NEW HAMPSHIRE—Blue-books are still closed and Harvard’s exam rooms won’t open for business for another four hours when Gregory M. Schmidt ’06 steps out into the dark, frigid New Hampshire morning.
Today he will face a test of a different sort than any of his classmates back in Cambridge: former Vermont Gov. Howard B. Dean, his favored candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, is about to begin the last day of the nation’s first primary campaign.
“Hope not fear, that’s the name of the game,” Schmidt says, echoing the slogan emblazoned on the Dean sign he is carrying out to his car.
It is early on Tuesday, Jan. 27, and Schmidt has made the drive up to Nashua, N.H., because he hopes to influence the outcome of this crucial election, where several candidates find themselves neck-and-neck in one of the closest races for the nomination in recent memory.
“This is probably the most exciting presidential primary that I might ever live through in my next 30 years,” says Andrew J. Frank ’05, the president of the Harvard College Democrats and a supporter of Sen. John R. Edwards, D-N.C.
Student groups on campus have sent up delegations to campaign for candidates including Dean, Edwards, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn. Over the course of the fall semester, these students have forayed north, leaving behind the Yard and Lamont to enter the alternate universe that swallows this small state every four years.
They are there, adding their voices to the dull roar of the crowded Democratic field. As the candidates descend on New Hampshire, all eyes look to a primary that can turn the tide of the national election.
“I’ve been telling everyone that my most important exam is the New Hampshire primaries,” says Nicholas F.B. Smyth ’05, the president of Harvard Students for Kerry. “Too bad it won’t go on my transcript.”
Later on Tuesday, Kerry will ride to a convincing victory at 39 percent of the vote, with Dean coming in second and Clark and Edwards neck and neck for third and fourth place. But before any results are in, the students from Harvard will hit the streets of New Hampshire in an effort to make a difference, however small, in their candidates’ vote totals.
Around 10 a.m on Monday, Jan. 26, Smyth leaves an unfinished paper behind him and starts up his van.
The Granite State’s polls will open in less than 24 hours.
Joining him are J.T. Scarry ’07, also a Crimson editor, and Adam T. Thomas, a second-year student in the Kennedy School of Government’s doctoral program in public policy.
All three say this round of shoe-leather campaigning will trump earlier ones.
“In the past we’ve been turned down a lot because people don’t want to talk about politics that early,” says Smyth, who is also a Crimson editor. “Today [we] can say the election is hours away.”
They plan to engage in a series of individual encounters with New Hampshire’s registered Democrats and independents, trying to bring the voters over to Kerry’s side with a bit of charm and an arsenal of campaign-approved slogans and facts.
“You get into a conversation that leads to them renouncing their deviant views,” Scarry says wryly.
Armed with a photocopied map of suburban Bedford, N.H., a list of registered voters and a stack of two-sided glossy color fliers, the three students venture out on the road.
There is no shortage of New Hampshire’s legendary headstrong voters, who have the opportunity every four years to play a major role in determining candidates’ political futures.
One man with a patrician accent furiously accuses Kerry of remaining “invisible as a senator until two years ago” before launching into a tirade against Kerry’s senior colleague from Massachusetts, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56. Others curtly declare their unshakable allegiance to Dean or President George W. Bush before closing the door in a Kerry canvasser’s face.
But for every voter whose mind is made up, there are several who give some indication, however slight, of wavering. It is these residents who get the full treatment.
A man who says he is “sort of” Republican but “a big Clinton fan” is told about Kerry’s insistence on keeping Bush’s tax cuts for the middle class. A woman who says abortion is the only issue that matters to her is reminded of the senator’s longstanding support of Roe v. Wade. Another woman, whose 31-year-old son has been unemployed for more than a year because his company moved to Switzerland, hears about the senator’s promise to close tax loopholes for such corporations.
Finally, after visiting more than 50 homes in four and a half hours of canvassing, the students head for an evening rally in nearby Derry.
In a high school gym, a determined Kerry paces back and forth across the stage, drawing roars of applause as he shouts out the talking points made more modestly by the three canvassers earlier in the day.
The three students stay to the end, lining up to see Kerry up close as he leaves the room. And then, a little after 7 p.m., Smyth and Scarry get back in the van and head for Cambridge.
After all, Smyth still has to finish a 25-page term paper on campaign finance reform due the next afternoon.
The Night Before
As Kerry wraps up his speech on Monday evening, Schmidt and two other students are traveling up to Nashua to campaign for his rival, Dean.
“We’re staying in zone headquarters, which is a fancy word for some dude’s basement,” Schmidt explains to Ben B. Chung ’06, who is also a Crimson editor, and Eric P. Lesser ’07 on their way up.
They are making their trip a week after their candidate’s surprising third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and the infamous yelp that followed.
Chung says he did not feel the need to be directly involved in the campaign until Dean began to slip in the polls from the front-runner status he had enjoyed earlier in the month.
“To be perfectly honest, the only reason I’m here is because of Iowa,” Chung says.
Schmidt says the fallout from the caucus has lowered expectations in New Hampshire.
“Iowa was so bad that if he comes in second or a close second it will seem like a victory,” Schmidt says. “A lot of it depends on factors we can’t control, but the factors we can control, that’s why we’re driving up right now.”
Schmidt has made this drive many times over the past six months. Last summer, he worked at headquarters in Nashua to win over voters to the Dean campaign.
“My full-time job was basically trying to make friends in New Hampshire,” Schmidt says.
Later that night the three students arrive at the Nashua office, where the rooms are crowded with volunteers who joke about their lack of sleep as they put together signs and assemble packets for the following day.
In nearby Derry, Clark’s local office buzzes with anticipation the night before the polls open.
Clark has had an outpost in New Hampshire since November, just two months after announcing his candidacy, and since then Harvard students have been coming up on weekends to help canvass, says Henry C. Quillen ’00, a student at the KSG.
Since he came up to campaign for Clark in the first week of January, Quillen has been involved in making “thousands of phone calls” and fighting to get the retired general’s name out among New Hampshire’s voters. Quillen says it seems as if the election has taken over local life, at least for a few weeks.
“Some people in New Hampshire are being called 20 times a day by candidates,” he says. “That’s frustrating for both you and them.”
Tomorrow, all that work will come to an end in this state. This is an important primary for Clark—the first time he will go head to head and vote for vote against his Democratic rivals.
“I don’t know what to think,” Quillen says. “We could have a really great day or a really lousy day tomorrow.”
And what if the second option comes true?
“At the end of the day, the winner of the New Hampshire primary will only have won a few delegates,” he says.
Just after 6 a.m. on election day, eleven Edwards supporters gather in their office in Londonderry, N.H., to make the final push in a campaigning effort that has consumed their last few weeks.
A few minutes later, Jessica R. Rosenfeld ’07 appears, bringing the volunteers 15 McDonald’s biscuits—and some bad news.
“The woman at McDonald’s is not voting,” Rosenfeld reports, and the room reacts with dismay. The last few months have been spent trying to motivate every last New Hampshire resident of age to vote today, to vote Democrat and to vote Edwards. Any stay-at-home voter is a setback, it seems.
Rosenfeld and several others squeeze into a van to head off for the local polling places, where they will hold signs and make last-minute attempts to pull votes in Edwards’ direction.
Their simple approach draws from Edwards’ reputation as a positive campaigner. According to Rosenfeld, they aim to be not the most aggressive campaign, but the “nicest.”
After showing up at Grinell School at about 6:45 a.m. and planting a row of Edwards signs lining the entrance to the school’s parking lot, the volunteers set up camp on the sidewalk outside the school and launch their charm offensive in the freezing cold.
Volunteers from rival campaigns will show up in varying force over the next hour, but for now Edwards’ supporters are the only ones standing beside arriving voters. Just about every voter gets a bright “good morning” as he or she walks in to the poll, and the volunteers flash warm grins at all whose eyes they can catch.
The weather, in fact, is well below freezing at all times, necessitating a mitten run, a hot-chocolate expedition and more than a few temporary trips to warm up in the waiting van while one or two volunteers remain outside.
Like many volunteers, Rosenfeld wears chemically-reactive “Toasti-Toes” and hand-warmers throughout the day.
“I came up with four shirts for each day, and I’ve definitely worn all of them,” she says on the virtues of layering.
At one point a postal worker, stopping on his route to vote, asks why the campaigns are out so early and in such cold. The volunteers inform him that they are just “dedicated.”
“I’m dedicated,” the mailman says with a laugh. “You’re just lunatics!”
Making a List, Checking It Twice
At a Nashua elementary school, the Dean volunteers are also ready to brave the cold when the polls open at 6 a.m.
While Edwards supporters court voters with smiles, Dean’s volunteers strive to bring to the polls all those who have already pledged their support.
Armed with a list of 161 Dean households in his assigned section of Nashua, Schmidt’s first job is to stand near the booths and listen as voters give their names to the attendants. After checking the names against the list, Schmidt and the other volunteers plan to go directly to the homes of any who haven’t voted yet, helping to arrange for rides if needed.
Around 8 a.m., Schmidt trades the comfort of the warm gym for the cold of the parking lot, pulling aside voters as they leave the polls to identify who supports Dean.
He jokes that he doesn’t mind bothering the voters once they’ve cast their ballots.
“If we piss them off when they’re leaving the voting booths, we’re not going to need their vote for another nine months,” he says.
Volunteers aren’t allowed to talk to voters inside the polling place, and they must leave their Dean paraphenalia outside, since no campaigning is allowed within 100 feet of the entrance.
But outside, Schmidt and Chung are free to make up chants as they wave signs for Dean.
Schmidt is working on just three hours of sleep in two days, after pulling an all-nighter to study for an exam the night before heading to New Hampshire.
“I may just collapse at some point,” he says. “Hopefully tonight after the raucous victory celebration, there will be time for some sleep.”
One Big Party
As the student volunteers spend the day campaigning, they vie for valuable sidewalk real estate and struggle to shout over other campaigns’ supporters.
But Rosenfeld says New Hampshire’s college-age workers have formed a tight-knit community in the last few months.
“It’s like spring break in the cold,” she says.
Despite the occasional sniping remark, the warring Democratic factions seem to feel some camaraderie—and for the students in Derry, there’s even some Harvard pride.
Over the course of the day, Jeff D. Wilf ’07 and Peter C. Mulcahy ’07, who is also a Crimson editor, show up to hold Kerry signs, and Todd T. Rogers, a graduate student at Harvard, arrives to support Clark.
The students chat during down time as if they were sitting over Sunday waffles in a dining hall rather than clutching staple-gunned campaign materials in the cold before the start of the work week.
“It’s not opposition,” Rogers explains. “We sort of have mocking, jesting punches at each other, but everyone knows we’re on the same team in November.”
In Nashua, when a car drives into the parking lot with a “Bush-Cheney” sign in the window, supporters for all the Democratic campaigns join in a loud chorus of boos.“That’s one thing we can all agree on!” one volunteer shouts.
—Staff writer Jessica R. Rubin-Wills can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at email@example.com