Why you should care
Because millions of people who can’t vote this primary season still have an interest in this one-of-a-kind process.
Normally journalists on the New Hampshire campaign trail are relegated to the back of a town hall, where it’s difficult to ask presidential hopefuls a question. This isn’t a press conference, after all; politicians are here to sweet-talk and sway voters, not members of the media. So in the early weeks of primary season they host intimate gatherings like a coffee with Carly, a Lions Club chat with the Donald or a tavern Q&A with Marco Rubio. Reporters watch, jealously, waiting to sneak in a rare question or two.
So I’m trying a different tactic today by showing up nearly four hours early to a restaurant meet-and-greet in the town of Keene, where I’m hoping no one will assume I’m a foreign reporter. Which is easier said than done, given my laptop and voice recorder — plus my skin tone is a darker shade than most Granite Staters, 94 percent of whom are white. Even so, I’ve already befriended the hostess, who’s saved me a prime seat so that I can slip next to one particular candidate and ask him a quick question while he poses for (yet another) picture.
My pick? The guy who comes closest to sharing a piece of my own childhood: Ted Cruz, the Canadian-born baby who spent several years in Alberta, aka “Texas of the North,” with all of its conservative-raising, cattle-grazing, oil-gushing glory. So far, my plan is working: I’m just a couple of people away from securing my Cruzer selfie and asking what he really thinks of the Canadian “anchor baby” controversy that Trump has kicked up.
On this side of the political tourism industry — the one where a woman drives five hours through a snowstorm to see Trump, and a trio of friends flies in from Florida to hear from their former Governor Jeb Bush — most keep their questions quick and cordial. Standing out in a crowd can trigger ostracizing laughter, as when one woman in Londonderry asked Trump whether he’d return a donation from an alleged white supremacist. He responded that he would, but then added a signature jab: “Don’t be so angry.”
Who am I to jump ahead of a young girl’s political rite of passage?
This isn’t my first time being face to face with American politics in an election year. In 2004, during the epic battle of Bush versus Kerry, I joined a busload of international students who, like me, lived in the U.S. and couldn’t cast a ballot but wanted to encourage folks in the swing state of Pennsylvania to get out and “rock the vote.” We knocked on doors in Bethlehem and passed through diners in Allentown, using surprisingly effective icebreakers. Mine: “I’m actually Canadian, so I can’t vote in your election, but I hope that you do.”
So far, I haven’t met any Canadians for Cruz, though there are Facebook groups for them. But I have found that Americans seem to be a little less willing to discuss their politics (at least with the media, unless you tell them you’re Canadian and can’t vote yourself) now than they were in 2008, when I lived in Hoboken and worked in Manhattan. Ah, yes, that political era when phrases such as “you betcha” and “maverick” became popular fodder for drinking games come debate night and many from outside the U.S. closely watched to see who’d be crowned the ultimate American idol.
What strikes me this season isn’t the return of some past guest stars — it’s been too long, Tina Fey! — or the addition of new ones (“Bern Your Enthusiasm” with Larry David, anyone?). It’s that, at least in New Hampshire, it’s touching to see so many intergenerational families — from Grams down to her little grandkid — go from town hall to town hall and “shop” among candidates, as Garden State Governor Chris Christie observed in Henniker. (That’s in spite of two major snowstorms in a week, one of which spun my rental car in a circle before sliding us into a highway ditch.) For some locals, trekking through this process seems like a spiritual affair, complete with ardent clapping and quiet amens following the delivery of certain candidates’ speeches.
Which is why I’m not too upset when family after family squeezes past me at Pedraza’s Mexican Restaurant in Keene to capture their Kodak moment with Cruz. Guilt kicks in — who am I to jump ahead of a young girl’s political rite of passage? By the time just two people are left in front of me, time is up. “Thank you very much,” Cruz says as he turns toward his next stop on the trail, “and God bless.” Somewhat annoyed, I engage with the couple who had immediately blocked my path and managed to snap their picture with Cruz. Turns out they’re originally from Tibet. Forget Canadians; I want to find out what Tibetans think of this race so far. “We didn’t really come for his lecture today,” says Wendekar, who goes by just one name and studies environmental education at Antioch University. “We came here, just to the bar. He was here, and everybody was here, so we were just curious.”