The crowd pressed into a small gallery at the Millyard museum in downtown Manchester. Though there were too many people for the room, the scene was amiable, orderly, akin to a waiting room at the dentist, albeit with more conversation. College students, retirees, and token local pols all milled about in anticipation while Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson washed over the room. This was the scene that greeted attendees at Chelsea Clinton’s event on January 12, 2016. Soon, a parade of local politicians and activists began to make their customary introductions, each vying for a second of spotlight, each attempting to attach themselves to Chelsea’s spotlight. My fellow students and I had just arrived from Minnesota, and although we didn’t know it, we were witnessing the beginning of a pattern that is ubiquitous in the New Hampshire Primary.
When Chelsea arrived, about an hour after doors had opened (arriving late is another motif that now seems commonplace), the most striking emotion was not exhilaration or amazement, but rather surprise at just how normal she seemed. Far away from the enormous rallies and blazing television cameras, she was just a young woman, travelling the state, having conversations with ordinary voters, and trying to get her mother a new job. Eloquent, engaging, and intelligent yes, but still a person like any other. When my classmates and I surrounded her for a photo, the conversation we had lacked all the normal nervousness and awe; I saw her as just another citizen, not the daughter of the 42nd President.
Hours later we were at a very different rally, with a very different flavor. Instead of a museum, the class found itself in a high school gymnasium. Volunteers strode up and down the admittance lines, passing out clipboards and collecting names. Once all were seated, the audience began conversing, eventually rising to a dull roar. The attendees were of all ages, spattered with camouflage and holding signs with a red flame exhorting “courageous conservatives” to “reignite the promise of America.” Country music blared. Thus was Cruz country, and though it was a only a short drive from Manchester, the crowd awaiting their conservative scion could not have been more different than the one which had waited for Clinton.
In the same way, his message provided a striking contrast to Clinton’s. While she lauded the progress of the Affordable Care Act, he promised “to repeal every last word.” While Chelsea had decried the bombastic rhetoric surrounding Syrian refugees, the junior Senator from Texas had thundered against the danger of “radical Islamic terrorism.” Clinton had concluded with a word of thanks, Cruz had finished with an exhortation worthy of a Baptist preacher that the audience “lift up America in prayer.” However despite this, there were striking similarities. The same parade of local politicos, the same delay in the candidate’s arrival, the same pedaling of merchandise and eager anticipation. Yet the most striking similarity did not manifest until the senator himself arrived.
Just as with Clinton, the mythical ultraconservative egoist lampooned by senators and reporters alike did not show up that night. Rather, there was simply a man, just as eloquent, just as passionate, and just as ordinary. It wasn’t until this moment that the effect of the primary became clear. The smallness of the state, and the outsize influence it wields serve to unmask candidates. In a race where each voter is important, and where shoe leather still outmatches Super PACS, even the most powerful senators, the most popular governors, must step down from the podium and engage. Instead of appearance on Face the Nation, instead of the speech on the senate floor or the press conference from behind behind the podium, the people that appear in New Hampshire are deliberately, and blindingly ordinary. Stripped of all veneer, it is an unscripted, almost intimate exposure to the candidate in their essence. It is democracy at its most direct, and a compelling case for political activism. There is a story of a New Hampshire woman who was asked what she thought of a certain candidate who replied that she didn’t know because she hadn’t met him yet. After a few days in New Hampshire, the truth in that story has never been more apparent.
~Nathan Webster is Junior studying Political Science and Economics at St. Olaf College. He attended Elk River High School and is a life-long Minnesotan. His hobbies include the Supreme Court, anything by David McCullough, and cross country skiing. He will be working on the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.