If I had a buck for every election postmortem I’ve read in the last ten days, I could pay for my coffee for a month. Some of the columns have been written by Republicans whom I somehow didn’t come across as I worked for NHGOP this year. The tone of Republicans-lost-because-they’re-too-whatever sounds a lot like the NH Democratic Party’s published response to the recent election of Rep. Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett) as the new House Minority Leader. Both seem to have been prepared in advance and then phoned in.
My own ground-game experience from this campaign gave me a view not available to the armchair quarterbacks. I came late to the party, literally and figuratively, taking the job with NHGOP in early July after most of the Victory team was already in place. For the next four months, I spent seven days a week wearing out the tires on my car as I went to every county to meet voters on their own turf. Many were Republicans, since the obvious low-hanging fruit for the volunteer harvest was going to be among them. I also sought out voters not affiliated with the GOP.
Here’s what I heard:
#1: Discouragement suppressed more votes than any law ever will.
#2: Elections turn on local relationships.
#3: Social issues matter.
#4: Conservative women rock.
All I had to do to begin a conversation about the election was to put on some campaign gear. Even a small GOP button on my shirt was enough to draw attention from complete strangers. This was true in every town I visited.
A vendor at the Lancaster Fair (which is definitely worth the drive) saw my button and asked me quietly, “Do you think we have a chance?” I answered him with a firm Yes. When I told him I was working with NHGOP, he turned his booth over to a co-worker for few minutes so we could talk. This was a registered Republican with a small business. He wondered if it was worth his while to take the time off work to vote. He was the first of many business owners who were to say to me in the coming weeks,”This guy [Obama] is killing us.” This business owner’s disenchantment with federal policy had led to discouragement that burdened him every single day. I did all I could in ten short minutes to let him know that his vote & opinion mattered and that his business was worth defending. Did this man actually vote? I can only hope so. I asked if I could share his name and his story with the local NHGOP Victory field representative, and he declined, saying he was afraid of being boycotted if he came out for Romney. A sad fear, and he wasn’t the only business owner who shared that with me.
Discouragement kept more voters away from the voting booth, and therefore the GOP column, than did the platform or voter ID or anything else. Those people weren’t reflected in exit polls because they didn’t vote. What could have brought them on board?
Hearing more from people they know and respect, for one thing. Good relationships could have won some seats, not least by encouraging people to get to the polls. In New Hampshire, perhaps more so than in any other swing state, if someone hears about a candidate or issue from a neighbor or friend or acquaintance, the voter will give more credence to the neighbor than to an entire cascade of mailers and ads. No national campaign here will overcome a failure of local connections. Neighbor chatting with neighbor – or, as Gov. Sununu exhorts, “talk, talk, talk” – goes a long way towards muting ads. I met incredible advocates for Republican candidates (as I describe below), especially in the most populous counties, but there was and is room for expansion of the team.
I saw something repeatedly among the grassroots that may have been missed by observers at a distance. Whatever any national or state candidate thinks of social issues, a substantial bloc of the rank-and-file voters I met want them emphasized, not dropped. When these issues came up as people talked to me, I identified myself as a social conservative, just to be fair. Then I shut up and listened.
Far and away, somewhat to my surprise, the most passionate voters were upset about New Hampshire’s re-definition of marriage. (Interestingly, most of these angry voters told me they’d have no problem with civil unions.) I heard from voters who could not understand why an overwhelmingly Republican House & Senate had such trouble with pro-woman bills as the ones about keeping track of abortion complications and prosecuting people for causing a woman to lose a wanted pregnancy. I heard from people perplexed by campaign strategies that were all about jobs to the exclusion of social concerns. Among people who raised these topics with me, perhaps one in five expressed a desire for the GOP to write off social conservatives.
I didn’t tell these voters what to say. They didn’t need anyone to do their thinking for them.
All my travel and listening had a point: building a coalition of women who supported Romney/Ryan and other Republican candidates. Eventually, over seven hundred of us united to work for these good people. Some of our candidates prevailed, and many others didn’t. Still, seven hundred of us found common ground where we might not have seen it before the campaign. Among these amazing women was a longtime Romney supporter facing a serious illness, who recruited dozens of volunteers for one of the Victory offices. A young woman new to campaign work volunteered to be a county chair for the coalition, and with her enthusiasm built a powerhouse team in her area. Business owners took time off to go door-to-door. Mothers of small children traded babysitting time with each other to get a turn at the phones. I, a pro-life social conservative (have you heard?), went door-to-door with a pro-choice woman whose husband’s business is being eaten up by federal regulations. (And we had fun, too.)
From the 30,000-foot level, all one can see is the debris left by the numbers on Election Night. Down where I stand, I see new relationships, new officeholders, new activists. All of that energy and talent is very promising. I hope it’s nurtured and not taken for granted. Such women are the cure for discouragement.
My employment and the campaign now behind me, I have restored the “undeclared” voter registration with which I’m most comfortable. I look forward to picking up a Republican ballot again soon. Jeanne Shaheen’s term will be up before you know it.
Others will have their own perspectives. I’ll give careful attention to the accounts and conclusions of those who were in the field with me. I’ll take everyone else’s musings with a grain of salt.