When Hell Freezes Over

Prologue

“Nice sweater.” I had stopped at a gas station in Rye, New Hampshire when I received this compliment from the clerk. After watching the Iowa caucus coverage I started to get caught up in the election fever. I subscribed to the Five Thirty Eight podcast and thought back to the excitement of the 2008 presidential primaries. At the time, I thought how cool it would be to part of Obama’s potentially historic campaign. I was intrigued hearing about how he was able to so effectively mobilize the ground campaign in the Iowa caucus and come out with a victory. Equally interesting to me was Hillary’s come from behind victory in New Hampshire.  The bizarre rules of the Iowa caucus, the large independent voter population in New Hampshire and the unpredictability of both state elections was something I wanted to be a part of.

Having quit my job a couple of weeks prior to the start of the 2016 voting season, I found myself in the unique position of actually getting involved on the ground this time around.  Identifying as a Democrat, I thought about signing up to help with Hillary or Bernie’s campaign. I wasn’t excited about the prospect, primarily due to the fact that the race was heavily weighted in favor of Bernie. New Hampshire is next door to Bernie’s home state of Vermont and is demographically ideal for him. What I found far more interesting was the field of Republican candidates. It’s not uncommon during primaries for the parties to deviate to the extremist ends of the political spectrum in order to earn the favor of the party’s base. However, in this field you had candidates calling for the ban of Muslims entering the United States, carpet bombing of Syria and offering to pay the legal bills for supporters that attack their protesters. Amazingly, these candidates (Trump and Cruz) had finished first and second in the Iowa caucus.

I decided I would travel to New Hampshire to see firsthand what actually happens in a state of just over a million people when the eyes of the entire world are on them. I would volunteer “under cover” for a few Republican candidates to see how effectively their campaigns were run, what kinds of people were supporting these candidates and what reaction I would receive trying to convince New Hampshirites to vote for each.

A Ticket on the Trump Train

I arrived at Trump’s Manchester, NH headquarters just past 10:00am on Thursday. It’s located on the second floor of an otherwise unassuming office building just west of the Merrimack River. The entrance was locked with instructions to ring the bell, which I did. After declaring I would like to volunteer, I was asked to take a seat and told that Sid would be out with me shortly.  The office was adorned with campaign posters that staffers had made, various pictures of the Donald, including one of a younger Trump shaking hands with the revered Ronald Reagan himself. On the back wall was a decoration I recognized from arts and craft stores, oversized wooden letters of his initials, DJT.

As I was waiting, a very large, heavily breathing man came in to offer his support for the campaign. His name was Matt and he worked for the campaign offices in Chicago. He had been in Iowa knocking on doors and had been asked to ship out to New Hampshire as soon as he could after the Iowa caucus. Matt told me that Trump was the only man capable of saving our country and he would do whatever it took to get him elected.

Sid, an older man with grey hair and a Bluetooth clipped to his ear, came out shortly thereafter. “That’s a great sweater, man” he told me before asking my story. He was very excited to learn that I had driven up from New York unrequested to help. For a campaign that no one took seriously and had just come off a second place finish in a state they had been projected to win, I sensed a desire to grab onto something that gave it legitimacy. Supporters inspired enough to travel across state lines and give up a week to volunteer would be a good sign. Sid grouped Matt and me with Brian, a friend of Matt’s from the Chicago office, and two men from the Mississippi office, Dale and James, to knock on doors.

While we were being trained in using the app for tracking our door-to-door efforts, Brian tapped me on the shoulder and asked who made a campaign sign that read “Trump on the Stump 2016.” I explained that I didn’t know as I was a volunteer and this was my first time here. Brian told me that he loved that sign. He paused for a moment and then leaned back in and said that he was going to take it and get it laminated. It was on fluorescent yellow poster board with green lettering. It was not a visually appealing sign. By the time our short, three- to five-minute training was over, Brian had asked me who had made four other signs in the office, telling me that there were some really creative people here. Brian had a penchant for talking extremely loud. In a room full of supporters of Donald Trump, one of the loudest most obnoxious people in the country, Brian was asked on two occasions to lower his voice. After the training, Brian revealed that he had a Windows phone that wasn’t compatible with the required app and the campaign made the unfortunate decision to pair us together.

I should mention here that Brian is an African American around my age. It was surprising to me, given Trump’s fan base, but I bring this up because we were sent to the town of Windham, NH to knock on doors. The 2010 census shows Windham to be 95.2% White and 0.4% African American. It shows 0% of the population under the poverty line.  It took me seven minutes at one point to go from one house to the house next door as the properties were so large. So, when Brian and I were stopped on multiple occasions in the street and asked what we were doing while the two gents from Mississippi were never questioned, I chalked it up to race. And I was not surprised, though greatly amused, to discover that most people that stopped us were supporters of Trump, admitting this to us after we revealed we were volunteers for the campaign. Watching shock and confusion wash over their faces was well worth my time that day.

Those moments of amusement were critical; it was a long day with Brian. A common opening line of his was to compliment the doorbell tone to the owner of the house. No one knew how to handle this. Some said nothing. A couple welcomed him to ring it again to which Brian replied, “No, that’s okay.”

“Sometimes people think I’m trying to move in, but I just want to ask some questions,” Brian told me after leaving one of the houses. I nodded politely. He suggested I have some energy drinks. At another point of the day, he suggested Hurricane Katrina was a cover up by the media. Covering up what exactly was unclear to me.

I enjoyed getting to know the two men from Mississippi. Dale had served in the military and then the FBI. He was a sniper and had been tasked with helping the secret service when candidates would come through Mississippi. As a result, he was able to get his picture taken with many of the candidates and cherished one he had with Reagan, something he could share with Mr. Trump. During lunch, he was contacted by the Mississippi headquarters about a death threat his social media team had found against Trump. He pulled up the Facebook page of the individual in question and read a few details to our group. “Occupation: Sexologist, Location: Your momma’s house,” he said with a chuckle and mentioned the individual would be getting a visit from the Secret Service. The other man from Mississippi, James, has a son who is a junior in high school. After hearing I was from New York, he talked about a recent visit to the city and how his son had played a pickup basketball game at Rucker Park. He showed me some pictures and tried hard to remember the name of a Mexican restaurant near the Port Authority. “Awesome quesadilla, you have to try it” he insisted.

That night I went to a Trump rally in Portsmouth, NH. It was held in a community college gym, complete with merchandise being sold at the entrance. “Bomb the Hell Out of ISIS” and “Put Hillary in Jail” buttons along with Trump’s signature, red “Make America Great Again” trucker hats were all available and overpriced.  Security was tight and secret service patted you down after going through a metal detector. Minutes before Trump took the stage, a recording warned potential protestors that while Trump supports the first amendment as much as the second amendment, this was a private event and disruptions would not be tolerated. Any protestors should not be attacked, the recording continued, but rather surrounded by supporters holding Trump signs chanting “Trump, Trump, Trump” until police could escort them out. A small group of college students to my right started to surround their friend and chant Trump’s name.

Trump took the stage to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” Shortly thereafter he explained how he was right about illegal Mexican immigrants by telling the story of an elderly woman who was raped, sodomized and murdered by an illegal immigrant in California. This seems to be an ongoing theme from Trump who makes sweeping generalizations and then uses one instance of that occurring as proof of a larger threat. It’s not a bad strategy as proving a negative is far more difficult than finding one instance of something happening. Those that support him see these one-off instances as vindication and further proof that the media and the establishment are too worried about political correctness to speak the truth.

Trump later uses ten minutes to discuss corporate inversions, constantly mentioning how the other candidates don’t even understand what a corporate inversion is. This is said without irony to a group of blank faced New Hampshirites who I’m relatively certain have very little understanding of them either. He rallies against Obama for playing golf and then discusses the beautiful golf courses that he owns. He’ll never see them again if he’s President, he declares. He gloats about his ability to negotiate by mentioning a great deal he got on a jumbo jet. It’s hard for me to see the connection that the people from New Hampshire could make with these talking points and maybe that’s part of the reason he fell behind in Iowa. People in the crowd laugh and shake their head at their wives or husbands as he bloviates on stage about how proud they will be when he is President or how much larger his tax return is than the other candidates, but at the end of the day there doesn’t seem to be much connecting them to what Trump spends most of his time talking about. To me, that seems like a large problem for him that the campaign has shown very little interest in addressing.

An Existential Crisis with Jeb!

I awoke the next morning to a heavy snowstorm, two missed calls and a voicemail. I had been told to be back at Trump HQ the next morning at 8:00am (lol ok). The calls and voicemail were from Dale, the team lead from yesterday. He told me he had refused other volunteers because he wanted me on the team and asked that I give him a call. I felt a familiar pang of guilt and hit the call back button. I told him that the snow was giving my rental car problems and I wouldn’t be there any time soon. He asked if I would make it in before or after lunch. “After,” I said knowing that the real answer was never. I knew then that Jeb! and I deserved each other. We both just wanted to be liked. Trump would have told those losers that he played them and to get over it. I wanted to maintain a sense of civility and let them hold onto the hope of a campaign that inspired volunteers from across the country to join them. It seemed that Jeb! and I had more in common than I would like to admit.

I got in my car and prepared for the trek to Jeb! headquarters. The hour drive to downtown Manchester became nearly two due to blizzard conditions. Visibility was low but I was able to make out four cars that had ended up in ditches after sliding off of the highway. Like a bad liberal cliché, I listened to the latest Serial update and NPR’s Fresh Air driving 40mph in the slow lane of the interstate wondering what I was thinking coming up here. Once in Manchester, I found my way to Chestnut Cafe and grabbed a coffee and a stack of pancakes. As I watched the snow pile up outside I legitimately thought I could be stuck in Manchester, where hotel rooms were running $400 a night at the Holiday Inn Express due to the influx of media and campaign staff. A lady sitting at the counter was talking on her phone narrating cars sliding down the hill outside. “It’s kind of fun watching people slipping and sliding,” she said with the View playing on the TV in the background. Later she would instruct the voice at the other end of the line to buy a DVD for $3.18. After taxes and shipping it came to $6.00. She decided against it.

I finished my breakfast and was congratulated by the waitress. “I can’t believe you ate all that. Good for you!” I appreciated the coddling and bundled up to walk to Jeb! headquarters. As I walked down Elm Street I found myself in front of a sea of campaign signs. There was live music playing and college aged kids jumping up and down with Bernie and Hillary signs. They were having the time of their lives in this snow storm. Passing cars were honking and giving approving thumbs up out of their windows. What a time to be alive for those kids. But Jeb! and I had some real work to do, so I kept walking and found my way to an old warehouse with Jeb! signs in the window. A group of five 50-somethings were trying to take a selfie out front. “I didn’t say I was good at it,” one of the women proclaimed to her friends in that mom who doesn’t understand technology kind of way. They were a group who had traveled from Miami and I followed them in to volunteer. I saw a cardboard cutout of Jeb! in front of an American flag with a trashcan beside it.

My job that day was to work the phone bank. I was to call likely voters for Jeb! and ask a series of scripted questions while incorporating key talking points. The likely voters were mostly women aged 60-80. It was a day of pleasant conversations. Lots of joking about staying warm in this weather, reminiscing about Jeb! and how polite he was at their local town hall and asking me why anyone would vote for someone that had a mouth like Donald Trump. The Barbara bump that Jeb! received from his mother was beginning to make a lot more sense to me. This demographic was also posing a potential problem as there was a snowstorm projected to hit on election day that would severely affect Jeb!’s voter turnout. We were to ask every voter if they would need a ride and arrange one if requested.

That afternoon I made my way up to Concord for a town hall with Jeb! held in an elementary school. I checked in at the entrance. There were around 30 chairs lined up in a square around a stool adorned with a bottle of water and a miniature American flag. Reporters who were getting set up in a pen at the back of the room began descending on the crowd like it was media day before a big game. “Why are you here? What issues are important to you? Have you decided on who you will be voting for? What do you want to see from Jeb! today?” Reporters came from all over the world; I heard claims of Australia, Sweden and England. I was approached by a reporter from Miami who said she wanted a millennial’s viewpoint and I seemed to be the only suitable candidate in the room. With my friends from Jeb! headquarters milling around the room, I had to be careful not to blow my cover as we discussed global warming and key differences between Jeb! and Marco Rubio.

Jeb! made his way into the room shortly thereafter joined by Tom Ridge, who served as the first Secretary of Homeland Security and Lindsey Graham, who replaced Strom Thurmond as Senator of South Carolina. In the days leading up to this town hall, Jeb! had been ruthlessly made fun of in the media for being bullied by Donald Trump and saying things like, “Please clap” at a town hall just like this one. As he made his way around the room, I reached out to shake his hand wanting to offer him some encouragement that everything was okay and that it would be over soon but I just nodded and smiled. At one point he told the room that he’s in it for the long haul and regardless of how he does on Tuesday, he’ll be taking his campaign to South Carolina for the next primary. He seemed like a man looking around the room hoping someone would tell him he didn’t have to do that. There was no escape for Jeb! yet.

Throughout the night I found myself pulling for Jeb! and he seemed like he might have turned a corner. Often times he was on a roll. I was excited for him. He received a standing ovation at one point, just two days after desperately pleading for the audience to applaud. He was getting laughs and nailing questions from potential voters. Perhaps pundits would point to New Hampshire and say this is where Jeb! finally got it together and pulled away from the pack. Nearing the end of the town hall, I looked at Jeb! as he called on a young boy around 8 years old in the second row. “How about you, young man? This will be the last question of the night. Should be a fun one!” Jeb! said enthusiastically with a smile on his face. A staffer brought the microphone over to the boy and he began quietly, “My dad was a firefighter. You probably know him from 9/11.” I saw the joy drain from Jeb!’s eyes as he returned to that place of silent suffering, waiting for his campaign to mercifully end.

The End of Days with Ted Cruz

I decided the following morning that it would be my last day on the campaign trail and that it would be spent with Ted Cruz. Trump and Cruz fight over the same base of voters, but I had found something interesting during my day campaigning with Trump. Multiple voters told me that they didn’t think Trump actually believed much of what he said. This essentially allowed the voter to project whatever their own beliefs were onto the candidate. They hypothesized that he was just pandering to a certain base and he would never actually implement much of his rhetoric. While that is probably true, I’m not sure that it doesn’t have more to do with the logistical challenges of implementing what he says as opposed to the desire to. As it relates to the voter, it does present a curious justification to vote for someone by assuming much of what they say is disingenuous. In the case of Ted Cruz, however, there is no mistaking where he stands. When told by a woman in Iowa that she was scared that someone like him would deport her under his presidency, he agreed without hesitation. Say what you will about him, but he does not waver on his positions.

I found my way to the Cruz headquarters, located in the back of an air duct supply store, early in the afternoon on Saturday. I first noticed the words “Courageous Conservatives Support Ted Cruz” written on one of the walls. Like a yearbook, people write notes and sign their names all around it. One reads, “Senator Cruz, protect our biblical United States Constitution.” Another says, “Senator Cruz…the next George Washington!” The whole wall is like a random word generator from a patriotic, religious word bank.

I introduce myself to a man by the name of Trevor sitting by the door in front of a giant New Hampshire flag. Working under an Oklahoma cover this time (I didn’t want to deal with Ted’s comments about New York values), I am instructed to join the phone bank until a pre-debate rally scheduled for that afternoon. To my delight, I am questioned about Jeb! rising to second in polls around the state in many of my conversations. This had been one of my assigned talking points yesterday when working the phones and I wondered if I had crossed paths and talked to any of the same voters twice for separate campaigns. Today, however, I was tasked with pushing the claim that Jeb! was, at best, fourth in the state and a vote for Cruz would not be wasted (implying that a vote for Jeb! would be).

I have to admit that I was surprised at the level of efficiency that Cruz’s campaign showed in its ground campaign. Working the phones was seamless. They had a button to leave an automated message for voicemail and an easy to input survey system on the phone itself. This contrasted the wifi calling done at Jeb! headquarters that would often drop mid-call and the spotty app Trump’s team used to collect information door-to-door. This had to explain some of why Cruz did unexpectedly well in Iowa, a state that demands a high performing ground game. The information collected and used was simply more accurate and more complete for the Cruz campaign.

Later, a group of about 50 supporters carpooled to Saint Anselm College where the Republican debate would be held that night. There was a fenced in patch of snow called the free speech zone where we were corralled with other candidate supporters. We arrived around 4:00pm and were told we would shuttle back at 7:00pm to watch the debate at campaign headquarters. Three hours seemed excessive, but alright. We were the only group with more than five or ten supporters. Many in our camp agreed that this proved we had won…something. Reporters interviewed people in the pen. I heard a reporter challenge a Cruz supporter in his young 20s about the level of entitlement spending, requesting a source. An older lady milled around leading the group in Cruz themed chants, “We’re Cruzin to Victory…with Ted!” At one point a group called Free Food, Not Bombs arrived with hot soup and warm pastries. They were met with high amounts of skepticism. The lady who was leading the Cruz chants reprimanded someone on our team for eating the soup. “Throw it away, don’t eat that.” The dejected supporter tossed her full bowl of soup into the trash. At another point a long line of individuals walked by with signs demanding to keep money out of politics. An older Cruz supporter, who happened to be a Cuban refugee, shoved his sign in their face and yelled, “Cruz!” before turning to me and saying those people were angry but they don’t know about what. Money in politics was my guess.

Later that night at headquarters, the group settled in to watch the debate. Cruz was a celebrated orator on the debate team during his college days at Princeton. He performs well in these environments, but can come off as canned. He answers the questions appropriately and other candidates are hesitant to challenge him given his skill. As a result, he doesn’t get a lot of air time and is relatively boring to watch. The biggest cheers in the room came from other candidates. People got out of their seats to celebrate Chris Christie’s takedown of Marco Rubio and even Jeb! got raucous applause for his dismantling of Trump. I felt a small sense of pride watching Jeb! look around with a smirk after getting Trump riled up.

The most vocal man at the debate watch party was named Michael. He wore blue jeans, a plaid shirt and a red bandanna tied around his neck. Clearly a man with fashion sense he sat next to me at one point and said, “Dude, great sweater.” He liked yelling “Amnesty!” when other candidates tried to explain their immigration plans. When asked about his statement on carpet bombing Syria, he turned from the TV and yelled to the other supporters, “How many times is he going to have to answer this question?” You should really only have to defend carpet bombing a terrorist group that is embedded with innocent civilians once. He regaled me with tales of insulting Rubio supporters while working the phone banks, claiming Rubio was a balding Cuban baby. During commercial breaks he would coerce other angry white men to go grab a debate beer with him across the street and managed to return before the end of the commercial break with time to spare.

We were informed that Cruz would be stopping by the headquarters after the debate to thank us. About 30 minutes after it ended, Cruz emerged from a doorway leading to the air duct supply store. One man stood, exclaimed, “There he is,” and began a standing ovation for their leader. No one had turned the lights on from the watch party. Ted thanked us for our support in the dark and began to greet those in attendance. A lady I had met earlier came up to me and said this would surely make my whole trip from Oklahoma worth it. She was wearing a t-shirt of Cruz portrayed as a shirtless, tattooed man, letters spelling Cruz across his stomach and an eagle on his chest. “Blacklisted & Loving It: All American Tour,” it read at the top.

As I waited to greet Cruz, Michael had his turn with the Senator. He gave his camera to a woman beside him who was struggling with the button as Michael watched in distress. On the third try she succeeded, but Michael wasn’t ready and asked for another. After a suitable picture, Michael then asked for more time before switching his camera to video mode. He gave a rambling speech about being in Camp Cruz with Ted staring blankly into the camera trying to hide his disdain for the very people that supported him. After he was through, Ted’s body man waved me over. As I made my way closer to the Senator, I reached out my hand. We looked each other in the eye and shook hands. I told him he did a good job tonight and thanked him for coming. They were largely meaningless words that signaled the end of what many might say was a largely meaningless trip.

Epilogue

My three days in New Hampshire were something that I immediately enjoyed more after the fact. Manchester really is a spectacle with media everywhere, mobile CNN news desks, and countless political tourists (I would count myself in this camp). I met as many people from outside of New Hampshire as I did native New Hampshirites. Manchester is a crowded mess, filled with politically minded people who can be highly obnoxious. It’s relatively difficult to attend the well-known events and getting any sort of face time with the candidates can be time consuming and ultimately unsatisfying. However, being involved as a volunteer provided what I believed to be a unique look at the personalities and strategies of each campaign. I obviously met with a small group of people for a limited time, but I do believe that I got a sense for what is important to each campaign. What are their talking points and who are their target voters? How do people react to them and what are their concerns?

It’s a strange political process in New Hampshire and voters there either love the attention or hate it. Some act as though they are free agents going to each of the candidate’s town halls and claiming their vote depends on the next question. They eat it up. Others berated me for knocking on their door or calling their home and wishing it would just be over. At the end of the day I enjoyed being part of the process, but it will likely be my last venture up north as a political tourist.

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One thought on “When Hell Freezes Over

  1. Pingback: Chapter 1: The Beginning | The Complete Short Stories of Ryan Thompson

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