The pointman for Sen. Marco Rubio wore a sport coat and thick beard and talked with a southern accent. In his late 20s, he arrived an hour before the candidate was scheduled and sat in the front room of the Sun offices surfing the Internet on his phone. His name was Trip, and he was waiting for his boss to arrive. His job, he told me, was to get things ready. That means his phone battery dies every three hours.
The Sun, however, doesn’t require much prepping. When candidates arrive we pull a pair of armchairs side-by-side, one for the candidate and one for the publisher, and the rest of us form a semicircle. The chairs were still in place from the last interview, so there wasn’t anything to prep. With 15 minutes to Rubio-time the Sun staff was still working on other things. Trip’s trip was being wasted.
But after some strategic texting Trip jumped up to let everyone know the senator was four minutes out. The campaign was going into action. But again, this was met without fanfare — late afternoons are deadline time at a newspaper, no time for distractions, and people kept working.
When the senator finally arrived, however, everything shifted. Phones hung up, notebooks closed, computers went into sleep mode. Rubio made his way around smiling and shaking hands, and everyone stood to meet him. He took a comfy chair, thus beginning one more job interview for 2016’s toughest opening.
In New Hampshire we’re lucky. We guard the frontline of presidential politics. Every four years the candidates come, wave after wave, to sit and discuss the issues, to interview for the job. It’s a democratic utopia, a dreamland for reporters, where the action is.
But it’s a weird place too. It’s a place where you interact on a human level with people more prepared to address a television camera. It’s like they train to address crowds from podiums and lose the ability to engage a room of a dozen.
That was Rubio. We had roughly 20 minutes with him on Monday, and in that time he talked about ISIS, the economy, his political record and his background. But it was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points. He said a lot, but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors and pushed play. If there was a human side to senator, a soul, it didn’t come across through.
That might sound like harsh critique, but in essence that is the point of the New Hampshire primary, to test candidates in a retail politics setting. Rubio said it himself: “New Hampshire is very town hall based,” he told us, the politics “retail-oriented.” After the New Hampshire primary, he said, it transforms into a media race, not a human race.
But then he talked at us for 20 minutes. To him, we might as well have been television cameras.
Now maybe he was in a hurry. Or was tired after a long day of campaigning. Maybe our little paper wasn’t worth putting in the full retail effort. Whatever it was, if Rubio is charismatic, he wasn’t when he visited us.
But he was smart. It was easy to see he is brilliant, capable of winning political arguments. And maybe that’s what we should be looking for in a president — the smart guy. Maybe the transformation from human to politician is just part of the game today. In the modern media environment cell phone cameras run 24/7. There is always someone watching for any potential slip, looking to turn an offhand comment into a career-ending soundbyte.
Remember a dozen years ago when Howard Dean let out “the scream” that ended his campaign? Now multiply that risk by the number of smartphones introduced since 2004. Moments of idiocy, of poor word choice and brain farts are now captured and broadcast around the world. And it’s not uncommon for Fox News or NBC to broadcast to the world something recorded on a cellphone.
The result? An expectation of perfection, and candidates like Marco Rubio, a man so stuck on script it doesn’t even matter when the cameras are off. Living in a political environment where only the script makes sense, where the race is about the television audience rather than the general electorate, why deviate? Those willing to risk off-message interaction also risk alienating. It’s too great a risk, and retail politics drops by the wayside as voters are courted only by the millions, not one-by-one.
New Hampshire sits as the bulwark against that world. We are here to meet and greet, to be the face of the country, to gauge individual interactions and then broadcast that gut feeling on to the nation. New Yorkers will never get to meet every candidate. Nor Californians, nor Texans, nor Floridians. Those states have sway in November. New Hampshire sways now.
In New Hampshire, the presidential contest is recast as a local race. And in local races — the New Hampshire House or Senate, for example — it’s nearly impossible to vote straight ticket. When you know the candidates it’s not just enough to agree with their ideas; we need to trust the individual as well, to believe they are the kind of person we should elevate to power. It’s no longer just party. Here it’s personal.
That ability to build connections is what kept Ray Burton in office for three decades despite shifting political tides. People knew him, liked him and, regardless of political affiliation, supported him. That is a rare thing today. It’s a New Hampshire thing.
And that’s what we offer the country: The chance to face presidential candidates like local politicians. The chance for them to prove they hear us. The chance to support the person, not just the politician.
This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in December of 2015.