August 4, 2013

Michael Cuzzi: N.H.'s ability to influence elections has gone to its head

The state's strength lies not in its 'entitled' political elite, but in the folksy nature of its primary process.

It's summertime in Maine, and the political winds are wafting like an early August breeze. The legislative session is over. The gubernatorial candidates are focused on raising money and attending festivals. Congress is in recess, and the president is heading to Martha's Vineyard for vacation.

Sure, we still have to deal with Gov. LePage's unnecessarily furtive attempt to change anti-smog regulations. And charter schools remain a disappointing political football. But all in all, Maine politics are on holiday.

So it's as good a time as ever to change gears and talk New Hampshire politics.

I spent two presidential election cycles working in New Hampshire, the first as an advance man for John Kerry and the second as the political director for then-Sen. Barack Obama. I've been to more Granite State firehouses, town greens, college campuses, retirement homes and school gymnasiums than I can recall.

I've seen the candidates in unguarded moments of pique and exhilaration. I've watched young staffers pour their lives into a campaign. I've experienced the unparalleled thrill of a come-from-behind Granite State primary victory and the crushing disappointment of an unexpected defeat.

Along the way, I've developed an appreciation for the candor, crustiness and intensity of New Hampshire's primary voters.

Granite Staters of all political stripes take their historic responsibility of winnowing the field seriously. They relish their ability to rebuke a presumptive front-runner, breathe new life into a flagging campaign or help anoint an eventual nominee. In town hall meetings and living rooms alike, they do not accept the rhetorical dodge and are quick to ask for specifics.

Along with the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus, New Hampshire exerts a critically important force on the remainder of the nominating process. What happens there can affect the arc of the entire campaign. The stakes are enormously high, even as the campaigning itself remains wonderfully and intensely local.

That grassrootsy-ness is what makes New Hampshire's primary process so valuable. At no other time are the candidates so close to the voters, leading to a refreshing measure of unpredictability even as the campaigns struggle mightily to keep candidates "on message" and reporters at bay.

But for all its value -- and there is plenty -- New Hampshire's primary has created an entitlement mentality that flourishes amongst the state's real and imagined political elite. The expectation that a presidential candidate will personally call, visit and effectively prostrate himself or herself in order to win their support is disappointingly real.

One member of New Hampshire's political illuminati once told me, "I cannot decide to support Sen. Obama unless he spends 10 minutes with me." Really? Team Obama was determined not to play that game.

In fact, in early 2007, Ben Smith penned a Politico post titled "Obama Bucks New Hampshire Way."

The article's key line said, "Supporters and opponents alike say (Obama's) doing something new, devoting less energy to the care and feeding of local officials while he works harder to engage the state's population at large." (Think about that.)

As Obama staffers, we wore Smith's article like a badge of honor. We were guilty -- intentionally -- of talking to actual voters at the expense of the chattering class.

More recently, the Granite State's political elite (and, surprisingly, me with them) found their way into Mark Leibovich's new Washington, D.C., expose, "This Town." It's a withering critique of the status-obsessed political and social climbers in and around our nation's capital.

Leibovich writes, "Back in the 2008 primary campaign, (Obama's) New Hampshire political guy, Mike Cuzzi, set up a dinner with a bunch of self-important local activists (a redundancy in New Hampshire, given the top-level attention lavished on them every four years). Obama stayed for hours, told stories, talked about the campaign, asked everyone about their lives, concerns, etc. They all had a splendid time, by every indication. But not a single one of them committed. ... 'What do I have to do,' Obama asked Cuzzi on their way out, 'wash their cars?' "

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