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‘This Is A War’: New Hampshire Voters On The Eve Of The Democratic Primary

I’ve spent a couple of days in New Hampshire this past week and keep on realizing I’ve already been places. I pulled into a brewery at the end of a dark, windy road (is everything out of a Robert Frost poem up here?) and recognized the refurbished barn from another candidate’s tour of the place. I drove up to my hotel and remembered that I’d eaten in its restaurant four years ago. The snow is the same as in 2016, too; big flakes that catch in your eye and make you wish you’d thought to bring waterproof mascara.

A lot of the voter talk is the same as four years ago, too. Namely all the cynicism and worry — What’s the matter with America? and What’s the matter with the media? kind of stuff. The only thing that’s different this year is that it’s coming from Democrats.

When you see candidates campaigning or voters listening to a stump speech, you don’t see a lot of unbridled merriment or excitement. Instead it’s a business-like frenzy to, as Democrats see it, pull the country back from the brink.

“It’s horrible to say but there’s more dumb people than I realized, or gullible people that don’t listen,” Catherine Michel, 69, told me. We were standing flush to a wall in a VFW hall in Somersworth, watching a Joe Biden event break up. The former vice president had arrived in the gray morning light in his aviator sunglasses, lenses that have been glued to Biden’s face quite a bit these days as he looks to project the cool that seems to be rapidly leaving him with every passing poll.

Michel was there with her husband, David, and they were anxious to see Biden before they made their choice. They couldn’t bear to see President Donald Trump on TV anymore. “He reminds me of Mussolini giving a speech, how he juts his jaw out and cocks his face,” David said. The Michels wanted to know what candidate could puncture that air of abrasive confidence in the president. “Trump is that dishonest bully and dishonest bullies often win,” Catherine said. “It’s really scary. So while I might support Bernie Sanders as the guy to stand up against a bully with lots of energy and just die punching him, is that the way to go? Or pick someone in the middle?”

Jim and Mary from Dover, 78 and 74, stood outside waiting to see Biden board his bus. Both said they would vote for the former vice president, but they’d entertained other options — Mary had been impressed with Amy Klobuchar’s performance during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings. But Jim, a former registered Republican, said the senator from Minnesota didn’t stand a chance in the 2020 fray. “In normal times, she might have a chance, right? But this is a war. This is not a nice political process. This is a war and the poor Democrats think they’re going to have a political process and a campaign, and Trump is just gonna fight dirtier than anybody can fight,” he said. He brought up a friend who likes Rush Limbaugh — Jim is not a fan — and I asked if he thought the country’s political climate was in part the fault of the media. “No, it’s a citizen problem,” he said. “If you watch a cable program with these terrible slams, then you have to make a point of watching the other slams. Then you blend the two and hopefully you read a newspaper somewhere.”

Mary considered his point. “So what you’re saying is people should work harder at making their decisions rather than depending on the media to spoon feed it to them?”

A few hours later, voters in North Hampton nursed beers as they waited for actress Ashley Judd, an Elizabeth Warren surrogate, to arrive. But those at one table I approached hadn’t realized they’d walked into a political event. John and Deanna of Hollis, 67 and 58, were friendly, but John told me he’d given me a fake last name — media distrust is a constant theme on the trail. Far from seeking out the political, the couple told me their Republican friends don’t even know they’re Democrats. They only talk politics to each other these days, so as not to rock the boat. “All it would take was one conversation to blow that all up,” John said. He said it’s uncomfortable for them because their friends “talk like everyone feels the same way” about Trump and politics. Lately, John has found that people make assumptions about what you’re OK with. He’d been on a work trip in Texas and, “I sat in a car with a group of people that were customers and I heard them make racial comments and a few years back they wouldn’t have.”

When Judd got up to speak, it was a brief approximation of a politician’s speech — she talked about her humble roots and her connection to Warren and called Trump’s State of the Union “a moral injury.” You get used to hearing anyone with a microphone at events like these say the same sorts of things. But then Judd said something else.

“Earlier today we had a very extraordinarily moving panel with the incredible people in New Hampshire who work at stopping intimate partner violence and stalking,” she said. “It’s a sad thing to say but American men kill American women at a rate of three to four a day and that event was open to the press and none of the media chose to come.”

I’d seen the email for the event. I think I thought the drive was too far, simple as that. If I’m really being honest, I didn’t think about it all that much. Probably because American men do kill American women so often and probably because men have been killing the women they know and love since the dawn of time. Sad, but wholly typical. But it was lacerating to hear the statistic in that cozy New Hampshire bar; you are alive and they are not.

What’s so often lost in the primary rush — the horserace ups and downs — is the primary reason for government: a need to regulate ourselves, to instill order and some semblance of justice in society. But justice is often as wide as the chancellor’s foot — which is to say, wholly unjust. Still, the sense that society has to wrangle some order is agreed upon. What elections are about is what sort of order to instill — economic, diplomatic, militaristic.

Sometimes the little things like keeping people alive gets lost in the shuffle. So too do our individual sensibilities — everything becomes so zoomed out that you can only see a mass of people moving one way or the other, not the component parts. It’s easier to tell that story on television or in 1,200 words.

Catherine Michel’s father was a Trump supporter. He passed away, but when she spoke about him, it was in the present tense, since parents are always on your shoulder, wherever you are. She was explaining to me, I think, that he wasn’t defined by the last presidential candidate he supported. “He raised five girls and a boy. He’s very democratic and loving and liberal and education for the minorities and charity and global warming, of course,” she said. “But then when he listens — the media. …” She sort of paused, looking for the words. “The media has to be really careful.”

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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