The New Hampshire Primary -- Hitting the Snooze Bar Over and Over

Tue, 20 Dec 2011 13:33:48 +0000

With less than a month to go until the New Hampshire primary, my usually hot seat as the director of a public policy center at a college in New Hampshire is, in fact, ice cold.  There is literally no sign of the candidates, nor has there been for most of the year.  It is like the year without a primary.  (This is in marked contrast to how I spent 2007, and this day in particular.) 

The way I would summarize this is to say that there has been no aggressive retail campaigning.  Other than the debate in October, we have had minimal outreach from the candidates who have been invited to these debates.  The key reasons, in no particular order, seem to be:

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1. The debate schedule

There have been an enormous number of so-called debates this primary season.  They have served primarily to divide the group into those candidates who say essentially nothing and those who will say just about anything.  However you characterize these media events, there is little denying how unproductive they have been in helping a voting public make better choices.  And more importantly, the packed schedule is keeping the candidates from focusing on retail politics in New Hampshire, like they normally do.

2. My location

In 2007, we had a wide open contest in both parties.  But most importantly, we had a vigorous contest on the Democratic side, and the part of the state where Dartmouth is located tends to favor the Democrats.  I am not surprised that we would see a dropoff in candidate visits, and maybe things are raging down by the Massachusetts border and in the North Country.  But I would not expect candidate visits to dry up completely.  I was not aware that any candidate had such a comfortable lead that this contest was over and not worth expending resources to campaign.  Yes, Romney leads in the polls, but that's what retail campaigning in a small state is supposed to affect -- whether he can hold that lead.

3. This group of candidates

In 2007, John McCain was in the area all the time.  Even in 2007, we never hosted a visit to campus by Mitt Romney.  We saw the Mitt-mobile parked around the Green occasionally, but that was typically one of his sons or campaign staff.  He may have done something at the Medical Center down the road.  Fast forward 4 years, and they are all like Romney and none like McCain, which is to say, they are all invisible campaigners.

4. Raising and spending money

It is surprising how little role that money is playing in this contest.  The top candidates are not spending money on large media buys.  Television advertising has not been overwhelmed by political ads.  An unmet need to raise money has not been a reason for candidates to drop out of the race and focus the remaining candidates on distinguishing themselves from each other.  More generally, we are in the low-fundraising, low-spending equilibrium in which candidates are responding to weak campaign efforts by their opponents by conserving their own resources, including their time and travel.  That won't continue to be the case later in the primary season, but it is certainly the case now.

These are my top four reasons -- please share any others that you think are important in the comments.  For similar ideas, read this article in yesterday's Christian Science Monitor.