Presidential election looks very different from N.H. town halls

The presidential election can often look loud and angry. New Hampshire's town halls offer more substantive view.  

Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer/AP
Republican presidential candidate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie listens to a question during a town hall meeting at the Keene Elks Lodge in Keene, N.H. on Thursday.

The iconic images of the 2016 presidential race are outsize personalities and massive rallies peopled with “angry voters” who, in some respects, often function as convenient props, cheering on cue. It’s a narrative that makes for great political theater, especially with billionaire celebrity Donald Trump in the fray.

But here in New Hampshire, the fight for the White House is also taking shape in a decidedly distinctive way. In the intimate setting of town halls up and down the Granite State, the one-liner isn’t always the best wrench in the rhetorical toolkit, and the scenes are notably more subdued.

Not that these are wan affairs. In New Hampshire, politics is mogul skiing backward down a double black diamond. But the dynamics are different from a packed hall, where calls to “make America great again” or “start the political revolution” draw roars or approval. In front of an unvetted audience and facing unscripted questions, candidates must often reach into the substance of policy solutions to get nods of approval. And they must often tread into new territory – following where the audience leads.

Such town halls are a staple of presidential campaigning everywhere these days, but here they are a tradition rooted in the Yankee soil like the beech and birch of the White Mountains. Here, town halls are the symbolic lifeblood of the primary, and in this election in particular, they are offering those who care to look a very different perspective of the presidential race.

Perhaps the most obvious example of how New Hampshire can shape the race in its own way is on the issue of opiate drug addiction. Nationally, it barely figures in polls. But in New Hampshire, nearly half of people know someone who has used heroin in the past five years – 60 percent, for people under 35, according to a WMUR Granite State poll.

Candidates say the intensity of the issue here took them by surprise. Some, like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, fresh from a victory in Iowa, adapted the issue to existing law-and-order talking points. “If you look at what is happening right now on our borders, it’s an absolute disgrace,” he said, referencing his own 11-page immigration plan.  ”You have drugs flooding into this country. If you want to turn around the drug crisis, you have to finally secure the border.”

He concluded his comments without taking questions.

Along similar lines, Donald Trump told a town hall meeting in Farmington, N.H., last month that the solution to New Hampshire’s drug problem is to build a wall across the southern border to stop the drugs pouring in.

But others have taken a different approach – particularly the three governors in the race who have experience dealing with the issue at home: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.

Governor Christie has turned the issue into a centerpiece of his campaign. Exiting a town hall meeting in Bow, N.H., on Tuesday, Governor Christie says that he was stopped by a woman disappointed that no one had asked him about the state’s “awful, horrible drug problem.” Hours later, in Milford, N.H., he opened the town hall meeting with his mother’s lifelong struggle with nicotine. When she fell ill, “no one told me: ‘Don’t treat her, she’s made a choice, she’s getting what she deserved.’ “

“We need to stop making moral judgments on their choices and start helping them get on with their lives,” he said in an address to New Hampshire state representatives last month, which went viral. The governor also announced a $100 million program to convert a former prison into a treatment center for prisoners with drug problems. ”There’s a stigma with heroin, he says. “We keep it quiet.”

In this way, the governors have viewed the issue as a chance to deepen the conversation on criminal justice and expand the traditional GOP base.

The issue has had a similar impact on the Democratic side.

In her first campaign event in New Hampshire, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked a question from a retired physician on opiate addiction. That question put the issue on her radar, she said.

Three months later, Clinton’s campaign proposed a $10 billion plan to combat opiate addiction, including treatment and recovery programs instead of jail last September. In addition, for every $1 that a state invests in a comprehensive plan on the issue, the plan proposes adding $4 in federal funding.

Republican Jeb Bush released an ad featuring the experience of his daughter, Noelle, with drug addiction. Like Mrs. Clinton, he says that heroin addiction was the first question he was asked on his first day in the state.

The 37-page Bush “Plan for America,” released last month, calls for access to treatment and reduced mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders. “Because prescription painkiller abuse is closely related to heroin use, treatment and recovery efforts must address both,” the plan says

For Governor Kasich, his standing ovation came not with a plan to seal the border but when he told a group of business leaders that Republicans have an obligation to do more than create surpluses or cut taxes – a point he has made repeatedly in town halls.

Whether the governors’ substantive style of campaigning in town halls here will make a difference is in doubt. The governors currently sit fourth, fifth, and sixth in the RealClearPolitics average of major polls, well behind Mr. Trump and several points behind Sen. Marco Rubio and Senator Cruz.

But the town halls remain a window onto a different campaign even for front-runners on occasion.

On Thursday, Cruz added a personal touch to his speech at a forum on addiction and recovery at the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Hooksett, N.H. He discussed the overdose death of his half-sister, Miriam, and his father’s successful battle against alcohol. 

The solution won’t come from Washington, he said. “It’s going to be friends and family, churches and charities, loved ones, treatment centers, people working with people to overcome their addiction.”

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