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Fighter or Unifier? Considering the Candidates, Undecided N.H. Voters Look Inward

Dan Tuohy / NHPR
Pete Buttigieg during a rally at the N.H. Statehouse after filing for the presidential primary ballot.

A lot of New Hampshire voters still have no idea who they’ll support in the presidential primary: recent pollingindicates just 30 percent of likely Democratic voters here have made up their minds.

Some say they’re looking inward, and as they do, anger has become a major factor in their decision.

That's definitely the case for Phil Herbert, and his nephew Jeff Hurley. The pair went out to breakfast at the Red Arrow Diner on a recent Friday to talk politics. Uncle Phil ordered the ham and cheese omelette and Jeff, well, since Phil was paying, Jeff went all out.

“He got a lot of stuff,” Phil said, laughing.

“I think it was like, the 'Big Mo' or something; the biggest breakfast I’ve had in five years,” Jeff said.

Actually, he ordered the "King-Mo." The “big mo” is what presidential candidates want out of Iowa and New Hampshire: big momentum. Get it?

Jokes aside, there was an agenda for this breakfast: Jeff is all in for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. And he wants Uncle Phil, who is undecided, to consider Buttigieg, too. So after breakfast, Jeff took his uncle to a Buttigieg rally in Concord.

Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR
Elizabeth Warren speaks to a rally in Concord in November, 2019.

“If you’re at all on the fence with anybody, come listen to Pete talk," Jeff said. "You realize the absence of anger, the absence of hate. To me, those are the biggest things."

I've talked to a number of New Hampshire voters like this, ones who say they're done with hostile political dialogue and they’re looking for a candidate who promises unity.

Jeff was considering Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but he said he couldn’t stomach the way they fought each other onthe debate stage earlier this month.

"And Bernie, I love him, but I feel like the supporters, they're so angry,” Jeff said.

“Yeah, this is not the same country I grew up in,” Phil replied.

This is why Jeff might have an opening with his Uncle Phil.

Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR
Sen. Bernie Sanders won the 2016 N.H. Democratic presidential primary.

So there they are, uncle and nephew, on a recent Friday, standing in the back half of the crowd at the Buttigieg rally in Concord.  And just five minutes into the former mayor’s speech, Buttigieg is served up with a test on this exact thing Phil and Jeff are talking about.

About 40 young climate activists disrupt the event, holding up signs that look like they could be official Buttigieg campaign signs, but actually say: “Pete takes money from fossil fuel billionaires.”

Buttigieg acknowledges the protest immediately.

“I see some inaccurate information going up here, so let’s dispatch with that real quick,” he said. “I’ve taken the fossil fuel pledge, and I’m determined to bring about solutions on climate change.”

Buttigieg supporters begin cheering, protesters start singing/chanting and Buttigieg starts speaking 

"Yeah, this is not the same country I grew up in." - Phil Herbert

louder, trying to turn the attention back to his remarks.

“Will we turn on one another or will we unite to tackle the issues we face as a country?” he says.

Eventually the protesters are escorted out, Buttigieg finishes his stump speech, and I run over to find Phil and Jeff.

“He’s impressive,” Uncle Phil tells me. “Very impressive."

Uncle Phil said he liked the way Buttigieg responded to the protesters, acknowledging them but not letting it become a fight.

And now, Uncle Phil is really considering voting for him. His decision is now between Buttigieg and another candidate, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

"The people on the right, they’re way to the right," he said. "People are way to the left. They're the people that make all the anger, make all the division. And we don't need that right now. We need someone like" Buttigieg, he said.

So, for Uncle Phil, Buttigieg passed an important test. He took a situation that could have been divisive and he made it about unity.

But for other people in the room, like Hannah Ferster, Buttigieg failed that very same test.

“He was saying like, 'no, we’re fighting for the same thing, I want the same thing as you, saying we were being too divisive,' which I think is bull----," she said.

Hannah was one of the activists holding up those fossil fuel billionaire signs at the Buttigieg rally. She’s with a group called New Hampshire Youth Movement and, as she'll say right to your face, she is angry about the direction the country is headed. And there are many New Hampshire voters just like her who want a president with a fundamentally different leadership style: one that reflects her anger about issues like climate change and student debt.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

“Calls to unity don't really mean anything if we don't have leaders who are willing to fight for young people,” Hannah said.

A few days after the Buttigieg protest, the New Hampshire Youth Movement announced it was endorsing Sanders for president.

Regional field organizer Josie Pinto said Sanders' attitude, commitment to activism and policy positions align with theirs.

“I think Bernie Sanders is one of the few who who really means what he says and will fight for the things that he says he will fight for,” she said.

But Josie and Hannah are also aware of the limits of that approach. They understand how anger can be off-putting to people like Jeff and his Uncle Phil. That’s why, Josie says, they actually won’t be protesting against other candidates anymore. Now that they’re in for Sanders, they don’t want their anger to end up hurting his chances in New Hampshire.

Lauren is a Senior Reporter/Producer for NHPR's narrative news unit, Document.
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