Campaign workers for U.S. Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie put up an American flag before his town hall campaign stop at the Hampton Academy in Hampton, New Hampshire February 7, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire -- In Keene, a small diner hails its role as a must-stop shop for presidential candidates. Along the coast of Lake Winnipesaukee, scattered campaign signs litter the roads, calling for America to be made great once again, for a new American century, or simply for a fighter with a career of scars to show for it.
In a metal fabrication plant in the suburb of Hudson, locals convene to discuss the needs of small business owners. And in Concord, New Hampshire's gilded capital building stands as a monument to the independence of the state– and as the perfect backdrop to dozens of television crews that descend on this place once every four years.
Americans learn from a young age that every vote counts in the democratic process. But in a presidential election, the votes of Granite Staters matter slightly more than others, as they cast the first batch in the nation under the world's gaze.
They accept the attention as both a distraction and a responsibility, turning out to vote in higher numbers than in most other states, where primary elections typically only attract the most enthusiastic voters from the base of each party. They visit with candidates repeatedly, offering third and fourth chances to each to earn the privilege of their exceptionally important support.
This year, state and local government officials braced for record turnout.
But the horse-race narratives that drive coverage of these races– who is up, who down and why– both consume and aggravate the residents here, who express a sense of suffocation with the media's presence outside of their voting booths and a feeling of suspicion that the narrative may not be driven by measurable data.
One voter, considering Florida Senator Marco Rubio for president, was visibly frustrated with coverage of the senator's performance in a Republican debate held here on Saturday night, speaking with The Jerusalem Post. Stories focused predominantly on the candidate's repeated use of the same talking point to attack US President Barack Obama– a point that was stressed by rival candidate Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey.
"Its almost impossible to do filter out," said Rene Paquin, a Manchester native, who was undecided up until election day between Rubio and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. "There's just so much media hype."
So, too, are voters frustrated with the pollsters, who are under intense pressure to measure marginal losses and gains on a near-constant basis from their employees. That results in phone calls from various polling agencies multiple times a day.
And modern-day pollsters face another quandary: How to reach voters in the digital age, when the landline phone numbers on which they had once relied no longer capture a representative sample of the electorate.
Despite these challenges– well understood by political reporters– coverage nevertheless relies on the product of these polls, as they offer the only empirical evidence that can justify the narrative of a horse race. Thus go not only headlines, but the funding of candidates, who rely equally on public and private polls alike to attract donors.
New Hampshire takes pride in defying polls. Few past results have matched accurately with polling averages, including in 2008 with Hillary Rodham Clinton's surprise victory over Barack Obama, or in 2012, when Mitt Romney won with an unexpectedly wide margin. That, in part, is due to the number of voters who repeatedly tell callers they are undecided: Up to 40 percent, according to some, remain undeclared until the moment they walk into the booth.
With clear skies on a crisp winter day, New Hampshirites once again entered this historic primary prepared to surprise.
"Today," reads the front page of the New Hampshire Union Leader, "is the poll that counts."