Early on the morning of February 8, the first cohort of Max Bell School of Public Policy students piled into rented cars and headed through the snowy mountains of New England to the heart of the New Hampshire Democratic Primary. Led by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Max Bell Professor of US Policy David Shribman, we were treated to a first-hand experience of America’s first Democratic crucible, witnessing every major party candidate speak and gaining first-hand knowledge of the ground level politicking that makes New Hampshire’s independently minded voters so highly scrutinized.
Our class first met with Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who made clear that 2020 is very different from previous contests. Donald Trump’s support has never climbed beyond 45% during his Presidency, despite a booming economy. This is good news for the Democrats, as is the fact that the anti-Trump elements in America society will not take this chance to rid themselves of the President for granted. The Democrats, however, have yet to coalesce around a candidate who can bring the different factions of the party together into November.
Dartmouth hats in tow, we left the Ivy League campus for a candidate rally in support of Colorado Senator Michael Bennet. Despite his low polling numbers, our MPP class found itself jammed into a crowded room packed with supporters, onlookers, TV news crews and volunteers — a testament to how seriously New Hampshire’s voters take their politics. A shout out to our class by none other than a bead throwing, Mardi Gras mask adorning James Carville (there to stump for Bennet), was a particular thrill. “We got some folks in here from McGill I want to say hi to — we love Canada down here in New Hampshire and in New Orleans!”
The power brokering occurring in the state of New Hampshire was striking, as was the propensity for open mindedness, and voters were never shy about their opinions. Many voters said they were overwhelmed and exhausted by information and people knocking on their doors, in juxtaposition to those careerists who live and breathe the process.
The main show on Saturday night was the Democratic Party Candidate Fundraiser held in a hockey arena in Manchester. The atmosphere was as filled with energy as a Canadiens game as candidates' made last-ditch appeals to voters. Candidates respective placards waving fans cheered their team and jeered one another.
Our packed weekend gave our class unparalleled exposure to politics playing out on the ground. Beyond the issues, we got a sense of what matters to regular people and we were able to share in their enthusiasm (or ambivalence) for the passionate pitches being made by presidential hopefuls. Professor Shribman, or David as he would rather be called, provided context and a wealth of history about the state of the race. His humble, curious approach to the primary allowed us to take it all in and venture off for a look around different events and different political camps.
Sunday morning, bright and early, our first stop was at the law offices of Thomas D. Rath, storied New Hampshire Republican strategist, organizer and former Attorney General of New Hampshire. Along with fascinating insights and intimate stories pertaining to several American Presidents, he elaborated on his general concern for the polarization within the country at the moment, his concern about the current president, as well as his scepticism of the Democrats' chances in November given the current candidate field.
After a short wait in line, our class piled into a high school gym to see Senator Elizabeth Warren. While the gym filled up, we had the opportunity to bounce questions off of storied LA Times political journalist Mark Barabak, who was part of a roving press corp covering the packed weekend. Bearing witness to such a stacked weekend in American politics, it was clear that despite all appearances, the primary is an intimate event. We often heard from undecided voters that they were unsure who they were going to back because they had only met each contender twice. New Hampshire residents take their politics seriously, and the questions presented to Senator Warren after an uplifting rally were no exception.
After a race to beat traffic from the Warren rally, our class headed west to blustery Claremont to catch race front-runner Senator Bernie Sanders. Where once Sanders was dogged by the presumption that his fans were limited to “Bernie Bros” — largely young, white males with little appetite or capacity to listen to reason — what was on display was a diverse coalition of working people. What his persistence portends is not just ideas catching fire, but a broader demographic switch of voters who are not afraid of his calls for wholesale political change.
A perpetual fascination of this race is voters focused on “electability” over policy or vision. The political centre will be faced with a difficult choice between Trump and Sanders, if he is the eventual nominee, given the booming economy, let alone one where recovery from a historic recession is only just now being felt. Sanders spoke about the electorate suffering from a failure of imagination, and his belief that by building a broad coalition, Americans could lift one another up and defeat Trump with him as the nominee.
Taking in the ‘Olympics of Democracy’ framed the choices ahead as the world’s longest running democracy prepares to head to the polls. Where you would have expected to hear from candidates on matters of international diplomacy, most contenders spoke to pocketbook issues, matters of equity like medicare, and how the current White House occupant is taking the country in a direction few can look upon proudly. As future policy makers, the opportunity to see democracy unfolding on the ground served as a constant reminder that even in an era of strong tribalism, citizens' opinions are nuanced and thoughtful.
With every hotel full, no seats at the diner, and busses clogging up mountainous roads, our class was fortunate to take in the spectacle that is the New Hampshire primary. As we pour over Tuesday night’s results, our takeaways and impression of the world’s oldest modern democracy will forever be coloured by this unrivalled experience in the heart of the Granite state.
About the authors
Max Bell School MPP Candidate
Max Bell School MPP Candidate
Max Bell School MPP Candidate