New Podcast 'Stranglehold' Examines N.H.'s Role In Picking Presidents

Sep 12, 2019

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

With New Hampshire well into the swing of the presidential primary season, a new podcast from NHPR explores how the state has kept hold of its first-in-the-nation primary status.

It's called Stranglehold, and the first episode is out now. It's called "The Guardian," and it examines the role of Secretary of State Bill Gardner, the man who's been called the "Guardian" of the New Hampshire primary for decades.

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Stranglehold co-hosts Lauren Chooljian and Jack Rodolico about the new podcast, which will run right up to the 2020 presidential primary.

(Below is a transcript of this interview, lightly edited for clarity)

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

OK, Stranglehold is the bold title. Can you explain what it means, why you chose that title?

[Chooljian] It's a vibe, Rick. It's a vibe. So the thing about Stranglehold is it evokes this vibe that we're really gripping something. And the idea is we want listeners to listen the podcast and make an assessment for themselves about what that state's relationship is with this powerful institution, as well as what the country's relationship is with this powerful institution. And the reason why we want to have such a sassy title is because we really wanted to ask questions, hard questions, critical questions about the primary, because it is our most powerful institution here. And so it, you know, deserves questioning just like any other institution that we have in this state.

And that's obviously not everyone's favorite topic to question. You know, it's a very sacred cow...and so there is some pushback already about that. We're asking questions that people don't want to know the answer to, because this thing brings us a lot of good. But for us, we just want to look at the whole picture. I mean, it's been part of our identity for many, many decades. We've been first since 1920. And so this just seemed like a great time and a great way to look at the full picture.

And I know you're tampering with the magic, Lauren.

Magic is to be tampered with. Yeah.

Now, the first episode that is available as of now examines the role of New Hampshire's secretary of state, Bill Gardner, in keeping our first-in-the-nation primary status. What led to the decision to devote an entire episode to him?

[Rodolico]: Well, Bill Gardner is sort of an unparalleled character or politician in New Hampshire politics, and even in presidential politics in a lot of ways, because he has set the date for the New Hampshire primary for about 40 years. He's been in elected office in the same elected office as New Hampshire secretary of state since 1976, and re-elected 22 times in a row. He's an undefeated politician.

So he has this really powerful reputation because there have been times when he has had to set a date of the primary- and there's been a controversy. There's been staring competitions with other states, with the Democratic National Committee. And so he has, you know, weathered the storm on behalf of the state. So he gets a lot of praise for that.

He also has a lot of critics over the last ten years, in particular of his 43 year tenure, he's become a more divisive figure. And so we wanted to sort of look at his entire record. So we went back and read, you know, 40 some odd years of Union Leader articles about Bill Gardner. We went back to tons and tons of interviews on TV and in newspapers, in our own interviews, because we wanted to tell his full story. How did he get this reputation and what do his critics have to say about how he uses that reputation when the primary is not being conducted?

And you can't really talk about the New Hampshire primary without talking about Bill Gardner?

Yeah, because the image that a lot of people might have is candidates come to his office to sign up for the primary race. Those images all the time. And yeah, he stood shoulder to shoulder with every president in recent memory. You know, every every major figure here that has run for president in the last 20 some odd little ones. And the weird ones, they're all there, too. Absolutely.

Can you give us a preview of some of the other themes that other episodes of Stranglehold are going to cover?

[Chooljian]: So we wanted to dig into all of the themes that make up this institution. So that includes the voters. That includes the media, of course, ourself included. That includes the candidates themselves. That also includes the traditions that make up this thing. So the second episode, for example, is going to be about Jimmy Carter's 1976 New Hampshire primary campaign, because that really built some of these myths and legends and the things that we go to as a state when we're trying to argue, why this thing should be first. The examples that we give are set in primaries like the Jimmy Carter's '76 primary, where we learned what retail politics looks like, where we learn what it takes for a candidate.

I mean, sometimes New Hampshire voters, we have set some high expectations for people. And that's a campaign that really tells the origin story of many of those things. But I think we're also really focused on how New Hampshire benefits from this institution. And not just, you know, you hear a lot of people say, 'Oh, it's great for hotel revenue' or 'Oh, it's great because a lot of people will be eating downtown Manchester' or 'great for the media' -  and certainly great for the media.

But we also want to talk about how it's good for people in New Hampshire because it has catapulted a lot of political careers. And so we're going to be focusing, especially in the second episode, but throughout the podcast on that massive benefit.

What's the main point that you're hoping that listeners take away from Stranglehold?

[Chooljian]: Well, I think we want to set people up for the 2020 primaries so that they feel like they have a stronger sense of where New Hampshire fits within this long calendar that we go through every four years. You know, the question we get from listeners here, the most out of anything when we've done a survey recently of listeners, is why are we first? And so we're hoping to give people here and across the country a way to say, 'OK, I feel like I get this now.' And also a way for them to decide: Well do I think that this works? Do I love this or do I have some questions about it?

[Rodolico]: And just to add to that, I think if you want to know what's happening in the horse race of the 2020 primary, keep listening to the radio. Listen to NHPR. That will do that. But if you want sort of the field guide, you want the backstory to how we got this power, what this institution is, you could pick this podcast up at any point in the next six months, or you can between the primary and the convention. And you'll get a really good sense of, you know, when people are going to vote in Michigan, when people are going to vote in California, you're going to have a little more context as to what that means and what it's meant over time.