In N.H., Candidates Deploy Range of Tactics to Make the Most of In-Person Campaigning

Oct 23, 2019

Montana Governor Steve Bullock chats with voters at a Politics and Eggs event in Manchester, New Hampshire
Credit Josh Rogers | NHPR

On a recent Friday morning, an audience of businesspeople lined up for photos with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

Bullock, who's running for the Democratic presidential nomination, appeared at ease when it came time to grip-and-grin. He offered lots of eye contact, a firm handshake, the occasional clap on the back.

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Bullock got close, but not too close. He wore cowboy boots and made laconic small talk. 

“I rather would have gone out to Montana to see you; it’s beautiful country,” a voter said.

“It’s not a bad spot, although you’ve got some beauty here as well,” Bullock replied.

This kind of sustained proximity between candidate and voter is one thing that has distinguished New Hampshire from almost every other place where would-be presidents seek votes: face-to face interaction, the chance for small talk. And everyone – candidates and voters alike – gets the chance to feel improved by the experience, however fleeting it may be.

And while every candidate has their own strategy for executing these in-person transactions, there are a few common techniques.

One classic tactic: The ostentatious display of local knowledge. 

“I’ve learned how to do everything in New Hampshire,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said on a visit last week.

At a recent stop at a Concord coffee shop, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar counts off the things she's learned while campaigning in New Hampshire.
Credit Josh Rogers | NHPR

Klobuchar namedropped local powerbrokers: “Two of my best friends in the U.S. Senate -  Jeannie Shaheen and Maggie Hassan.”

She name-dropped local businesses: “I haven’t been to Mack’s Apples yet, but I eat Stonyfield yogurt.”

She even bragged about her pronunciation skills: “I can say everything right: Concord, Winnipesaukee, Berlin. I said Berlin. I did; I said it right.” (Editor's note: She did.)

Voters here will tell you they want candidates to show they're trying to connect. But defining what that even means, in a political climate where social media moments and memes increasingly dominate the political conversation, is a challenge.

Shannon Mills, a retired dentist, was among the voters who filled a Concord coffee shop to see Klobuchar last week. He thinks getting as close as possible to candidates - he’s seen five so far this year - is important.

“In 2008, I had a lot of questions about Barack Obama, but when I heard him speak in person, I just had a very different experience," Mills says. "And I was trying to figure out, do I want to support this guy, and I ended up supporting him right down the line. That changed my mind, seeing him in person.”

Mills thinks the conversion experiences voters can have when they get close enough to a candidate to connect go beyond logic. But that that’s not to say conversions aren’t sometimes induced by the practiced moves of a politician.

Marilyn Hoffman lives in Londonderry and is a regular at Democratic campaign events. She thinks candidates would be wise to see New Hampshire as a place to hone their skills...or else. 

“I remember John Kerry would go on for 45 minutes, and they finally got him down to 20, but they learn their chops here really, and to be a good president you have to successfully communicate with ordinary people, not just donors,” Hoffman says.

And lessons candidates can learn here are on display right now.

When Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary four years ago, he mostly gave speeches. This year he’s added events where he walks around the room, interacting with voters more closely, using the Q-and-A format of a daytime talk show host.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign events have evolved from speeches to more interactive formats, Josh Rogers reports
Credit Allegra Boverman | NHPR

Candidates new to the New Hampshire campaign trail, and the intimacy with voters that affords, are also learning, occasionally in real time.

Here’s New Jersey Senator Cory Booker picking up a lesson about oversharing during a visit to St. Anselm College:

"What’s my excuse for having a serious dad bod as a vegan?” Booker joked.

“My question is regarding China,” the voter replied. 

Candidates and voters here will have hundreds more face-to-face interactions between now and Primary Day. For people like Donna Morin, who make seeing candidates up close a priority, these interactions boil down to a basic proposition.

"For me, I just try to find someone who doesn’t look like they are BS-ing the whole thing,” said Morin, a teacher from Hooksett.

And that’s a test for candidate and voter alike.