a recent weeknight in Manchester, Isaac Grimm, with the liberal activist group Rights and Democracy is teaching a handful of would-be birddoggers.

“The more specific your question is, the harder it is for a candidate to wiggle out of answering it,” Grimm tells them.

The trainees sit in a half-circle of folding chairs. They include a retired postal worker, a middle-aged state rep, and a few millennials. What they all have in common is a frustration with canned political responses and a desire to, as one of them put it: out-manipulate the manipulators.

The training covers every element of birddogging -- beginning with how to get called on when it comes time for questions.

“Engage with them, make eye contact,” says Grimm, “even if you’re not this candidate’s number one fan. Because then they’re going to be like, yeah let me call on this person, they’re on my side. And then you nail em to the wall.”

Credit Jason Moon / NHPR

Good birddoggers arrive early and get in the front row. They don’t wear shirts with political logos. They know how to make the most of a handshake with a candidate if they get the chance– shake with both hands, maintain eye contact, and ignore the campaign staff trying to move the candidate along.

But of course the most important tool of any birddogger is their question. To work on these, trainees take turns putting their question through a group critique. Regan Lamphier from Nashua volunteers to go first.

“My son had a stroke when he was 3,” Lamphier says to a hypothetical candidate. “I had to go back to work while he was still in the hospital because I didn’t have access to paid family medical leave. How do you feel about paid family medical leave at the federal level and what would your program look like?”

Credit Jason Moon / NHPR
Birddoggers practice how to shake hands with a candidate while a staff member tries to cut the interaction short.

There’s a small pause after Lamphier finishes. Everyone agrees the story behind her question is powerful.

Then Grimm, the Rights and Democracy instructor chimes in.

“The only thing I would say is don’t ask the question ‘how do you feel about paid family medical leave?’ Just say ‘do you support paid family leave -- yes or no?’” says Grimm, adding, “Don’t ask how they feel. We don’t care about how they feel. We want to know where they stand and what they’ll do.”

Along with Rights and Democracy, the New Hampshire Youth Movement and the ACLU-NH have also been hosting trainings. Between the three groups, they estimate they’ve graduated more than 240 birdoggers over the past year. They’re a collection of voters who now coordinates their visits, shares videos of birddogging on social media, and tracks which candidates have been asked which questions.

But practice and role-playing is one thing. Birddogging in the real world, with someone who could be the next president of the United States, is another.

A week or so after the training I met up with Allison Frisella inside a Dover coffee shop. Frisella had been through same the training and was hoping to put her skills to the test with former cabinet member and presidential candidate Julian Castro, who was due to arrive any minute.

Frisella says she’s only a little nervous.

“I know my question, I’m ready to ask it, I know what I want to hear.”

She’s also has a strategy for getting Castro’s attention.

“When I raise my hand, not looking, like, too determined -- looking curious, rather than looking like I’m going to ask some question that’s really going to make him think,” Frisella tells me.

Frisella picks her spot in the crowd -- and then she waits as Castro arrives and then delivers his stump speech.

Credit Jason Moon / NHPR
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro speaks at Flight Coffee in Dover.

Then it’s time to bird dog. Frisella throws up her hand. But Castro doesn’t call on her. After he answers a handful of questions, it looks like Frisella is going to come up empty. But then, she catches Castro’s eye and she gets her chance.

“Hi, I’m Allison. I’m with Rights and Democracy New Hampshire and as a young voter one of my major concerns is climate change,” Frisella begins her question.

Frisella’s question uses all the tricks from the training. She starts her question with what’s at stake for her personally, she adds in a little praise of the candidate to not seem too aggressive, then she finishes with a specific, concise policy question: as president would you ban fracking?

Castro replies, “You know, I haven’t supported an all-out ban so far on fracking.”

When I caught up with Frisella afterwards, she said Castro’s answer –no to an all-out ban, yes to more community oversight of fracking- it wasn’t good enough for her.

But she didn’t sound disappointed – after all, her birddogging worked. She got a straight answer on a specific policy question that wouldn’t have otherwise come up at this campaign event.

“I absolutely want to do more. I’m very excited about this,” said Frisella.

She’ll have plenty of chances to do it again. With more than 20 presidential candidates descending on New Hampshire this primary, there’s a long birddogging season ahead.

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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