Norman Rockwell vs. Oprah
But does it? The central argument for the primacy of New Hampshire and Iowa has long been that those states force candidates to practice a different, purer kind of politics. You don’t succeed in those states by bombarding the airwaves with ads or trotting out trite sound bites. You succeed by going out and meeting the public one or two or 10 at a time, face to face, and conversing as equals: that’s retail politics. “It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting,” said New Hampshire state senator Lou D’Allesandro. “And we all want that Norman Rockwell painting to be true.”
Flash back, though, to the aforementioned Obama-Oprah rally, which didn’t quite jibe with this whole notion of noble Granite State exceptionalism. For one thing, Winfrey and the Obamas weren’t courting voters in a living room or a diner — they were wooing them in an 11,000-seat arena that was nearly half full. In addition, while the phrase “New Hampshire primary” conjures up images of crusty Yankees peppering candidates with discomfiting questions, this particular audience was decidedly passive. There was no Q-and-A, so the crowd had to content itself with clapping, or chanting Obama’s name, or just doing the Wave. What’s more, the rally in question was just one in a series of Oprah-Obama events; the duo also visited South Carolina (where they drew 30,000 people) and Iowa, hewing to the same script in all three places.
The Oprah-Obama event doesn’t mean that retail politicking is dead in New Hampshire. But it is a bellwether of sorts: compared to past primaries, Obama and Hillary Clinton, the two Democratic frontrunners, have been paying less attention to intimate events and more to the sort of mass gatherings you’d find in bigger states — like, say, Michigan or Florida. According to James Pindell, who writes the Primary Source blog for the Boston Globe, the shift began with Obama’s first trip to New Hampshire one year ago. “This was a low-dollar fundraiser,” recalls Pindell. “And suddenly, you had 1500 people, one of the largest gatherings in New Hampshire history.” (This was the same event where Lynch joked about Obama being a bigger draw than the Rolling Stones.)
“It used to be that, if you went over 1000 people, it was late in the primary,” adds Pindell. “But here, we’re talking about December 2006.” Afterward, Clinton needed to show she could match Obama’s star power; for his part, Obama needed to keep meeting the lofty expectations he’d established early on.
The shift signaled by the Obama and Clinton juggernauts isn’t yet complete, notes Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire and author of Stormy Weather: The New Hampshire Primary and Presidential Politics (Palgrave Macmillan). “Look beyond those two; look at John Edwards and Mitt Romney and John McCain and Bill Richardson,” he says. “They’re practicing much more traditional New Hampshire campaigns.” (Pindell concurs.) But it shows where New Hampshire is headed. Clinton and Obama epitomize our political moment — one marked by a Web-and-cable-TV-driven, round-the-clock news cycle; the rise of Internet-based organizing and fundraising; and bitter partisan acrimony, and one in which retail politics is becoming quaintly irrelevant. Unless those circumstances change radically — and soon — New Hampshire will probably see more politics-as-spectacle, not less. Imagine, for example, that the Democrats lose in ’08, and that both Al Gore and John Kerry decide to run in 2012. Think they’d spend much time visiting diners and knocking on doors?