Students make N.H. a primary focus

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Outside the Muddy River Smokehouse, Jonathan Vandenburgh ’04 and Brad Lipton ’05 wave signs for Gen. Wesley Clark Saturday afternoon, inviting anyone who cares to come inside the opportunity to meet the former NATO commander and current Democratic presidential candidate.

But despite Vandenburgh’s tongue-in-cheek offer of “Wesley Clark and beer,” most pedestrians breeze past the two Yale seniors. In Portsmouth, a town of 20,000, the opportunity to meet a presidential candidate barely attracts an acknowledgement from many local residents.

Thirty minutes later, Vandenburgh and Lipton watch Clark as he greets supporters and voters inside the restaurant. Although the candidate only briefly acknowledges the two Yale students with a “thank you,” Lipton and Vandenburgh do not feel slighted. Clark needs to spend the final days of the campaign attracting voters he has not yet won over, Vandenburgh explains — and his sign reading “Wes is More” clearly indicates that the Yale senior is in no need of persuasion.

After Clark circulates through the crowd, shaking hands and even kissing a baby, he gives a brief speech asking for support and offers to answer a few questions. A local reporter asks what Clark’s plans are for the Portsmouth shipyard, while an undecided voter challenges the general on his attitude towards religion. As Clark explains that he is the “only candidate who can campaign in the South,” an aide whispers in his ear that it is time for him to go to another event.

While most Yale Democrats are used to getting their political fix through dining hall conversation and the CNN crawl, some students — like Vandenburgh and Lipton — have been making three-hour treks to the center of this week’s political universe: New Hampshire.

Because New Hampshire is the first state to hold its primary elections (Iowa, the other early player in the race for the Democratic nomination, holds caucuses), it receives far more attention from both the candidates and the media than it otherwise might. With Clark, former Gov. Howard Dean ’71, Sen. John Edwards, Sen. John Kerry ’66 and Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 fiercely battling for votes in the Granite State, the primary has also attracted Yale students who have been giving up their weekends and skipping class to play a role in one of the closest races in recent history.

The timing of New Hampshire’s primary also means something else: the campaign season is heating up here just as the weather gets the coldest. For volunteers, the cold presents a significant logistical challenge. In the final days of any election — especially one so hotly contested as this year’s primary — campaigns typically turn their attention to “get-out-the-vote” efforts. With New Hampshire voters famous for making up their minds in the final days of the campaign, volunteers play an integral role in swaying undecided voters and making sure supporters show up to the polls.

But most “get-out-the-vote” activities involve being outside. While volunteers sometimes make phone calls or enter data into computers, the most common tasks are canvassing (going door-to-door) and visibility (holding up signs on street corners). In Salem, N.H., Dean’s campaign instructed four Yale students waving signs at a busy intersection to take breaks and talk to voters inside a heated mall.

After standing in the cold for half an hour, Dean volunteer Scott Simpson ’04 said he wanted to go inside because he could not feel his nose. But even though Simpson and his classmates received a mixed reception from passing cars, he said he thought his efforts were helping to win votes for the former Vermont governor.

“I think it makes a difference,” Simpson said. “People say, ‘You can’t help but support someone who gets people so excited they’re willing to go out in 10 degree weather for him.'”

Lipton described how he stood in a driveway for two hours to make sure that Clark had a place to park for a rally, stressing how the opportunity to get involved in a campaign made braving the cold worth it for him and other young volunteers.

“You are only able to do this in college,” Lipton said.

In cities like Portsmouth, Nashua and Manchester, there are so many young volunteers that campaign workers often seem to outnumber actual New Hampshire voters. This concentration of young, politically-minded people results in a unique atmosphere where the conversation seldom strays from discussion of polls, campaign ads and stump speeches.

Eric Tam GRD ’06, a political science graduate student and Clark volunteer, said that even the social life in Manchester — which he jokingly refers to as “Manch Vegas” — revolves around the primary. Tam said volunteers and staffers from different campaigns often congregate at Raxx, a bar and billiards club located next door to the Lieberman campaign headquarters. Even at Raxx, which is famous for its lax policy toward IDs, the conversation never drifts far from the subject of politics. University of Delaware sophomore Meredith White, also a Clark volunteer, calls the experience “summer camp for political geeks.”

And while volunteers say they enjoy the experience of campaigning, they often work 15- or 20-hour days. Tam, a member of the Draft Clark Campaign that originally pushed for the former general to enter the race, has frequently spent three days a week in the Granite State despite his obligations as a graduate student. As one of the campaign’s most active volunteers, Tam often sleeps on a cot in the Manchester office to wake up at 5 a.m. and check the campaign ads running on New Hampshire television.

Most volunteers have little interaction with the candidates and little hope of getting a job for their efforts, but their trips to New Hampshire feed their appetite for politics. While driving from Portsmouth to Manchester, Tam and Joanne Savage LAW ’04 became so engaged in a conversation about the impact of the Iowa caucuses that they accidentally crossed the border into Massachusetts. Among both Dean and Clark volunteers, a common topic of conversation is whether their candidates can overtake Kerry, who became the front-runner after his win in Iowa.

While Savage said she has other interests, she said her life is increasingly dominated by the primary while she’s on the campaign trail.

“I get bored when I’m talking about anything other than politics,” Savage said.

But while most volunteers said they enjoyed the experience, some questioned how effective their work really was. At the Dean campaign office in Salem, staff and volunteers met to voice their concerns about whether supporters were being used properly. Despite the frantic pace of the campaign, volunteers often spend time awaiting instructions and trying to figure out how to make themselves useful. In the final days leading up to the primary, most voters have been saturated with phone calls and literature — leaving some volunteers with nothing to do but attend rallies or hold signs.

Tam said although he did not mind his role as a volunteer for Clark, he had to adapt to following the directions of paid staff.

“When I first got to the campaign, I was so used to leading,” Tam said. “But you realize two things: one, you need to do these things. And second, campaign organization is its own profession, and you have to respect that.”

Although volunteers for several campaigns say they question whether their work will make an impact, the Yale students who remain in New Hampshire today express a desire to take advantage of the opportunity to participate in a race that — regardless of poll numbers — they consider wide open.

Nicholas Brown ’03, who has been working for the Kerry campaign for the past two weeks, said he had no plans for a career in politics. An aspiring comedian, Brown had been working as a waiter in Chicago after graduation, but he quit his job two weeks ago to join the campaign in Davenport, Iowa. Although he said he could not afford to volunteer after the New Hampshire primary ended, he said he was drawn by the excitement of working for someone who could be president — and hoped to continue to volunteer as he tried to find a job.

“If I could survive off this, I’d do it for a year,” Brown said.

Democratic presidential candidate and former NATO commander Wesley Clark (left) chats with Joanne Savage LAW ’04 (right) at a restaurant in Portsmouth N.H. Jan. 24. Savage is one of a number of Yalies working in New Hampshire.
Claire Stanford
Democratic presidential candidate and former NATO commander Wesley Clark (left) chats with Joanne Savage LAW ’04 (right) at a restaurant in Portsmouth N.H. Jan. 24. Savage is one of a number of Yalies working in New Hampshire.

Comments