The Riggs Report: New Hampshire’s political obsession

Candidates go all-out for the first primary prize

Every four years, like some kind of awkward migration, California political junkies stock up on boots, gloves, and parkas and board flights to head across the country to New Hampshire.

This migratory wave ranges from fresh-faced college students to grizzled political operatives. Some are paid. Most are volunteers.

They come from all corners of California. What they all have in common, besides an abundance of goose down insulation and hand warmers, is a desire to play a role in a political pageant that is as far from the Golden State in style as it is in miles.

What the newcomers will find in the Granite State is that voters take their first-primary-in-the-nation status very seriously. In California, an old joke is that a political rally consists of four people gathered around a television set.

In New Hampshire, the campaigns are made up of so much hand-to-hand combat. There’s plenty of TV advertising, too, but in the years that I covered the voting in New Hampshire, what was apparent is that voters expect, even demand, that candidates tramp through the snow to their coffee shops, their school gyms, and their town squares.

This is pure retail politics, the kind of face time and schmoozing that candidates must engage in. I recall talking to one voter in the small town of Hopkinton, who told me on Election Day that she had only personally met three of the presidential candidates, and was disappointed that she hadn’t met the others yet.

These kinds of tactics are foreign to California, where the state’s vast population and enormous size require that campaigns be run through mass media advertising and select appearances. It all happens on the airwaves. It simply doesn’t make sense to do it any other way.

To put it in perspective, keep in mind that New Hampshire’s entire population is about 1.3 million people. Sacramento County’s population is about 1.5 million.

With Iowa out of the way, New Hampshire becomes the center of the political universe, and the media invasion is massive, with unpredictable situations.

In 2008, for instance, KCRA photojournalist John Breedlove and I were covering John McCain’s rally at the statehouse in Concord when we got caught up in a rolling media stampede following in the candidate’s wake as he returned to the campaign bus. We were being carried along on a human current. A good thing we were quick on our feet. For those leaving the mild embrace of West Coast weather, there is another shock to contend with besides the first-hand engagement of voters.

There’s nothing quite like New England cold. California volunteers I spoke with in 2008, the year Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire, always talked about this as they slogged through the slush to knock on doors or to wave signs at rallies. And from my perspective, the 2 a.m. live shots on a Manchester corner, in single-digit temperatures, were memorable, especially when the wind picked up.

There was nothing quite like huddling around a portable propane heater to take the edge off. For those heading to New Hampshire this week, including KCRA anchor Edie Lambert and reporter David Bienick, take heart. The Election Day forecast calls for a high of 30 and a low of 20 with snow flurries.

It’ll be an eye-opening, and eye-watering experience.