Why the New Hampshire Primary Is an Elaborate Reality Show Designed for National Media

For all the talk about the glories of retail politics in the Granite State's first-in-the-nation primary, you'd think the spectacle now gripping New Hampshire, as the GOP presidential hopefuls have at each other, was all about winning the votes of New Hampshirites. Don't believe a word of it.

The New Hampshire primary, as it exists today, is an elaborate reality show designed for national, not local, media. New Hampshire is just the stage set, one its officials are eager to provide, both for the business it brings to the state as hordes of reporters fill up hotels and restaurants, and for the importance it confers on local political brokers, who would otherwise be mere petty chieftans of a small, if beautiful, idiosyncratic state.

Media create the storyline,
choosing which timeworn nuggets to play up, which manufactured controversies* to amplify and which extras get selected to play the role of the typical New Hampshire voter. The candidates know this, of course, and do their best to manipulate the media. Often, the voters are lost in the shuffle, which tends to tick them off, a lesson Rep. Ron Paul learned today, the hard way.

Of the three campaign events I've attended in the last 24 hours, only one -- a town-hall meeting conducted by former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum in Salem -- actually drew more voters than media. A town hall conducted yesterday by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was packed with people, but perhaps 75 percent of them represented media outlets. Media flocked to Rep. Ron Paul's breakfast meet-and-greet this morning in Manchester, and likely dominated the actual New Hampshire voters in the room by a ratio of 10 to one, though that wasn't obvious to the naked eye of a reporter from the national or international press corps, as one room of the restaurant Paul visited was crammed with young people -- and reporters all know that the average Ron Paul voter is a boisterous college student.

The sleight of hand, whether deliberate or accidental, was effected when two busloads of high school students from Massachusetts showed up before everybody, entirely filling one of the two dining rooms of Moe Joe's diner in Manchester. By the time a handful of graying New Hampshire voters turned up, they were shunted to the second dining room.

The Pied Piper Outslicks Himself

Ron Paul is proud of what he sees as his appeal to the young folks. With a scrum of videographers, boom-mike technicians, on-air talent, as well as print and Web reporters, surrounding him, he strode through the room full of awed teenagers from the Franklin High School Teen Republican Club and an Advanced Placement government class, shaking hands, taking no questions, and giving the visual impression that he had drawn a packed crowd of fresh-scrubbed, newly minted primary voters. Paul never entered the sparsely populated room where the real New Hampshire voters sat.

After his walk-through, Paul made straight for his black SUV, taking no questions even as he functioned as the nucleus of an organism comprising dozens of arms, legs and assorted electronic appendages poised for any random utterance.

A furious middle-aged woman tore behind him and the scrum. "Dr. Paul, Dr. Paul!" she cried in vain. "I came here with my mother so she could meet you and you left." Paul ignored her, stepping into the vehicle, shielded from public view by the vehicle's black tinted windows. The woman turned to me and another reporter, saying, "It's not right."

As we talked to her, the rest of media turned their attention to her, and began gathering around. Her name, she said, was Karen Fuller, and she had brought her 90-year-old mother to meet the Texas gadfly. Paul was still in his van, which sat in the parking lot even as she protested.

A seemingly disembodied amplified male voice intoned, "Ron Paul, we are the media. Please answer all questions, and answer them truthfully." (It turned out to be the performance artist who goes by the name of Vermin Supreme, manning a bullhorn from behind Paul's van. Dogging candidates in the New Hampshire primary is his speciality.)

A Ron Paul for President staff member watched the throng around Fuller with concern. He tapped her on the shoulder and asked to talk to her privately. She stepped back from the reporters while the staffer whispered in her ear. When she returned to the group of journalists, she declined to relay what she had been told. But she didn't back down from her contention that what had happened inside Moe Joe's was a bad thing. "It wasn't right," she said. She never did get to shake Paul's hand.

High School Everywhere

I arrived at Rick Santorum's town hall about a half hour ahead of start time, only to find most of the chairs in the Salem Elks Lodge occupied by the same high-schoolers who had fawned over Ron Paul. But to Santorum's credit, he drew at least as many actual New Hampshire voters, and he actually seemed interested in talking to them -- and talking and talking and talking.

Santorum went on for an hour and a half, kicking off the session with a long-winded message about economic recovery through deregulation of energy as a means of stimulating manufacturing, and took questions for an hour, keenly aware of the row of cameras that faced him, and even the scribes like me who stood, scribbling on notepads.

Shelly Sousa of Salem, and Kim Litmann of nearby Derry, had come to hear out Santorum, still undecided, as are 55 percent of New Hampshire voters, about who they would cast their votes for 24 hours later. Both had brought their children with them.

Sousa deemed the media attention drawn by candidates as "damaging" to the primary process, because, she said, "people just decide they can watch it on TV or the Internet, and they don't bother to come out. They don't see the whole picture."

I chose to talk to them because they looked to me, a denizen of Washington, D.C., like what a "real" New Hampshire voter should look like. Their faces were unadorned by makeup, they wore bulky, casual winter garb, and had all those kids in tow (five between them).

Curtain Up, Curtain Down

Today's primary will conclude New Hampshire's seven months of posing for national television audiences as a nostalgic notion of all the good things America used to be -- and could be again, if only the wise select the right candidate from among the opposition party's offerings.

The story will conclude tonight, as it always does, with a verdict said to be decided by the plainspoken people of New Hampshire, whose responsibility as the really American vetters of candidates, we're told, they take very seriously. And the curtain will fall, only to rise again in four years time, for yet another sequel.  


* In 1995, for instance, the national religious right swooped in to take over a local school board just in time for the primary. I wrote about it here, for Mother Jones.

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