VOX POPULI • BY ED LEVY
I thought of this title before heading up to New Hampshire in early January a few days prior to the Republican Presidential Primary election. I was short-changed on the snow side of the equation as the state was having unseasonably warm temperatures with highs around 40. On the clown show side though, New Hampshire did not disappoint. It appears that I must be living on another planet than most of the candidates and their followers.
I talked to a Ron Paul staffer about an hour after arriving who told me that all government should be abolished. I asked him what he thought about Maryland Delegate Tom Hucker’s bill to ban the use of arsenic-based antibiotics on chicken farms, to which the staffer replied it was up to each person to determine on their own if food was safe. “Hey neighbor, can I borrow your arsenic detector just after I finish testing whether this new medicine is safe enough for my grandchild?”
Political tourism is a big thing in New Hampshire. Each event crowd was typically broken down as 1/3 media, 1/3 political tourists, and the last third being New Hampshire voters. Coming out of events, media people would ask me if I was a voter to which I replied “yes, but not here.” Presidential politics is more intimate in New Hampshire with the old joke being that if you ask a friend if he likes Candidate X, he’ll reply “I don’t know, I’ve only met him twice.” By the time candidates reach the later and larger primary states, we’ll likely only see them on television.
Political tourism is also easy in New Hampshire since it’s a small state and about half the people live in the Southeast part of the state (the Concord-Manchester-Nashua area) closest to Boston. But like popular concerts, sometimes there are fully booked events, and I would end up in the overflow room or outside the venue talking to the campaign button vendor and the candidate’s supporters.
My favorite candidate was Democrat Vermin Supreme who is easy to identify by the upside-down rubber boot on his head, his megaphone, and his bright clothing. He was one of 14 Democratic candidates and 33 Republican candidates who put down their $1000 to appear on the 2012 ballot.
A Rick Santorum rally was moved to a restaurant parking lot in Manchester after more people showed up than the fire marshal would allow into the building. Due to his hostile comments about gay people and other very conservative positions, Santorum attracted more hecklers than any other candidate. This time, Santorum didn’t have a microphone, but Vermin Supreme was there with his megaphone. Vermin was continually calling out to Santorum “Rick, will you marry me,” while Occupy New Hampshire protesters and others heckled Santorum about gay rights and his economic policies. (The Occupy protesters were camping in a park across from the Manchester Radisson, the headquarters for most media and other political hangers-on. They were keeping their area clean and orderly so as not to give anyone an excuse to remove them.)
Santorum was pretty unflappable throughout the episode as he had likely heard it all before. Later in the restaurant, I had a chance to ask Santorum how he could call himself a deficit hawk after being a champion earmarker when a Pennsylvania U.S. Senator and after supporting Bush’s unfunded mega-trillion dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He told me that the earmarks didn’t add up to many dollars and that he supported Bush’s ‘emergency’ decision to fight in those countries to which I replied “after ten years, the emergency was over a long time ago.” Santorum agreed that I had a point and walked away.
Although a candidate’s supporters didn’t all fit any stereotype, it looked to me that Santorum attracted many blue collar people while Romney’s fans were better dressed with more expensive cars parked outside his events. In fact, Romney held several public events at exclusive prep schools. This apparently wasn’t much of a concern in New Hampshire, but I suspect this would appear elitist and alienate some voters in Maryland and most other states. Paul’s supporters were young, and in fact, many looked like they were on their way to Woodstock with torn jeans, long hair, and tie dyed t-shirts.
Gingrich voters were harder to categorize although he was the only one to reach out to the state’s growing Hispanic population while I was there. Gingrich held an event at a Mexican restaurant in Manchester, but his staff tolerated no dissent. When an Occupy protestor raised a sign in the audience, security was on her in seconds, wrestling the sign away and depositing her outside the hall.
I tried for a second time to see Ron Paul at a mid-day Tea Party rally near Nashua only to find that his son, Kentucky U.S. Senator Rand Paul, was there and Ron wasn’t. Had the chance to ask Rand about unregulated and undisclosed political contributions. He said he enthusiastically supports the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the door to unlimited untracked corporate contributions. I asked Rand how after Citizens United we could know if foreign governments or companies were trying to influence U.S. elections through undisclosed contributions. Rand said that it was a good point and that he would have his staff look into it. Again, I saw a politician move on rather than argue a point.
Finally, I caught up with unheralded Republican candidate Buddy Roemer at his Manchester headquarters. Roemer was a former Governor and Congressman from Louisiana, but was never allowed to participate in the multiple candidate debates. Roemer’s big issue (and mine, too) is the need to limit undisclosed political contributions, or as he put it “to eliminate big contributions to increase speech.” Roemer didn’t catch on, however, and only four non-staffers showed up at his headquarters open house the day before the election.
For a political junkie, a trip to the New Hampshire primary is a lot of fun. You’re surrounded by people who want to talk about politics all the time, and you get to try out your arguments on skeptical people just like those you’ll be trying to convince during the election battles ahead.