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House Parties And Selfie Lines: How Campaigns Work In New Hampshire


While the results of the Iowa caucuses trickled out this week there was a torrent of criticism and questions such as, why does Iowa get to go first? That is a question New Hampshire has faced as well. Our colleague Ari Shapiro is in that state in the run up to Tuesday's primary. And he sat down with the host of a podcast produced by our friends at New Hampshire Public Radio, one that feels especially relevant this week.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The podcast is called "Stranglehold." And the tagline kind of says it all - how one small state got its hands around picking our presidents and why it won't let go. Lauren Chooljian is one of the hosts. And, Lauren, I imagine those are fighting words in New Hampshire, huh?

LAUREN CHOOLJIAN: Oh, gosh. It has been - you know, we're just joking - some my colleagues, like - and here in New Hampshire, we're kind of a dysfunctional family right now. We've got a lot of people with a lot of feelings, and Christmas is coming.

SHAPIRO: But you're like the one who's picking the fight at the Thanksgiving table.

CHOOLJIAN: Kind of, a little bit. I'm the one raising the questions. And we have gotten a lot of flack for even raising the questions about why this thing is first, who benefits and maybe who's missing out because we benefit. Around here, we are dealing with some strong feelings.

SHAPIRO: Well, I appreciate you stirring it up. And I appreciate you giving an outsider like me the inside scoop.

CHOOLJIAN: Oh, good.

SHAPIRO: So you are going to walk us through one episode of this podcast where you looked into a big question. How has the New Hampshire primary campaign changed, and has it changed for the better or the worse?

CHOOLJIAN: And so one of the ways we wanted to look at that is this quintessentially New Hampshire primary thing called the house party.

SHAPIRO: This is the old way of doing it.

CHOOLJIAN: The classic like, you know the saying, like, I didn't - I can't vote for that person. I haven't met them three times, or I've only met them three times.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

CHOOLJIAN: Like, the house party is the scene of that moment.

SHAPIRO: So whose house party did you go to?

CHOOLJIAN: Well, I went to a house party for Senator Michael Bennet from Colorado. And it was hosted by a longtime Democrat, State Representative Marjorie Smith.


MARJORIE SMITH: And I brought you all together for really a great reason and an old New Hampshire reason, and that is I am trying hard to keep alive what makes New Hampshire the perfect breeding ground for presidential candidates. And fortunately, I found a live one.

SHAPIRO: Lauren, is this really a fight for survival, as Representative Marjorie Smith describes it?

CHOOLJIAN: A little bit, Ari. I mean, you guys have covered this a lot. You know, these high thresholds at the Democratic National Committee set for the debate stage, you know, they had the whittling-down effect on candidates that usually the first-in-the-nation primary and caucus states have.

And so it feels like for people like Senator Michael Bennet, who was at this house party, somebody who doesn't have a ton of name ID, isn't raising a ton of money, hasn't gotten to the debate stage, that, you know, in any other case, these house parties would be actually a way he could catch fire and get momentum. And now he just can't compete because he's not getting all the eyeballs everybody else is getting on that stage.

SHAPIRO: And this actually came up in one of the questions that someone asked Senator Bennet at the house party.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: People in New Hampshire have a big responsibility, and people in New Hampshire are confused about what to do with that responsibility. I know a few people who have their candidate and they're committed, but I know many more, as I said, are confused. So how are you going to win New Hampshire?

MICHAEL BENNET: By un-confusing (ph) you.


BENNET: No. By - look.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But how much time will you spend here?

BENNET: I'm going to spend a lot of time here. And the way I'm going to win it is by being in living room after living room after living room after living room.

SHAPIRO: And traditionally, I guess that was a way that primary candidates set themselves apart, huh?

CHOOLJIAN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, think about 1976. Jimmy Carter came here kind of a nobody. You know, of course, he was governor of Georgia, but around here, nobody knew him. And he would go to people's houses. He would sleep at people's houses for God's sake. And he would meet people one person at a time. And that momentum would catch on. But here, we're in a case where at this point, when Michael Bennet was having this party, it's just hard to compete with these massive rallies. And that's why people like Marjorie Smith hold on to the things that make New Hampshire special.


SMITH: It is the only way that we can open up the possibility to people who don't arrive fully formed with a retinue of people who will tell them what color shirts to wear and what to say and who to talk to. And that's what happens - happened in the New Hampshire primary.

SHAPIRO: OK. So, Lauren, you went to see how the New Hampshire primary is changing, the kind of new model of campaigning. What does that look like?

CHOOLJIAN: Well, it looks like a lot more people than could fit into Marjorie Smith's living room, unfortunately.


CHOOLJIAN: I mean, we're talking hundreds and hundreds of people in a high school cafeteria. We're talking about Senator Elizabeth Warren's rally. This is a person who has much higher name ID than Senator Michael Bennet. I mean, and it was everything that Marjorie Smith was complaining about, complete with hour-long lines where people wait for selfies to post on social media. I mean, that's completely against what Marjorie Smith is looking for.

SHAPIRO: So you and your colleague, Jason Moon, who you worked with on this episode, went to the Warren rally. And Jason described what the scene was like.


JASON MOON: There's check-in tables. There's vendors selling stuff. It's kind of like the difference between, like, going to a small party at your friend's house versus, like, going to the club.

SHAPIRO: Well, the people who defend this kind of event say they are just as effective as that small house party. Introduce us to one of them.

CHOOLJIAN: Oh, absolutely. I met this very nice woman named Gail Rhodes (ph) who was at the very, very, very back of the selfie line, which means she was not going to meet Senator Warren for at least an hour.


CHOOLJIAN: And she said this is why she's coming to these events because she wants that one-on-one face time with people.


GAIL RHODES: Because I think she deserves to be thanked for what she's doing, getting out here, as every candidate does. I shook Corey - I stood in line to shake Cory Booker's hand just because I wanted to meet him one-on-one.

CHOOLJIAN: So it's not about...

RHODES: Look in his eyes. I want to look in their eyes.

CHOOLJIAN: What will you see?

RHODES: Well, hopefully, their soul.

SHAPIRO: There wasn't the kind of intimate Q&A that you found at the house party with Michael Bennet. What was there instead?

CHOOLJIAN: So instead, the Warren campaign does this thing where it's kind of like they get a fishbowl or a basket or something, and they put numbers in a hat. And they draw them. And they only pick three questions. And if your number gets drawn, then you get to ask a question. Which means that there aren't that many issues that are discussed based on voter input. And it's certainly not like the house party, where many candidates would stay around till every single question gets answered.

SHAPIRO: But there was a very sweet exchange with a 10-year-old girl.

CHOOLJIAN: Which is so New Hampshire.


NATALIE: I'm Natalie (ph).



WARREN: Natalie, would you be insulted if I asked how old you are?

NATALIE: No. I'm 10.

WARREN: Whoa. All right, Natalie, 10 and ready to do a little democracy. OK, my kind of gal. OK, Natalie.

NATALIE: Why did you decide to run for - to become president?

SHAPIRO: Do you think this divide between campaigning styles is unique to New Hampshire, or is the same thing happening in other primary states around the U.S.?

CHOOLJIAN: It feels to many people who defend the primary around here, like, we're offering this perfect form of democracy, that this is the only place where you can get that one-on-one experience, whether it's in a selfie line or it's at a house party. And in some senses, yeah, that might be true. We are a smaller state. It is easier to get around. There are a lot fewer people.

But that doesn't mean that it wouldn't happen somewhere else if another state got used to being first and developed the kind of culture we have. That is a very controversial statement as a person coming from New Hampshire because the way that we fight for this thing is by saying that only we can do it.

SHAPIRO: That's Lauren Chooljian, co-host of the podcast "Stranglehold" from New Hampshire Public Radio.

Good luck on Tuesday night, Lauren, and thanks for talking with us.

CHOOLJIAN: Thanks so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren is NHPR’s Politics and Policy reporter for the State of Democracy project.

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