New Hampshire primary draws political tourists to see 'circus'

U.S. presidential candidates spend a lot of time campaigning in New Hampshire ahead of its primary, and that draws political junkies from across the country, and even some Canadians, as political tourists.

Political junkies from across the U.S., and even from Canada, flock to New Hampshire every 4 years

College students watch Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump entering a hotel for interviews in Manchester, N.H., on Sunday. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

New Hampshire's quaint and picturesque towns, ski hills, hiking trails and coastal beaches make it a popular tourist destination throughout the year, but this past weekend it was attracting a unique set of visitors — political junkie tourists.

The Granite State holds a special place in American presidential politics because of its 100-year-old tradition of hosting the first-in-the nation primary. It's a point of pride for this small state of 1.3 million people, where voters will help determine the shape of the presidential race going forward when they vote on Tuesday.

Because New Hampshire is so crucial to the fortunes of presidential candidates, they spend an awful lot of time here in the days leading up to the primary. They flood the airwaves with ads. Lawn signs are everywhere, planted by volunteers who have been door-knocking here for months. Phones are constantly ringing with calls made by campaigns and pollsters, asking people in New Hampshire who has their vote.

The candidates hold rallies and town halls. They wander through diners and coffee shops shaking hands, kissing babies and asking for support. Media from around the world are here to cover them.

In the final days before the primary the events attract not only local residents but also civic-minded people from all over the U.S. — and beyond. There were even some Canadians who, despite the low loonie, came south of the border to see the hoopla for themselves, and in one hotel lobby there was a group of tourists who came all the way from Holland. They drove around New Hampshire this weekend with a sign reading "White House Watch."

'We don't have anything like this in Canada'

Toronto resident Derek Vanstone, who used to work on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, arrived Saturday morning with two friends and spent the day visiting various campaign headquarters and going to a pre-debate rally.

"I'm here to see the circus," Vanstone said as he watched the Republican debate that night from a hotel bar in Manchester. "We don't have anything like this in Canada at all."
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes a selfie with customers at a Dunkin' Donuts in Manchester, N.H., on Sunday. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Chad Rogers, also a former Parliament Hill staffer, agreed with his friend that the whole New Hampshire primary ritual is "certainly not like politics at home." The amount of money that is spent by campaigns on just one little state, for example, and the degree to which people are engaged in politics here sets New Hampshire apart, they said.

"This is like politics multiplied by Cirque du Soleil, multiplied by, I don't know, is it politically correct to say the freak show? It's quite a spectacle," Rogers said. "It's kind like our politics with a heavy dose of crystal meth."

Glenn Fiscus, a Boston resident, is a seasoned political tourist in New Hampshire, having made the trip with his wife every four years since 1988.

"We are primary buffs," said Fiscus, who was at a restaurant in Manchester to see John Kasich. "It's fun. It's a unique American experience."

Friends gather every 4 years

Jim and Karin Hoffmann, both in their early 60s, live in Philadelphia and have been doing the primary weekend trips since 2000. The tradition started out as just the two of them, but friends joined them over the years; this trip, there are 13 of them following the candidates around.

"You're at the centre of the political world," Jim said about why he does it, adding you can witness some memorable campaign moments.

He and Karin were at a Howard Dean event in 2004 in the small town of Exeter when former Saturday Night Live star, now Minnesota senator Al Franken — a Dean supporter — helped tackle a heckler to the ground and a scuffle ensued.

"His glasses got broken in half," Jim recalled.

Jim was in charge of organizing the group's itinerary for this weekend, plotting out where the candidates were and figuring out logistics so they could squeeze in as many events as possible.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, speaks to voters at a restaurant in Strafford, N.H., on Friday. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

A Trump event was definitely on the agenda. "We'd like to see him because we can't believe his hair," said Karin. "Let's go see what that looks like!"

Her friend Peggy LaRoche is a first-time political tourist and travelled from Florida to join in the fun. Political tourism is a "whole other cottage industry" in New Hampshire, she said.

When LaRoche was 13 years old, she got to see President Lyndon B. Johnson up close when he visited her town in Pennsylvania. The same friend who was with her that day was with her in New Hampshire this weekend.

Intimate look at candidates

Now 65, she's still getting a thrill out of being so close to big political figures. She's mindful that one of the candidates she followed around this weekend could be the future president of the United States.

"That's extremely exciting to me," she said as she trailed behind Kasich while he shook hands and took pictures with people eating their lunch at the Puritan Backroom Restaurant on Saturday.
Glenn Fiscus heads from Boston to New Hampshire every four years to take part in the primary fun. It's a tradition he started in 1988. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

For some political tourists in New Hampshire, it's not just the chance to shake hands with the potential future president that draws them here, it's the opportunity to hear from the candidates in small settings rather than on TV or at large rallies. It can help determine their vote.

"It's the only place you can get the intimate look and feel of the candidates," said Lee Baylin as he stood a few metres away from a stage that Chris Christie took a few minutes later on Saturday morning. "Here, you get to road-test them."

The Baltimore resident made the trip in 2008, too. When he arrived, he was a Hillary Clinton supporter, when he left, he was voting for Barack Obama. His mind was changed after hearing Obama speak at a tiny theatre in Manchester.

"It was absolutely inspiring. And I'm an old guy — it's hard to capture me emotionally, and he did. He just captured my heart and my mind," said Baylin.

New Hampshire welcomes the political circus with open arms every four years, and the friendly residents here appreciate the opportunities they get to meet presidential candidates.

"It's clear that they take the first-in-the-nation thing pretty seriously," the Canadian Chad Rogers noticed.

But some residents, like Joe Hannaford, who lives in the town of Bedford, won't be sorry to see the circus leave town and have life return to normal.

 "I think a lot of us will be happy when it's over," he said.

About the Author

Meagan Fitzpatrick


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multi-platform reporter with CBC in Toronto. She previously worked in CBC's Washington bureau and covered the 2016 election. Prior to heading south of the border Meagan worked in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She has also reported for CBC from Hong Kong. Follow her on Twitter @fitzpatrick_m


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