Plugging for Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, I glimpsed the passion behind U.S. politics and the dynamics of the race for the presidency.
By Emefa Agawu
“I cannot believe you’re calling during the Super Bowl half-time show!”
I could hear the voice on the other end of the phone falter for a moment before a broad smile stretched across Kathy’s face. She chuckled and then said good-naturedly into the receiver, “I’m just kidding. Yes, I’m voting for Hillary, and yes, I know where my polling station is.”
This year, the Super Bowl — America’s biggest football game of the year — fell two days before the New Hampshire primary, the second state contest that awards delegates to U.S. presidential candidates on the long road to the White House.
Most of the country had no reason to be concerned about the timing of the athletic contest. But for campaign volunteers like myself in New Hampshire, eager to reach as many primary voters as possible so close to election day, the Super Bowl, with its huge TV audience, was an enormous impediment.
The young volunteer who called Kathy had decided that it was worth calling during the half-time break in the game. I had arrived earlier that day to volunteer with the Hillary Clinton campaign, and I imagined the tightening in her chest when Kathy sternly answered the phone.
Reaching angry voters on the phone inspires two anxieties — the fear of being screamed at by a stranger, and the fear that a badly conducted phone call could lose your candidate a voter.
I felt my age, race and gender in ways that made me curious.
The tension between etiquette and passion nagged at me all weekend. Etiquette was what dragged my heart into my throat every time I knocked on a stranger’s door, fearing for a split-second each time that I was about to be yelled at for disturbing some poor soul’s peace.
But on that Monday night in early February, passion was what propelled me into the middle of a New Hampshire snowstorm, over my body’s protests, to knock on door after door. I was staying with three other Hillary Clinton volunteers and staffers — all three of us women in our early 20s — in Kathy’s home.
A middle-aged woman, Kathy has kind eyes and maternal instincts. She lavished us with homemade chili and bundled us in woolen hats and scarves. She voted for Hillary Clinton, but I wouldn’t have blinked twice if she had told us she’d just hosted a young volunteer from a different campaign in need of a place to stay.
Over the three days I spent in New Hampshire — which felt more like three weeks — I felt my age, race and gender in ways that made me curious, more than anything else. In the age of intense demographics research to help candidates figure out which arguments are most effective to which segments of the population — black voters, young voters, female voters — I found myself interested rather in the ways that voters responded to different volunteers and campaign staff. At such a late stage, the business of swaying New Hampshire voters depends a lot, unsurprisingly, on interpersonal dynamics.
The Manchester office was buzzing with frantic and hopeful energy when I arrived on Monday night for the evening’s final round of phone calls. Posters offering inspiring quotes hung on the walls. Around me I caught fragments of conversations — “Hey, I remember you from Iowa!” — as savvy New Hampshirites, knowing better than to answer the phone the evening before Primary Day, let us ring until voicemail. The air was thick with camaraderie, laced with apprehension.
For the amateur social scientist, a campaign office provides reasonable subjects for observation. We are all given the same scripts for phone calls, and one can observe subtle differences in how people respond to different voices. In those three days, I wished several times something I’d never wished before — that I could be an old white woman. They were rarely hung up on! I also suspected, but couldn’t be certain, that male and female voices get different reactions.
“But the story did not end there.”
Of course, the reactions weren’t always mild. Walking from door to door, one of our fellow campaign canvassers, a third-generation American of Mexican heritage, was asked by a supporter for Republican candidate Donald Trump whether he was “an illegal”.
Last Tuesday, Clinton lost to Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. For many people the story ended there. But for Rog, the good-humored grandfather who was outside at the polls at 6 am holding a sign in support of the candidate he believes will bring about the best future for his 8-year-old granddaughter, the story did not end there.
Nor did it for the woman who confided in me about her serious illness and skyrocketing healthcare costs while apologizing that she couldn’t afford to send any more money to the campaign.
For thousands of voters in New Hampshire who believe in candidates who did not come in first place, the story did not end there. The quality of their passion is not diminished by the number of votes their opponents won.
Kathy dropped us off at the bus station at 7:15 on Wednesday morning. She pressed snacks for the journey into our open hands and offered us warm words of farewell. I couldn’t exactly tell whether she was sad to see us go. Sure, she’d miss our goofy energy, but in her wave, she exuded the same sigh of relief that seemed to settle over the whole of New Hampshire as we drove away.
Phew, back to normal.
Emefa Agawu is a research assistant with the Empirical Studies of Conflict (ESOC) Project at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. She graduated from Yale with a degree in Political Science, where she focused on global politics. She has worked or studied in the United States, the UK and Ghana.