Dixville Notch, N.H. — Up in the Granite State's north country, where snowless and mild days have caused maple sap to flow early and where presidential aspirants have swarmed like black flies in spring, the voters in Dixville Notch are getting ready to cast the first ballots in the nation's first state primary of the year.
At the stroke of midnight as Feb. 26 begins, this town's 15 Republicans and 8 Democrats will meet in the "ballot room" of the Balsams Hotel. They will carry on a two-decade tradition of reporting the earliest returns in the New Hampshire primary, the political launching pad to the White House.
This year, the ballot room's thermostat will be turned down to 65 degrees to save oil, wood logs will blaze in a stone fireplace, and the lights will be powerd by the town's new sawdust-burning electric generating plant. A copy of the Manchester Union Leader, a pro-Reagan newspaper, will likely be close at hand, and local officials plan to take a quick tally of the votes this year. The event is sure to be recorded in force by television cameras and reporters as never before.
Like many New Englanders, people in Dixville have been affected by such pervasive influences as double-digit inflation, $1-a-gallon heating oil, often frustrating federal rules on business and local affairs, and a new concern for Soviet aggression and an apparent lowering of American dignity abroad.
The six-state region, home of Yankee independence and birthplace of American industry, has an early and influential start in the presidential sweepstakes. Yet New England is home to only a 6 percent share of the American population. New Hampshire goes to the polls Feb. 26 to choose delegates to the national Democratic and Republican Party conventions this summer. Maine already has begun or finished various local caucuses to choose representatives to statewide delegate-selection conventions this spring. Massachusetts conducts its primary March 4. Vermont has an nonbinding "beauty contest" primary, also in March 4. Connecticut runs its first-ever primary March 25. (Rhode Island, meanwhile, does not hold a primary until June 3.)
Voters in Dixville are very able to pass firsthand judgments on the charaters and competence of each candidate. Most, if not all, of the presidential contenders have whistle-stopped through the town at least once, maybe twice, and -- if a candiate reallym wants to win -- three times. In fact, a popular joke in Dixville is told about a farmer asked to vote for a Republican candidate, George Bush. The response: "Well, can't say I will yet. Only met 'im twice."
If any group of people should feel that its votes make a difference in the direction of the country, it has to be the voters of Dixville Notch.
And yet, as interviews here as well as with dozens of other New Englanders and political workers show, a mood of sober realism about the increasingly limited power of any US president crops up among the electorate like granite boulders in a spring thaw.
"I worry that my vote may not really matter. I'm concerned about the inability of any president to get the job done," says Warren Pearson, a Dixville Republican.
Another Dixville voter, Raoul Jolin, a Democrat who speaks with a slight French-Canadian accent, is betting on Jimmy Carter to win, but he says, "Somehow it doesn't really make a difference."
New England voters, bred on frugality and sacrifice in the past decade of more-than-average economic and energy hardship, have lowered their expectations of what government can do.
Perceptions are prevalent that a fractions Congress has a tighter grip on a one-imperial presidency and that textbook notions of how government is supposed to work have little day-to-day meaning when people's lives are beset by such unwieldy forces as inflation, world energy prices, and "big" business, unions, and government.
A visceral hope still remains among some that one man can imbue the nation with purpose against all odds, but is a hope buried deeper than ever.
"People don't sense a marked distinction between candidates," says Lawrence Radway, a Dartmouth College political professor.
What people are left with, New Hampshire pollster Dickinson Bennett says, is voting out of a sense of duty and just to be "involved."
"Most people feel the candidates are all the same and so they vote for a 'nice' guy because it doesn't really matter," Mr. Bennett finds in his firm's polling. "What it boils down to is that people want to vote for the winner."
The desire to be on a winning bandwagon, the political consultants says, is similar to the interest of the owner of a new car who checks newspaper ads to make sure that he has not been conned, or, even more, to make sure that he apperas to othersm that he has not been conned.
In fact, it is difficult to find any New Hampshirite who wil admit that he voted for Richard Nixon, who is the only presidential candidate ever to win the state's primary three times, or who will admit voting for Meldrim Thomson Jr., the archconservative who won three terms as governor until losing in 1978.
When a candidate stumps the campaign trail in New England these days, the crowd often listens with a mannerly lack of intensity. Any fervor is tempered by a passion for dispassionate balance on issues and a desire to avoid labels. Distinctions between the parties are blurred. Candidates rush to be called "moderates." While there is serious examination of each candidate's position, a deeper scrunity by many voters measures howm a potential president would handle a problem rather than just what he believes should be done now.
"I really question whether voting for any party makes any difference," Alan Wilder, who builds log homes, comments in Chester, Vt. In town after town, voters say there is a need for order and stability and amid complex and nagging problems of the nation. It is not so much that the circumstances of people's lives are bad, as de Tocqueville said over 100 years ago, but that they a re changing.
The so-called "peashooter" voters, who choose a candidate based on a single issue, are hard to find in numbers, although they attract attention. The problems facing New Englanders, however, appear to be so much more complicated and so much less controllable than years past that when a candidate speaks, the crowds seem merely to be gathering information on consequences that will shape their lives.
New Englanders, by and large, know that there is an energy problem and that their family's future may hang on the geopolitical balance in the Persian Gulf, but they are not quite sure whether the United States should dismantle the OPEC oil carter, Exxon, the Soviet Army, or the US Department of Energy.
A survey of voters conducted by Williams College in January in Pittsfield, Mass., and Keene, N.H. indicated that a "striking" share of voters had not yet made a candidate choice -- as much as 65 percent. About half said they had low to moderate interest in the primary elections. Another example of political disillusionment: A conference in March at Brown University in Providence, R. I., is focused on the question of whether the American political system can cope with society's problems.
In Claremont, N.H., a survey of 1,200 residents showed recently that only about half the people knew the identity of their congressmen and only one-third could name the US secretary of defense. "I think people are simply turned off by government. They're generally very cynical about its usefulness," siad a Claremont political science teacher, Barry Levine.A similar survey by the Nashua Telegraph last year showed that southern New Hampshire residents knew more about Massachusetts government than their own.
"New Hampshire people of all political persuasions tend to agree that less government is better government," the Carroll County Independent comments editorially. Greenhorns are not suffered long, and any intrusion of bureaucrats triggers open defiance.
The Monadnock Ledger, another Granite State newspaper, wondered recently why people can be so concerned about presidential politics when they do not even appear to care about local problems. "Last week, seven persons attended the public hearing on the [school] budget. Even Harold Stassen could draw a bigger crowd," the paper commented. Attendance at town meetings in Marblehead, Mass., has sunk to the point where officials plan to hire a town crier this spring to coax voters out of their homes. As local budgets emerge this year, residents find that many costs are beyond their control. "I don't know where we'll end up ," says Madison Sears, a selectman in Plymouth, N.H.
Even the candidates detect something amiss. In New Bedford, Mass., Republican Bush told an audience: "Jimmy Carter has ruined the campaign-promise business for all of us. I've been forced to invent [another] commandment: no more promises. Noboby believes them anyway." GOP contender John B. Anderson, stumping across New Hampshire, worries that too many voters believe that it matters little who sits in the Oval Office. His wife, Keke, adds, "People says they will vote for someone for the craziestm reason."
California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., spending almost as much time in New England campaigning these days as he does in his home state, bases a large part of his political appeal on the idea of "empowering" citizens to join in small groups to "take greater control over the fundamental decisions."
When large crowds do show up at a candidate's media happening, they appear to enjoy being part of a national event on television. The new attention of the national news mdeia on the Maine Democratic caucuses, held Feb. 10, in additon to the intensity of the Kennedy-Carter battle, is cited as a reason for a fivefold increase in voter turnout, compared with 1976. A wave of young people have registered to vote in the Massachusetts primary, but officials report that many have signed on as independents.
Patriotism, patronage, and publicity affect the impressionable -- especially the young and the poor elderly -- and recent "save-and-praise the country" campaign speeches go over big, touching, a latent longing to be patriotic again after the Vietnam war. The pro-defense mood also feeds the financial furnaces of New England's big defense and high-technology industries. For a candidate to say he is against building MX missiles is the same as yelling "we don't need jobs" in the streets of many Boston suburbs where such companies are situated. High technology is the biggest provider of new jobs in the Bay State.
Perhaps less than in past election time, New England reacts more to personal, handshaking persuasion from candidates than to polished promotions on television. "People read the newpapers in New Hampshire and don't always trust a candidate's pitch on television," a berlin N.H., resident said, noting that New Hampshirites know there is a fine line between persuasion and media manipulation.
People's demands for personal appearances on their turf has grown over the decades that the New Hampshire primary has been around. The sophistication of campaigning has been matched, handshake for handshake, with the political savvy of New Hampshirrites who know they are being courted.
Still, there is a perception that "professionals" -- consultants, speech writers, the news media -- are running the campaign, packaging the candidates into serial-like TV dramas that can be canceled at any moment, controlling public opinion in a way that leaves "the little guy" only making a gesture with his vote. "The campaigns are all orchestrated," says Raymond Mason, a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee old-timer in Exeter, N.H. Many citizens report a feeling that the TV camera has become a powerful actor in the nominating process , artificially limiting the presidential horse race to the "front-runners" and shaping public perceptions of what the "issues" are.
Do issues become the focus of a campaign because the press and television catapult them into prominence?
The US Census Bureau finds that leaky basements are of more concern to people than crime, yet no candidate talks of proposing a dry Basement Act. What happens, for instance, to the "issue" of gasoline rationing if Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who brought up the subject in January, drops out of the race?
At a country store in Guilford, Vt., the issue for the owner, Dart Everett, is that people now serve the government, not the other way around. If he thinks a government questionnaire is obnoxious, he just refuses to answer it.
Longtime Vermonter Leonard Buchanan votes only to get "the lesser of all evils" in government. "Somehow we've got to get the shoe around so that the government is working for us," says the burly, black-bearded house painter in Brattleboro. He cannot understand why he is asked to conserve electricity when the utility company keeps asking for rate increases. Frustrated over energy costs, he is installing a coal stove in his home, which just happens to be within sight of the Vermont Yankee atomic power plant.
Police in North Stratford, N.H., recently reported that a shotgun blast at an Exxon station was likely to a protest against high gasoline prices. In Vermont, Brattleboro school officials blamed "the residents of the Middle East" for a $68 ,500 increase in heating oil bills.
Much of the region's electricity is generated by nuclear power -- as much as 70 percent in Vermont -- and this economic reality may mute concern over the future of that energy source. Electric bills here are higher than the national average. The region will soon be buying a big chunk of electricity from the mammoth $15 billion James Bay hydroelectric complex in Canada.
When it comes to battling inflation, the possibility that the cure requires a recession raises fears among people who think they will get the short end of it. And, says Mr. Everett at his country store: "People don't believe they have any control over inflation. They don't even think they can fight it." There is an appreciation for collective sacrifice on energy use, but a skepticism that it would ever happen just because of appeals for voluntary conservation.
The lesson that solutions to problems often become problems themselves is not easily missed in the land that invented Yankee ingenuity. Gray smoke now hangs over many valley towns whose residents have switched in large numbers to wood as a primary heat source. Tapping small dams for hydroelectric power is an issue that has divided such towns as Springfield, Vt., ever since the Arab oil embargo in 1973. The long effort to build the money-saving Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire has led to a desperate search for investors among utilities in New England.
The region's residents hardly need to be told to sacrifice for the nation's sake. The highly oil-dependent region weathered a heavy economic storm during the 1974-75 recession and forced itself to learn the lessons of "less-ismore" and finite limits on its oil diet.
A migration of young activists and older retirees into picture-postcard rural towns has brought about renewed environmental concern. Moose, coyotes, wild turkeys, and Atlantic salmon are returning to the New England wilderness and rivers. But acid rain, allegedly floating from coal-burning plants in the Midwest, are slowly killing trees and lake life. There are numerous campaigns to preserve farmland and adopt slow-growth policies in Vermont and along the prosperous southern tier of New Hampshire.
The Granite State has an unemployed rate that is half the national average, a trible-A bond rating, the fastest population growth east of the Mississippi save for Florida, and no state income or sales tax. The boom growth also means a boom in big-city problems, such as crime and rugs. A commuter train just opened up service between Boston and Concord, New Hampshire's capital, reflecting a migration of residents away from Massachusetts, which ranks first in the nation in overall tax burden.
Despite the influx of young liberals into New Hampshire, the Manchester Union Leader, the only statewide newspaper, still is widely read, either for news or for entertainment. Its publisher, William Loeb, an archconservative who strongly backs Ronald Reagan and can kill support for an opponent -- such as he has managed to dot to Republican Philip M. Crane -- commands a direct readership of 68,000 in a state whose 1980 primary is expected to draw an estimated 200,000 voters. Candidates structure their campaigns by regions of the nation, and in New England many people identify themselves with the six-state area.
What hog prices are to Iowans, wood prices are to New Englanders, and a candidate's talk is keyed to such local concerns. The computer and fishing industries have had a decade of high growth, while the old-mill-style shoe and textile companies are barely progressing. A snow famine this winter left resort operators high and dry financially and left towns to contend with a bumper crop of frost heaves in roadways. Overall, the region is expected to weather the recession that's expected better than most of the nation.
A question as to whether voters will choose a candidate who offers government retrenchment, or whether they elect one who offers a gung-ho, positive presidency, will be settled for most of New England in the next month. While there will hardly be a deserting of the voting booth, there may be a new understanding of the limits on government.