Candidates follow informal rules in New Hampshire

AP News
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Posted: Nov 01, 2015 6:44 PM
Candidates follow informal rules in New Hampshire

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Running for president in New Hampshire is like crafting a good story: Don't forget who, what, when, where or why.

While there's no set formula for success in the first-in-the-nation primary, some informal "rules" have emerged over its 100-year history about the most important people to please, the most popular places to go, and more. The Associated Press asked some longtime political observers to weigh in:

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WHO?

Voters are only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to key constituencies in New Hampshire.

Both Republicans and Democrats have a handful of party elders every smart candidate tries to woo, and there are "grand dames" on both sides. Hillary Clinton made a visit to former Democratic state senator Mary Louise Hancock one of her first stops this spring. On the Republican side, there's former lawmaker and executive councilor Ruth Griffin, who has endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Elected officials, from state senators down to local selectmen, and activists with wide connections and deep knowledge of the political landscape are two other coveted groups.

"There's the benefit of finding an individual who will spend a great deal of time volunteering for the campaign, but it's equally important to have someone locally, an elected official, that a community can identify with a campaign," said Mike Dennehy, a veteran GOP operative who ran Sen. John McCain's successful New Hampshire campaigns.

With such a crowded GOP field this year, Dennehy said it seems many of these coveted supporters are holding back endorsements for fear of choosing the wrong candidate.

And while candidates mostly try to appeal to their respective party bases, there is another key group of people who stand out in New Hampshire: independent voters. Independents — those unaffiliated with either party — make up nearly 44 percent of registered voters, and they can vote in either primary.

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WHAT?

House parties — small gatherings in supporters' living rooms — used to be the hallmark of campaigning in New Hampshire. They're still important, but they've changed, argues Scott Spradling, who covered numerous primaries for WMUR-TV and now runs a consulting firm. He attended a recent house party for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio along with about 150 other people instead of the 20-25 he expected.

"Over the course of the last few cycles, it feels to me like the small group house party events that used to be part of every candidate's visit every time — do something big, but then do something small — I don't see that anymore," he said. "Even the house parties are big."

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's recent roundtable discussion about domestic violence stuck out as unusual, but the candidates mostly have been sticking to tried-and-true events such as rallies and town hall meetings, Spradling said. The latter events, in particular, can be pivotal.

McCain focused almost exclusively on town hall meetings to build momentum for his winning 2000 and 2008 primary campaigns in New Hampshire. Several candidates — notably New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — are following the same model this time.

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WHEN?

In recent cycles, candidates have started showing up in New Hampshire more than two years before the primaries, often under guise of supporting local candidates for governor or Congress. The politicking picks up during the spring and summer before Election Day, and by fall, barely a day passes without a candidate visit. But merely visiting early and often isn't enough — candidates also have to know when donors and voters start paying attention, and plan accordingly, says Wayne Lesperance, political science professor at New England College.

Timing can be tricky in other ways as well.

Lesperance recalls a September 2007 GOP debate at the University of New Hampshire during which former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said if he wasn't running, he'd probably be supporting McCain.

"McCain was in real trouble with fundraising issues, and then there was this moment," he said. "It marked the downward trending of Rudy, and McCain really came back. Rudy was doing events up here, he was here early and often, but it's an example of peaking too soon."

This year, it was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who fizzled out, failing to capitalize on early chatter about how formidable he'd be, Lesperance said. But that might have more to do with factors beyond a candidate's control, including the large field of candidates and the electorate's appetite for an outsider this year.

"Four years ago or eight years ago, the Tea Party mantle would've been great for Walker, but not this cycle," he said. "So it's not just timing in terms of within the individual campaign cycle. There's also mood-of-the-country timing."

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WHERE?

Manchester, the state's largest city, is the bullseye on the map for candidates. It easily tops the list of the most-visited community so far this cycle, accounting for 20 percent of all stops by both Republicans and Democrats, according to an AP analysis of data compiled by New England Cable News.

The two next-largest cities, Nashua and Concord, also make the top five destinations for both sides, as does Portsmouth. The only difference is that Salem makes the GOP short list while Keene is among the most popular destinations for Democrats.

Drilling down to specific locations, "If there's 'diner' in the name, they better be there," Spradling said.

Aware of the importance of mingling with regular folks — or at least looking good doing so on camera — candidates have visited diners at least three dozen times this cycle, most often Mary Ann's Diner in Derry, the Tilt'n Diner in Tilton and the Pink Cadillac Diner in Farmington.

The New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College also has become a "must-do" location — every candidate has been there at least once this cycle.

Beyond picking places that offer the most bang for the buck in terms of population or media exposure, there's another consideration when it comes to deciding where to go, Spradling said. He remembers a Bob Dole event in 1996 in a large hotel ballroom, when campaign staffers rushed to remove a slew of empty chairs. The problem was, reporters were already set up and saw them do it.

"If you've got a large venue, you better know how to fill it," he said. "There are plenty of carcasses of campaigns that fell into the trap of ordering big, and couldn't do anything about it."

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WHY?

As University of New Hampshire political scientists David Moore and Andrew Smith discuss in their new book, "The First Primary," there is much debate about whether New Hampshire's influence on the nominating process is overblown. So why do the candidates keep coming?

"Candidates, political leaders and — most importantly — the press all believe that the New Hampshire primary is monumentally important," they write. "No serious presidential candidate will skip New Hampshire in the belief that a more favorable primary later in the calendar will be more advantageous than competing in the Granite State."

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Associated Press Writer Kathleen Ronayne contributed to this report.