Last Tuesday morning, as the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean, a flurry of jets descended into Manchester International Airport. The planes carried Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and most of the other candidates for president of the United States. Up front, where first class would be, the planes also carried the candidates’ entourages: opinion makers, deal cutters, spin doctors, strategists, and confidants. In the rear, in economy class, rode the journalists, bloggers, and television reporters who cover them. The American political establishment has two halves: those who govern, and those who want to. The former was in Washington, D.C., winding down the seventh year of Barack Obama’s presidency. The latter, who roundly debate Mr. Obama’s legacy, had flown through the night from Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, where polls had just closed, to New Hampshire, where in seven days the state’s 1.3 million residents would pull voting levers.
Razor-close rivals Clinton and Sanders had in fact left the Iowa tarmac unsure of who had won. Temperamental WiFi on Clinton’s plane even created several hours of charmingly 20th-century uncertainty. Even Clinton’s closest staffers had to wait for touchdown to switch their phones on, at which time a roar of applause rippled from the front of the plane to the reporters in the rear. Clinton had won, but by the smallest of margins. The Republican contest had not been so close. Republican Ted Cruz scored solidly ahead of Donald Trump, who in turn led Marco Rubio by a single percentage point.
Now the candidates stepped from their jets into the fifth smallest and third whitest state in the nation and the second electoral proving ground. New Hampshire, my home state, holds the nation’s second primary.
Except it doesn’t. New Hampshire holds the first primary. Iowa holds the first caucus. It’s a critical distinction that I did not fully understand until I switched on the evening news the other night for the first time in about a decade. Here is what I learned: a caucus is like a vote, except absurdly complicated. Voters don’t just lug themselves to a firehouse or school and pull a lever. Instead, they gather in rooms with everyone in town and, just in case they didn’t get the message after a month’s worth of campaign flyers, robo-calls, and awkward visits to their booth at their local diner, they’re put through another round of speeches. After the speeches, it gets really fun. Everyone stands, and instead of lever pulling or box checking or butterfly ballot confusing or even simple hand raising, Iowans begin moving to predetermined places in the room to show who they’re voting for. It sounds like an elaborate game of Twister. The idea is that if you put your right foot on Bernie Sanders, and your left hand on Hilary Clinton, Ross Perot wins. I tried to follow all the rules, but my head felt like Chris Christie had been sitting on it.
What I did gather was that 1) I’m probably not smart enough to vote in Iowa, and 2) even if I were, I probably wouldn’t because caucusing seems like a pain in the ass. For one thing, it can take two hours, which is about as much time as I normally spend thinking about politics in most four year periods.
And what about the peer pressure? While Iowa Republicans wisely wrap up their caucusing (sounds like home repair: “I’m going to be caucusing my bathroom this weekend . . .”) with a traditional secret ballot, an Iowa Democrat’s vote (completed in the Twister-like procedure) is completely public. Surely this skews the results? Think about it: you’re standing in plain view of everyone in town — your friends, your neighbors, that jerk you’ve been feuding with whose dog is pooping on your lawn — and now they’re all staring at you, mouths are agape, never to take you seriously again — because you just made the mistake of putting both feet on the wacko candidate. You won’t get a decent loan in town for years. Your kids will be picked last in kickball. Your haircuts will be lopsided. Your service will be impersonal. You’re telling me that wouldn’t make you think twice about caucusing your conscience?
New Hampshire, a state which places a high premium on individual dignity, doesn’t caucus. We vote. That’s why we’re the true first primary. And what we value most is independence. Our motto is “Live Free or Die” and we extend that freedom to one particular class of voters who drive politicians and professional pollsters to drink every four years. They are our proud independents, also referred to as “undeclareds.”
Now undeclareds can’t even vote in 13 states’ primaries. But in New Hampshire, undeclareds — who comprise 40% of our state– many vote in either primary. And because New Hampshire is an early, tone-setting primary, the candidates and their herds spend millions of dollars and walking hours slathering the state with fliers, posters, TV and radio ads, town hall forums, speeches in high school gymnasiums, campus debates, and visits to coffee shops, stores, and private homes. Catering to the whims of New Hampshire’s famously independent voters is as much a campaign tradition as awaiting the midnight vote of tiny bellwether town of Dixville Notch, whose 26-odd residents have successfully chosen the Republican nominee in every election since 1968.
NBC News had barely gotten their loafers on the ground last week when they were north in the Granite State to do a story in my town of Littleton about our famous undeclared voters.
I too am undeclared New Hampshire voter, although I prefer independent. Undeclared sounds apathetic, and I am not independent out of apathy. Instead I am an independent because I am not, to paraphrase the great political writer Andrew Sullivan, a joiner.
And neither are many New Hampshire voters. Reports indicate that often as many as one-half of my state’s voters will be waiting until the day of primary voting to decide who to support. That means that as of tonight — the night before the New Hampshire primary — half the people who have the power to set the tone for the national election still haven’t decided what that tone will be.
Then there’s another wrinkle. Many of us don’t know which party we’ll be voting with. Vote in the Democratic primary or the Republican primary? Being an independent in New Hampshire allows you to vote strategically.
Right now the question for me as an independent is quite simple: do I vote against Donald Trump, who not only supports waterboarding, but supports “a hell of a lot worse” in the Republican primary, or do I vote for the Democrat I like better? (I will most likely vote Democrat in next winter’s election.) Like so many men and women in my state, I’m still mulling this over the night before voting. I’ll probably be mulling it over tomorrow, in line at the fire station.
As a voter, I will say that polls matter. Although polls presume to measure reality, they also affect it. The question of “who’s viable?” is important in primaries, which often serve to winnow the field. Because I’m considering voting against Trump, I’m keeping a close eye on who’s viable against him. Newest polls in New Hampshire have Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich all neck-and-neck for second, albeit far behind Trump. Marco Rubio, who’d seemed to materialize in the days after the Iowa results as the viable establishment choice to challenge Cruz and Trump, has stalled after his mesmerizingly strange performance at the recent New Hampshire debates, during which he robotically repeated the same scripted line four times in five minutes (and was skewered by Chris Christie).
It’s been an exciting week here in New Hampshire and the first time that I have lived in a state where my vote was so important. (Let the record show that so far the only door-to-door visitors we’ve had have been with the Sanders campaign, who have visited three times in the past few weeks.)
It’s exciting stuff, and I’m proud to be a New Hampshire independent.
On to Dixville Notch.