What New Hampshire Voters Are Watching

Shortly
after 5:30 Monday evening, Suzanne Roantree, a TV reporter for the New Hampshire
station WMUR, did a segment on a Manchester sidewalk about the large swath of
Democrats who were still up for grabs in the New Hampshire primary. “Those undecided voters say that they are looking for a candidate
who will follow through on the promises they made on the campaign trail,” she said.   In an interview with me on Monday afternoon, University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith estimated that 25 to 30 percent of New Hampshire primary voters were still grappling
with their decisions. The enduring mystery (which will only be partly answered
by New Hampshire exit polls) is what will tip them over the edge to a decision. Will
it be a powerful last-minute TV ad? An emotional moment in a television news
clip? A careful study of the issues? A stray conversation with a neighbor? Or a
convincing last-minute pitch from a campaign volunteer? Judging from the roughly 35 minutes
of prime WMUR news coverage I watched from my hotel Monday night, it would be hard for any perplexed
voter to find much sustenance from local television. WMUR led its 5 p.m. newscast with a gushy story about Donald Trump’s impending arrival for a
disrupt-the-Democrats speech in a hockey arena: “Tonight roads are blocked
off, and thousands of people are descending on the Queen City for President
Trump’s campaign rally.” When WMUR pivoted to the
Democrats, it highlighted rallies of the two
candidates leading in the polls: Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.   Each got an
emblematic sound bite. Sanders said, “My friend Mr. Buttigieg and my friend
Joe Biden, they have dozens and dozens of billionaires contributing to their
campaigns.” (Buttigieg must not be that much of a friend if Sanders
doesn’t even use his first name.) And Buttigieg got to play the generational card.  After running footage of a long, snaking line of voters waiting to get into one of his upcoming rallies on Monday, WMUR showed the former mayor saying, “We will be working together in a way that makes us proud. I
don’t believe that because I am young ... I believe that as a matter of
experience, having seen in a war zone what Americans can do to work
together.”  WMUR had also opened its studios to the candidates, offering each of them one minute
to make their final pitches to voters. For the most part, t heir brief speeches, which were broadcast on WMUR on Monday night, were predictable, although Biden
tried a defensive twist: “My colleagues tell me that maybe I’ve been
around too long. Let me tell you something. The fact is that my experience has
brought me a lot of serious wisdom.... We’re going to have to unify the
country, reach across the aisle. I believe I’m best equipped to do that.” The ads
that aired during the commercial breaks were more revealing. A case can be made that
nobody in America profits more from politics than WMUR.  Steve Forbes spent so
much money buying up airtime on the station in 1996 that
WMUR’s headquarters, built a few years later, is fondly
known as “the house Steve Forbes built.” This year, several candidates could afford to run 30-second spots.  While I watched WMUR on Monday night, I saw three TV ads from Tulsi
Gabbard, who seems like a virtual reality candidate, disdaining almost any
personal campaigning. Andrew Yang, another fringe candidate who must face the
blunt message from the math if he does not perform better in New Hampshire than
he did in Iowa, ran two commercials. The two Bernie
Sanders spots I saw cleaved to tried and true talking points: “My opponents will tell you that their
campaign contributions from the wealthy and the powerful don’t have any
impact.” Likewise, twin upbeat Buttigieg spots were all waving flags and
generational inspiration. I
only saw a single ad from Elizabeth Warren—who, contrary to most prior
expectations (including my own), has become the forgotten woman in this New
Hampshire campaign. In it, someone who voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016, as
well as a Hillary Clinton backer, and a former Republican, talked about how
Warren “could beat Donald Trump.” Democrats, they said, “should
have the courage to unite behind the best candidate.” (Unless a candidate
is plunging in the polls, it normally does not take courage to unite around him
or her.) I did
not see any ads from either the Biden or the Klobuchar campaigns—o bviously, they have been advertising, but they don’t have the resources to compete with some of the better-funded candidates, like Sanders and Buttigieg (though  I did see
one forgettable spot boosting the former vice president’s experience from a
super PAC backing Biden’s campaign). Later, when WMUR turned its attention to Klobuchar, it highlighted her momentum in a news segment about one of her rallies. At the Exeter town hall, more than 500 voters had filled the room. Other would-be supporters were watching the video in an overflow space on
the next floor. When the Democrats in the overflow room heard something they
liked, they stomped on the floor in pleasure so they could be heard below. Watching that segment on WMUR could convince voters that Klobuchar is a potential winner.  I
have been coming to New Hampshire to cover the primary since 1980—and I can’t
recall a contest in either party with more on the line that this year’s. With
the Associated Press refusing to call the error-plagued Iowa caucuses and
Sanders and Buttigieg likely to be still scrapping over the ambiguous results
through Inauguration Day, New Hampshire has become the first one that counts. And
as the sun rises on primary day (though the WMUR forecast calls for early
morning snow showers), I do wonder about how many New Hampshire Democrats
changed their minds about their votes three times overnight. 

2020-02-11 | The Soapbox, Politics, New Hampshire | English |