Election 2004: Harvard GOP Cracks the Granite State

MERRIMACK, N.H.—Jeffrey P. Clemens ’06, armed with a bundle of pro-Bush pamphlets, bounds toward the first address on his canvassing route Saturday morning. But halfway to the doorstep, he notices the “Be Patriotic! Vote Bush Out!” bumper sticker on the minivan in the driveway.

Clemens retreats.

Republicans from Boston-area colleges descended on this suburban town of 27,000 over the weekend, aiming to keep the Granite State colored blue.

But rather than seeking to sway the minds of pro-Kerry voters, canvassers this weekend bypassed the homes of registered Democrats, focusing instead on the Grand Old Party’s faithful base.

“Yesterday, we switched over to a pure get-out-the-vote effort,” says Jamie Burnett, a operative for President Bush’s re-election campaign, during a pep talk Saturday to 20 Harvard Republican Club members aboard a yellow school bus in a strip-mall parking lot.

Bush carried New Hampshire by just 7,200 votes four years ago, and this election is shaping up to be just as tight.

The cities of New Hampshire’s southern I-93 corridor—just an hour’s commute from the Hub—are luring hordes of ex-Massachusetts residents attracted by the Granite State’s zero percent income tax rate and low housing prices. The demographic shift could threaten the Republican Party’s longtime record of dominance in New Hampshire.

Burnett said Merrimack remains “hard core Republican.” But turnout in this town was unusually low last election, and the GOP needs to galvanize its base here to offset the Democratic advantage in nearby Nashua.

So campaign workers hit the quiet roads and cul-de-sacs of Merrimack Saturday, hoping to make sure that pro-Bush voters would have a ride to the polls next week.

“Most people know the score. They’ve decided whether Bush deserves reelection, and their minds aren’t going to change,” says Zachary B. Singer ‘06, treasurer of the Harvard Republican Club.

Singer, an economics concentrator in Elliot House, asks rhetorically, “what’s more effective: talking to someone for 30 minutes or knocking on 10 more doors?”

KNOCK, KNOCK, WHO’S THERE?

The Republican club canvassers are shuttled from block to block in the grey Chevy Lumina of Olga Fernandez, who first hit the campaign trail in 1992 to help George W.’s father fend off a primary challenge from conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.

Fernandez is a hairdresser who likes to give her customers an earful of her staunchly conservative political views. Given that she works in liberal-leaning Nashua, Fernandez says, “I’m surprised that I still have clients.”

Fernandez left Cuba when she was eight years old in 1962, and her entire family—including her two grown daughters—are steadfast supporters of the GOP.

“The Republican Party is the only one that’s for freedom,” she says.

Clemens, by contrast, is a recent convert to the conservative cause. “I was uncommitted before college,” the Lowell House resident says from the backseat of Fernandez’s Lumina. “I first started getting active in the Republican Club as a result of Ec 10 with Marty,” Clemens says—using an affectionate nickname for Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein ’61, a former top Reagan adviser. Clemens says that as he progresses farther in the economics concentration, he has become more committed to the Republican Party’s market-oriented policies.

After a slow start, Clemens works his way into a canvassing groove. “Keep up the good work,” a mustachioed man in a baseball cap shouts above the roar of his lawn mower when he catches glimpse of Clemens’ pro-Bush literature. And Clemens scores—in his words—“a warm, motherly hug” from a middle-aged Republican woman. “I love this neighborhood, and it loves us back,” Clemens says.

But his hot streak turns sour when a Kerry supporter unloading her toddler from the backseat of a minivan shakes her hand in Clemens’ face and yells, “Boo, boo, go away.” So Clemens cheers up when he encounters a Bush supporter hosting a yard sale at the next stop on the route. Clemens swaps a Republican party flier and $1.50 for a space heater and two t-shirts.

After lunch, the canvassers move to a less well-to-do section of town—with multifamily dwellings replacing the sprawling McMansions of the morning route.

At the corner of Freedom and Independence Streets, Clemens is confident he will find fellow Bush supporters.

“Freedom and Independence—they have to be Republicans. Liberals don’t like those things,” Clemens quips.

Leverett House linguistics concentrator Meghan E. Grizzle ’07, an avowed anti-abortion activist, finds inspiration from every fellow Republican she meets on the trail.

“When I knock on someone’s door and they’re pro-Bush, I feel like we have a special connection. It’s a warm and fuzzy thing,” she says.

But by late afternoon, Thayer Hall resident Michael R. Miltenberger ’08 declares that “campaign fatigue has set in.”

Miltenberger’s enthusiasm for Bush is unbridled. “His moral judgments are in line with mine,” says Miltenberger. “His heart is in the right place.”

Miltenberger hails from Palm Beach County, Fla., ground zero in the 2000 recount battle. While his fellow Floridians were ceaselessly mocked four years ago for being befuddled by butterfly ballots and leaving their chads dimpled, Miltenberger sports vast political knowledge. With carefully coiffed hair and a turned-up collar, he confidently looks homeowners in the eye to ask: “Can the president count on your support next Tuesday?”

But one steely response leaves Miltenberger baffled.

“She had a ‘God Bless the USA sticker’ and she wasn’t supporting the president? That I just don’t understand,” Miltenberger sighs.

Clemens, Grizzle and Miltenberger reconvene with their Harvard Republican brethren at a Subway sandwich shop at the end of the afternoon. They know they won’t be encountering nearly as many fellow Bush supporters once they return to the “People’s Republic of Cambridge” that night.

The Harvard students are paid $10 an hour by the Bush campaign war chest for the time they spend canvassing.

“We would work for the president whether we got paid or not,” says Republican Club spokeswoman Lauren K. Truesdell ’05. “But since they’ve offered, it’s not like we’re going to turn them down.”

Stephen E. Dewey ’07, a Kirkland House government concentrator, says he’s confident his canvassing made a difference. “The big thing is just reminding them to vote,” says Dewey, who has pledged to return to New Hampshire for the final 72 hours of the campaign.

Aaron J. Mowery ’08, a Weld Hall resident, is particularly encouraged by his conversation with a seven-year-old red-haired girl who said she has personally met First Lady Laura Bush and will “absolutely” support the president.

Bush appears to be polling well among the youth demographic in Merrimack. Alison Hoover, a Tufts freshman who rode to New Hampshire with the Harvard canvassers, learns from another very young Republican that her elementary school class favored Bush 15-1 in a recent mock vote.

A poll released by the American Research Group over the weekend shows Bush leading Kerry 47 percent to 46 percent in the Granite State—well within a 4 percent margin of error.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.