BROOKE GLADSTONE Primary season opened with a bang and then a fizzle. On this week's On the Media, we explore the history of how we pick out presidential candidates and we unpick some of the myths surrounding New Hampshire's first in the nation status.
NEWS REPORT Voters in Dixville Notch will vote at midnight in a picture postcard town just shy of the Canadian border.
TOM TILLOTSON He brought in an elephant into the hotel. This is Popsicle, the 700 pound baby elephant.
It is absurd that 42 people have this kind of power.
I think it's nice.
I think it's democracy at its purest. [END CLIP]
SARAH KOENIG For weeks it was just all day, every day we were at events and events and events. And just driving all over the place, talking to the candidate, talking to their campaign. I mean, it was just it's a frenzy.
ALEC MACGILLIS You end up verging into a little bit just being part of the ‘first in the nation’ industrial complex.
RALPH JIMENEZ I wouldn't be surprised if this is the last real New Hampshire primary. But that's a debate for another day, I guess.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Stay tuned for the primaries, past, present and future.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Thirty years ago, I was teetering on the brink. Either I get a fellowship that would yield a reporting job in Moscow or I'd be stuck in a job that was making me miserable. I just couldn't bear not knowing what the future held. So I threw the coins of the ancient Chinese book of wisdom and divination, the I Ching. And the result was foreseeably orphic and abstruse. Still, I decided the portents were good and I felt better. And I'm not embarrassed. We all do it. And weirdly, it may feel even better, surprisingly soothing if the Magic 8 ball says, “Reply hazy. Try again,” which seems to be the lesson of Iowa. But still we strain for prophecy.
NEWS REPORT I was here a little after midnight, and we got a massive change here in Iowa. You can see what it looks like. You just put it up there, two tenths of one percent now separating Bernie Sanders…
Here’s this number underneath the twenty six point two underneath the twenty six, if you can read that, a five fifty for Buttigieg and a five forty six for Bernie Sanders… [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The gang at the 538 Politics Podcast, an offshoot of the website of statistical analysis founded by Nate Silver, also brought data to bear. But the answer was still, “Reply hazy. Try again.”
538 POLITICS Nobody is doing well. I mean literally the chance that no one wins the majority is up to 26 percent.
From 17 percent beforehand, so. [END CLIP]
The storyline going into Iowa was, hey, this is a wide open race and something of a mess. The storyline coming out of Iowa is like this is really f****** wide open and a huge f****** mess.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Zen philosopher Alan Watts once observed that muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone. But such patience is too much to expect during election times, though, the Iowa caucus is increasingly regarded as unrepresentative, undemocratic and generally unworthy of the media attention it generates, news producers would probably not be pleased if it went away because they'd be forced to reinvent their quadrennial election calendars and abandon the easy palaver.
NEWS REPORT This is turning into something of a cliffhanger here. History tells us that New Hampshire often echoes the results out of Iowa.
NEWS REPORT New Hampshire loves to be contrarian and turn and do just the opposite of what Iowa does.
NEWS REPORT New Hampshire has a terrible record of predicting presidents, right? Only about 50/50 at predicting the eventual Democratic nominee. I'm going to throw out some names. Sanders, Clinton, Kerry, Gore, Tsongas, Dukakis, Hart. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In January, a Monmouth University poll found that quote from a list of four options a clear majority of Democratic Party voters, 58 percent said they'd rather have a single national primary where every state would hold its contest on the same day. Imagine what riches of policy reporting would rush in to fill that gap. Right? But before we get there, we can learn from the past by reviewing, how did we get here?
BOB GARFIELD 538 has produced a pretty comprehensive three part series to answer that question. In this clip from the first episode, host Galen Druke explains that from the 1830s right up to 1968, the American system for selecting the major party candidates didn't change much.
GALEN DRUKE The party establishment held the power back then. The parties generally used caucuses, which were meetings of party insiders who would select delegates to eventually go to the national convention.
WAYNE STEGER Some of the more egregious examples in the 50s and 60s were the Democratic Party had held some caucuses on trains and they weren't announced until after the train and left the depot.
GALEN DRUKE That's Wayne Steger, political science professor at DePaul University. Even after party reformers succeeded in implementing primaries in about a dozen states in the early 1900s, they didn't directly influence who the nominees would be.
Most of the time in primaries you had what were called ‘favorite sons’. So say a governor or a popular senator from the state, they would run in the primary, even though they didn't intend to run for president.
GALEN DRUKE Once one of those favorite sons won a state's delegates, he could use that power to wheel and deal on the convention floor. The other used for the primaries was for candidates to show party leaders they were electable.
So the most famous story, of course, is Jack Kennedy in 1960 had to run in several primaries, in order to prove to the party leadership that his Catholicism would not be a problem in the general election.
Do you want a man or brother who’s seasoned through and through? But not so doggone seasoned that he won’t try something new?
And he had to actually run in a couple of primaries to prove that. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Then came 1968, where all hell broke loose.
GALEN DRUKE In 1968, the Democratic Party is deeply divided largely over the war in Vietnam, also over the civil rights movement. And during this time it becomes clear that there is not a lot of support for renominating the incumbent LBJ. So anti-war candidates step forward, for example, Robert Kennedy and also Eugene McCarthy. Now, a lot of the reforms that took place as a result of 1968 stem from the state convention in the small state of Connecticut. And what happens there is a bunch of anti-war activists argue that the number of delegates who go to the national convention in support of Senator Eugene McCarthy should be proportional to the amount of support there is for Eugene McCarthy in the state of Connecticut. But that's not necessarily the way that things are done back then. The party insiders at the state convention are really the deciders in terms of who the delegates will be at the national convention. And so these anti-war activists walk out and hold a counter convention separately. They nominate their own candidates to the Democratic convention in 1968 and they also push to change the rules of the Democratic Party and get other Democrats from around the country on board to ensure that the delegates to the national convention are proportionally representative of how much support candidates have in each state. So fast forward to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
NEWS REPORT The convention of the Democratic Party nominating tonight its candidate for the presidency.
GALEN DRUKE Anti-war activists bring their proposed rules to the Rules Committee and eventually to the convention floor. What they're proposing is, of course, that the delegates to the national convention be representative of the voters preferences, that the voting process, either caucuses or primaries at the state level, have to be an open and fair process that delegates have to be more representative of the state's public when it comes to race, gender, creed, etc. And so these are significant reforms.
NEWS REPORT Twenty one and one half votes for Senator McCarthy.
GALEN DRUKE Now, the anti-war activists lost when it came to trying to nominate Eugene McCarthy.
NEWS REPORT And Vice President Hubert Humphrey is the nominee of the Democratic Party for the presidency of the United States.
GALEN DRUKE After he lost, the Democratic Party got together and set out to have state parties in every state in the country change how they do the primary process. And by 1972, there's basically a new primary process in place.
BOB GARFIELD What about the Republicans? Were they having a reform movement at the same time?
GALEN DRUKE The Democratic Party ended up changing state laws and once the state laws changed that affected the Republican Party as well. But we didn't see that until the 80s because Republicans were running incumbents all throughout the 70s, Nixon and then Ford.
BOB GARFIELD This new system, new standards, new laws yielded a very new dynamic that propelled not a cabal of fat cats, but an entire breadbasket state into a sort of replacement kingmaker. Tell me about the Iowa caucuses.
GALEN DRUKE So after Democrats lose the 1968 election, they put together a reform commission that implements all of these new rules. And one of those rules changes how the parties have to schedule their contests, be they primaries or caucuses. And Iowa ends up moving up its contest to very early in the year. At the time, it's not clear that there are significant consequences or significant privileges that go along with being an early state in the process. However Jimmy Carter who was largely unknown in 1976, realizes that if he gives a lot of attention to Iowa voters. Because it goes first. If he does well there, the media will pay a lot of attention to him, giving him a boost in fundraising, in the polls, giving him momentum going into the subsequent states. Once Jimmy Carter accomplishes that in 1968, he does well in the Iowa caucuses, goes on to win New Hampshire and rides that momentum all the way to the Democratic nomination. Then the party realizes what a privileged role Iowa has and the subsequent candidates vying for the nomination of both parties, this includes Reagan in 1980 start competing very heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire.
BOB GARFIELD How and when did the central parties reassert themselves into the process?
GALEN DRUKE So after McGovern is nominated and then loses in 1972 and after Carter wins, but then has a difficult time governing and faces a tough primary challenge from Ted Kennedy in 1980, the Democratic Party realizes it has given up a lot of control and it wants it back. So it makes some rules changes, most notably implements what are commonly known as superdelegates. They used to have the opportunity to vote on the first ballot so they could really weigh in on who the nominee would be. Now, those rules changed after the 2016 primary and now superdelegates can only weigh in if there is a second ballot. So if on the first ballot, somebody wins the nomination, superdelegates are totally irrelevant. They only get to weigh in if there is a contested convention.
BOB GARFIELD What has the Internet done for the party nomination process?
GALEN DRUKE From the 80s when the Democratic Party creates superdelegates up until the 2000s, the party does reexamine a lot of control over the process. If it likes a candidate, it can help that candidate win, you know, the Iowa caucus or the New Hampshire primary by giving them endorsements, giving them money, making sure that they're out in front of the cameras, et cetera. And this is called the “Party Decides Theory”, which was kind of the reigning theory and in academic circles of how the primary process worked for a couple decades. Howard Dean shows that there are serious cracks in that theory and that the party has to be unified and able to exert its power en masse. Otherwise, insurgents can take control over the process. And in fact, Howard Dean gets a lot of attention by running against the Democratic Party.
HOWARD DEAN The most interesting thing that I've found about Democrats is that they're almost as angry at the Democratic Party as that they are the Republican Party. [END CLIP]
GALEN DRUKE He was calling Democrats cockroaches and saying the Democratic Party has basically forgotten about us. And he was able to get a lot of attention and raise a lot of money online, and, you know, increase in the polls as a result. A lot of those cracks that start forming in 2004 become visible as the decade progresses into the twenty teens.
BOB GARFIELD What does the election of Trump as the Republican Party's nominee in 2016 tell us about, let's say, another unintended consequence of the primary process?
GALEN DRUKE One of the complexities of our system is that when you have a lot of people running and voters going to the polls in this odd succession, you don't necessarily land on a nominee who is the consensus pick. Any election that has more than two people running in it could result in the winner being positively unwanted by the majority. And so you have in 2016 a situation where Donald Trump has no party support. He doesn't have the majority of party voters support, yet because he's able to perform well based on his very enthusiastic 33 some percent of the Republican Party is winning states and eventually goes on to win the nomination. Now that you don't have people wheeling and dealing on the convention floor, you don't have a place in the process for the party's many interests to come together to try to form a compromise. Try to come to a consensus.
BOB GARFIELD Which brings us back to the unintended consequences of the supposed democratization of the primary process back in ‘68. It has created opportunities for populist demagogues, it has disenfranchised voters, it has vastly increased the influence of big money, and it has turned the media coverage into a year long season of The Bachelor. How the hell do we fix that?
GALEN DRUKE Well, the important thing to keep in mind here is that if the parties do want to change the system, if they think it would be better to implement ranked choice voting or have one national primary day or reinvigorate the convention process, they could, because this system is not in our constitution. Parties themselves are not in our constitution. So the process for finding a nominee is really up to the parties themselves. And in this area where everybody's talking about big structural change and democratic reform, things like abolishing the Electoral College or term limits for Supreme Court justices, this is actually one structural change that would be pretty easy to implement because the parties themselves can do it.
BOB GARFIELD All right, Galen, thank you so much.
GALEN DRUKE Thanks a lot.
BOB GARFIELD Check out Galen’s full primaries project series at fivethirtyeight.com.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, onto New Hampshire.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Every four years, a caravan of national news networks descends on a remote corner of New Hampshire to broadcast the first results from the first in the nation primary, votes cast in the midnight hour.
NEWS REPORT It's really underway. Everyone looking live now. This is Dixville Notch, New Hampshire. We're in just two hours, midnight Eastern Time. Residents of this tiny town will do what they do every four years. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE What appears on the TV screen usually looks like a slice of small town USA.
NEWS REPORT Voters in Dixville Notch will vote at midnight in a picture postcard town just shy of the Canadian border.
NEWS REPORT A small, quaint town in New Hampshire.
NEWS REPORT This is really a page out of a Norman Rockwell book. It's just, it's amazing up here how engaged people are. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As a picture perfect image of participatory democracy and another early bellwether to appease insatiable outlets and anxious audiences, Dixville once drew in the entire world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But the story of midnight voting first in the nation, Dixville Notch is profoundly misleading. It is not now, nor has it ever been what it seemed to be for the real story. We turned to our friends at New Hampshire Public Radio who have been reporting on the first in the nation primary in their podcast series, Stranglehold. Co-host Jack Rodolico takes it from here.
CASEY MCDERMOTT I think we're going to see it when we come around this bend here.
JACK RODOLICO Casey McDermott is one of our colleagues here at NHPR, and last winter she drove me to see Dixville Notch in person. She drove us 25 miles from the Canadian border. The first thing you notice is there is no quaint little town. There's no stoplight, no town hall. Just one very striking building tucked into the middle of a mountain range.
CASEY MCDERMOTT It's like a grand resort.
JACK RODOLICO Even from this distance, it's clear that resort is empty. Well, that building does not look good. It's obvious this place has been closed for years.
For 100 years, the Balsams resort was a playground for the rich and the story of how the place became a media obsession. That all starts with one man.
CASEY MCDERMOTT Neil Tillotson. I think of him as kind of like New Hampshire's Forrest Gump and that his story just intersects with history and all kinds of really interesting ways over the literal century that he was alive.
JACK RODOLICO He was born in 1898 and he died in 2001. And in that time he met a lot of amazing people.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN I had the honor of meeting him, he was like 103 at that time. And I said… [END CLIP]
JACK RODOLICO That's the voice of a two-time New Hampshire primary winner, the late Senator John McCain.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN Mr. Tillotson, who was your favorite of all these candidates that you met and he said, “my favorite was Mr. Roosevelt,” and I said, “Franklin Roosevelt was really a revolutionary…”He said, “No, Theodore Roosevelt.” [END CLIP]
JACK RODOLICO Neil Tillotson drops out of high school, leaves home, lands a gig at a rubber manufacturer. He enlists in the army, pursues Pancho Villa and his men under the command of General John J. Pershing. He returns to the rubber manufacturer, becomes a researcher there. Tillotson didn't have much formal education, but he's a natural in the lab--inquisitive, creative, real problem solver. He even has a lab at home where he tinkers with stuff in his off time. One of his favorite items to work with is latex. And it's here in his home laboratory, where Tillotson hits gold in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression. Tillotson dips some cardboard into the liquid rubber and successfully makes the world's first novelty balloon, a cat balloon, to be precise. It was shaped like a cat's face, little ears and all. Turns out a lot of people were willing to buy these things, the Tillotson Rubber Company was born. Tillotson Rubber invents the world's first latex exam gloves, manufacturing expands, Tillotson’s fortune grows a lot. And half way through Tillotson’s life, when he was a very rich man, he had one of those Forrest Gump moments, not far from where he'd grown up in Vermont. A piece of property went for sale in New Hampshire. It really caught his eye. It was the Balsams Resort tucked into that beautiful valley in the mountains. When Tillotson bought the Balsams, Dixville Notch was what's called an “unorganized place.” That means if people there wanted to vote, they had to drive to another town just to cast a ballot. Tillotson changed that when he established the midnight voting tradition. And in watching news coverage today, you might get the impression that Dixville is the place this midnight voting tradition was born. But that's not the case.
CASEY MCDERMOTT I found new stories talking about this happening in Massachusetts, in Alabama.
JACK RODOLICO The morning story on Election Day might list vote tallies from a handful of towns all over the country. Some had voted at midnight, others at maybe 3:00 in the morning. It was a filler piece while the country waited for the final results. But for the press, there was kind of a hassle to scramble to collect the results overnight. It would have been so much easier if just one town voted at midnight.
CASEY MCDERMOTT Neil Tillotson and this reporter for a wire service basically came up with the idea that if Dixville did its vote at midnight, this reporter would make sure that their results were the ones that were broadcast to the rest of the world as being first in the nation.
JACK RODOLICO Journalism in the 1950s ran on telephones. Pictures were sent from the field to newsrooms by phone lines, and the Balsams Resort had its own telephone company, its own power plant and space for teams of reporters to set up shop. What a nice little story to share with your readers: While you were sleeping last night, this little town in New Hampshire stayed up late just to vote first. These people really take democracy seriously, and it was a story that required readers not to ask too many questions about this perfect little democracy, that folksy looking town moderator in a bow tie? He was actually a millionaire. All those townies smiling after they voted? A lot of them were his employees. During the next presidential election, to ensure that Dixville Notch really voted first, Tillotson made sure his town voted at midnight in the primary months before the general election.
CASEY MCDERMOTT It was kind of off to the races, like by the time the 1964 primary, Dixville was on the map as the face of the New Hampshire primary.
TOM TILLOTSON It’s been awhile since I looked at these pictures, they're not, they're not arranged in chronological order.
JACK RODOLICO This is Tom Tillotson, Neil Tillotson’s son, one of the only residents left in Dixville Notch. And he showed us this wall of pictures. They're kind of like part family photo album and part history textbook.
TOM TILLOTSON That's my dad talking to Reagan, he came back for the general election.
JACK RODOLICO Bill Clinton came to Dixville Notch. Both Bushes, each election cycle, it was like the circus came to town.
TOM TILLOTSON He brought in an elephant into the hotel. This is Popsicle, the 700 pound baby elephant.
JACK RODOLICO Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, when he ran for president in 1968, he kicked off his campaign by schlepping a baby elephant to a town in New Hampshire with about 10 voters.
TOM TILLOTSON He was a local fellow who was a Democrat and he was trying to smuggle a donkey into the ballroom. And they shut the elevator off with him and the donkey in it.
JACK RODOLICO It's been a while since Dixville Notch was a must stop for presidential candidates in the New Hampshire primary. Campaigns mostly ignore it now. But the press keeps showing up to tell the same story about the little town that votes. And when they do, they usually miss the real story of what life has been like up there. After Neil Tillotson died, the Balsams Resort changed hands a few times. It closed its doors in 2011. Casey wanted to talk to people who knew the place in its heyday. So she wound up on the doorstep of Ray Gorman. She met him right as he was trying to get his dog, who's blind, back in the house.
CASEY MCDERMOTT Ray Gorman was the longtime head of security and basically keeping the place running.
RAY GORMAN Mr. Miscellaneous I used to call myself sometimes. At the hotel, I was a person a lot of people go to if they needed something. They needed a bulb, they needed this, they needed that.
JACK RODOLICO It was his job to do well anything and everything that was needed, especially for the press.
CASEY MCDERMOTT Ray was the one who made sure that the cables were run, made sure the nosy reporters who were trying to spy in the ballot room, he made sure that they couldn't get in there.
RAY GORMAN I had guests tripping over cords, that was always a big thing. And that’s like, you know, the insurance company does not want to hear about that.
JACK RODOLICO To project the image that the media expected of this perfect little democracy where everyone votes, Ray Gorman was given some assignments that were very miscellaneous, like fetching someone who did not show up to vote.
RAY GORMAN I went and picked him up once, drunk, naked, sitting in there. “Ray I ain’t going down there tonight I don’t give a s*** what you’re doing.”
JACK RODOLICO A missing voter would be a really big deal for the media's story. Legally, if your town votes at midnight in New Hampshire, you can't close the polls until every voter is accounted for. That means the show's dramatic conclusion, the vote tally couldn't be announced if someone was missing.
RAY GORMAN He’s naked, I freaking sobered him up, dressed him up, loaded him in the van, hauled him out.
JACK RODOLICO The national media comes in to capture the image of free elections and civic engagement, but they rarely acknowledge that it all started for the convenience of the press. And we are certainly not the first people to notice that.
The West Wing. In this scene, it's the night before the New Hampshire primary. Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman and Press Secretary C.J. Clegg are closely watching a little town in New Hampshire that's going to vote at midnight.
It is absurd that 42 people have this kind of power.
I think it's nice.
I think it's democracy at its purest. [END CLIP]
JACK RODOLICO Unsurprisingly, it's the press secretary that comes to the town's defense.
This is the difference between you and me.
You're a sap?
Those 42 people are teaching us something about ourselves that freedom is the glory of God, that democracy is its birthright and that our vote matters.
You're getting the pizza or?
Yeah, I should call ahead. [END CLIP]
CASEY MCDERMOTT What Dixville Notch symbolized came to kind of outweigh what Dixville Notch actually was.
JACK RODOLICO Remember the Trump Voter Fraud Commission? Around then, Casey had this question running around in her head. Does voter fraud ever actually happen here in New Hampshire? So she got a stack of files from the attorney general's office.
CASEY MCDERMOTT There was this case in this town, and this case in that town. And then I come across a few cases in Dixville Notch, and I end up finding out that the state had actually launched a full scale investigation.
JACK RODOLICO During the 2016 general election, the AG's office got a tip from someone who had seen a TV segment about the vote in Dixville Notch. The tipster who was watching recognized one of those voters and she thought he doesn't live in Dixville Notch. I mean, the obvious problem here is that if you don't live somewhere, you're not allowed to vote there.
CASEY MCDERMOTT Basically, the state had questions about almost every single voter who cast a ballot in Dixville in 2016. One voter has not had a home in Dixville for decades, but he just felt so strongly that he wanted to continue voting in Dixville that he did.
As far as I know I'm legally a resident here, I’ve tried to do everything right.
CASEY MCDERMOTT He has other residences in other parts of the state and then as well as actually on Martha's Vineyard. He would drive all the way up to Dixville to vote in the elections, but would go to bed, brush his teeth go home somewhere else.
NEWS REPORT 9 voters. Not a lot of chance of voter fraud. Carl Cameron, we will stay on it and stay on you. [END CLIP]
JACK RODOLICO And Casey says the way that, “voter fraud usually plays out in American elections is the way it did in Dixville.” It's really about confusion.
CASEY MCDERMOTT You know, as someone who covers voting laws, there is a lot of genuine gray area. Where do you get to actually call your home for voting purposes?
JACK RODOLICO Ultimately, the state did not charge anyone in Dixville Notch with wrongful voting, but Associate Attorney General Ann Edwards did say that most of the people who voted there in 2016 should have voted somewhere else.
CASEY MCDERMOTT Like, is there any concern that, like the AG’s office might end up ruining the midnight voting?
ANN EDWARDS If the tradition needs to end because Dixville doesn't have enough registered voters to be able to vote, then sadly, the tradition will end. But the attorney general's office's responsibility is to enforce the election laws.
JACK RODOLICO In 2019, NHPR aired cases reporting on the election inconsistencies in Dixville Notch. Her story went up on a Facebook page for a town called Millsfield.
CASEY MCDERMOTT Let me just read this aloud.
JACK RODOLICO Two things you should know about Millsfield. One, it's right next door to Dixville Notch, and two remember how we said back in 1960, Dixville pushed other towns midnight voting traditions out of the media spotlight? Well Millsfield was one of those towns, it voted at midnight before Dixville did. Here's what the Facebook page said.
CASEY MCDERMOTT In Millsfield, any observer can see that we pay careful attention to details in ensuring that our elections are conducted in a strictly lawful manner. First and foremost, we have residents who are indisputably Millsfield citizens. Millsfield citizens are duly elected each March to...
JACK RODOLICO The post goes on to list all kinds of ways that Millsfield follows each and every election law.
CASEY MCDERMOTT For any questions about Millsfields’s midnight voting traditions, please contact Wayne Urso via email at **** dot com.
JACK RODOLICO And this is all Wayne who's writing this?
CASEY MCDERMOTT Yes.
JACK RODOLICO So Wayne has got a chip on his shoulder about Dixville.
CASEY MCDERMOTT Hi, Wayne.
WAYNE URSO You must be Casey!
CASEY MCDERMOTT Yep.
JACK RODOLICO Casey drove up to Millsfield and Wayne introduced her to a couple other voters there. Sonya and Charley Sheldon, who own a B & B called A Piece of Heaven.
CASEY MCDERMOTT How are you? Nice to see you.
Hi, Casey nice to meet you.
JACK RODOLICO Millsfield has about 20 or so residents and almost all of them are voting age. It's a community where people live full time. They're being sort of diplomatic about the town next door with all its voting problems. And then she said one thing that got a big reaction. Casey mentioned The AG’s report and how there was a question hanging over almost everyone who voted in Dixville in 2016.
WAYNE URSO If the hotel is not being heated, if the hotel has no running water, no sanitation facilities, how can anyone be living there? It doesn't make sense.
JACK RODOLICO Before Casey drove all the way up to Millsfield, there was one other thing she found in her research--something about the history of Millsfields’ midnight vote and how far back it went.
CASEY MCDERMOTT November 4, 1936. And this says New Hampshire town is first in the nation to vote, Millsfield…
JACK RODOLICO Casey brought those articles to Millsfield and read one to the voters there.
CASEY MCDERMOTT It was the first time in history that the American public has been able to read any election returns in the morning newspapers of Election Day.
JACK RODOLICO Midnight voting was invented in Millsfield, and when she got done reading the article aloud, Casey realized the people there in Millsfield, they didn't know it. And this little competitive edge crept into their voices.
We were truly the first. Dixville Notch cannot deny that now, just cannot deny it.
Not only was Dixville trying to hold on to their tradition, but the press, they were willing accomplices.
JACK RODOLICO And one more thing. The person we most associate with midnight voting is Neil Tillotson. But in the oldest article Casey could find, the story gave all the credit for dreaming up the idea to one person: Genevieve Natig. When she invented midnight voting in 1936, Genevieve was only 27 years old, an artist and a pillow maker. Her grandfather had been alive when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The town she lived in had no electricity. The midnight vote she planned was a surprise to the press and the world, but not to her neighbors. She had invited them over for cookies and coffee. They came to her house in the rain, and when the clock struck 12:00, they all voted together. And they made history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, more from New Hampshire Public Radio's podcast Stranglehold.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. In this next story from an NHPR’s podcast Stranglehold, co-host Lauren Choolijian and uncovers how the state's first in the nation primary affects the local media and the role those reporters play in bolstering the state's place as number one.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN New Hampshire thinks it's special that the first in the nation primary gives us this extra relevance or power and maybe a little bit of ego that doesn't usually come along with living in a small state. It's why for decades, young green reporters would move here.
SARAH KOENIG I don't know. I don't know. I just thought that I was like hot s*** Oh, am I allowed to swear?
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN Yes.That is Sarah Koenig. And in case you don't recognize her voice or her name. Maybe this will ring a bell.
SARAH KOENIG For the last year, I've spent every working day trying to figure out where a high school kid was…[END CLIP]
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN So, yeah. Before she was hosts of the mega hit podcast Serial, before she was a producer at This American Life, Sarah Koenig was looking for a job at a big city newspaper.
SARAH KOENIG Summarily got rejected by paper after paper after paper.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN It was the 90s and she tried to get a gig at the Baltimore Sun.
SARAH KOENIG And he said, we can't hire you yet. You don’t have enough, like, daily experience. But like, here's a list of really good smaller papers that you should apply to. And I think the Monitor was on there. So I was like, OK. And I did exactly what he told me to do.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN And something clicked.
SARAH KOENIG Oh, right. First in the nation primary.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH I've got one thing in mind to earn every vote I possibly can and to win those most important primary of New Hampshire.
Today, I announce that I am a candidate for president of the United States. [END CLIP]
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN At the time, local coverage was often the first and only source of information for New Hampshire voters. Think about it. This is 2000. That year and for decades before voters weren't scrolling Twitter or reading national papers online for campaign coverage. The Concord Monitor had a really loyal readership, so local editors at the Monitor and elsewhere, they really saw themselves as an integral piece of the primary complex. Alec MacGillis is now an award winning reporter at ProPublica, but in the early 90s, he was another young reporter at the Monitor.
ALEC MACGILLIS It really did regard themselves as kind of guardians of the process and guardians of the privilege.
SARAH KOENIG Like it was so drummed into you constantly.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN It was up to New Hampshire reporters to inform the first in the nation voters that could read side by side comparisons on issues, features on what candidates did before they wanted to be president. And there were, of course, reports from local town halls and house parties.
SARAH KOENIG For weeks, it was just all day, every day you were out on, you were at events and events and events and events and just driving all over the place and talking to a candidate, talking to their campaign. I mean, it was just, it's a frenzy. And yeah, you felt super important.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN So the connection between the local press and the voters, it also helped build another important relationship, the one between the local press and the candidates, and the currency that relationship provided was incredible access.
ALEC MACGILLIS You’d have these campaign events where you'd have the entire national press corps there it is that that huge pact coming in from out of town and they would be clamoring to get to talk to the candidate. And you, as the young local reporter, would be sort of secreted away waiting for your half hour alone with him because you were entitled to a level of access that much more experienced national reporters were not, because in that period, your readers or your viewers mattered more to the campaign than whoever was reading The Washington Post.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN I would bet that every former New Hampshire political reporter has some sort of story like this, a moment where you, the New Hampshire reporter, were chosen ahead of or instead of national reporters, you mattered more. Your news outlet mattered more because your readers, the New Hampshire voters, mattered more. The point of the interview was to give readers a sense of who this candidate was. But it was also pretty cool for the reporter. The stories that would come from those interviews, they could influence the campaign, make national news, and they definitely helped you get your next job.
SARAH KOENIG I had clips about George Bush in my backyard. You know what I mean, who had just been elected president of the states. So, like I mean, I feel like the primary ended and I sent out my resume.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN But this is the part in the story of the media and the primary where things begin to get a little sticky.
ALEC MACGILLIS You end up verging into a little bit just being part of the kind of first of the nation industrial complex.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN Let me give you a quick example. Sarah remembers a story she did at the monitor about Michigan, about how they were trying to kick New Hampshire out of the first in the nation spot. So Secretary of State Bill Gardner was involved, the so-called guardian of the primary for the last four decades. And Sarah wrote a story about him and how he was trying to keep Michigan from stealing the primary.
SARAH KOENIG My stance was like, ‘Go, Bill Gardner,’ you know what I mean? Like, he's our guy. I'm sure I brought up in the stories, I was like expressing Michigan's position, but I wasn't really interrogating ours.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN Sometimes reporting on the primary can turn into defending the primary
At the Democratic convention, will you support New Hampshire's continued first in the nation stance?
You guys are really good at bribery, man. I tell you what.
Yes. This is the quid pro quo that I'm asking you right now.
I don't have any quid or pro…[END CLIP]
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN In 2000 when Sarah Koenig and Alec MacGillis were on the beat, the Monitor wasn't the only game in town.
JOSH ROGERS There would be, you know the statewide news outlets. The union leader to some degree NHPR, WMUR, you'd also have local papers, regional papers or papers like Fosters.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN This is my colleague Josh Rogers. He's been covering politics in New Hampshire for nearly two decades.
JOSH ROGERS Different papers, you know, cover things with different intensity. But I mean, the bottom line is there was more.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN The New Hampshire primary is seen as this like good thing, a public service that we provide for the rest of the country. And somewhere along the line, New Hampshire journalists started seeing themselves as participants in that thing instead of neutral observers. And that can shape reporting on the primary in subtle and not so subtle ways. We've done booster sounding stories here at NHPR, like this one from 2016, celebrating the importance of the “humble house parties.”
NEWS REPORT Why is it that in an era of big data, big money politics, candidates still see value in these smaller, more informal gatherings?
You do in New Hampshire still pick up votes. [END CLIP]
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN We also did a profile of Gardner that year that barely questioned him. But then there's this.
SCOTT SPRANDLING When it came to protecting the presidential primary, I was a biased reporter. I will own that proudly. I was a biased reporter.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN Scott Spradling was WMUR’s political director for 12 years. WMUR, or Channel Nine is New Hampshire's only statewide television news station. Full disclosure, I interned and freelance there in college. Now, New Hampshire voters can get Boston stations, too, but when it comes to the primary, WMUR is king. They report from the campaign trail, they air lots of interviews with candidates, they often invite voters to join them for those conversations and they co-host national debates. So they do a lot.
And when Scott Spradling started at WMUR, he says at first:
SCOTT SPRANDLING I tried to just sort of be a filter for what I was hearing and then like reflected back so that people could make up their own minds
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN And then you fell in love.
SCOTT SPRANDLING Well, yeah, I mean, I fell in love with the primary because, my gosh, she's such a lovely mistress.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN Before the 2000 election, he was assigned to go down to Delaware. They wanted an early primary, too. And the guardians of the New Hampshire primary told candidates, if you campaign in Delaware, you will feel the wrath of the New Hampshire voter. And how were the voters going to find out? Scott Spradling.
SCOTT SPRANDLING My news director sent me five, six hours south to go camp out in Delaware and wait for a gotcha moment. The whole thing was supposed to be catch the guy in the act, show the people of New Hampshire that he's running around with somebody else.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN Turns out, didn't work out. He didn't get the story. But that's not the point. The point is for Scott Spradling, protecting the New Hampshire primary was part of the gig. And he says that's true of WMUR’s political directors through today.
NEWS REPORT One hundred years after ballots were cast in New Hampshire's first presidential primary, the tradition is under fire again, despite recognition... [END CLIP]
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN Remember, the New Hampshire primary is a political institution protected and upheld by powerful people who stand to benefit from its survival. And so reporting that doesn't interrogate that institution. Well, it seems to apply a different standard. Why is it OK to not be objective about the fact that New Hampshire's first?
SCOTT SPRANDLING Well, I guess because in this particular argument, I would say respectfully that the results speak for themselves. I think that New Hampshire, for a number of unique reasons…
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN Scott says New Hampshire is small, accessible, gives longshot candidates a chance. He says New Hampshire makes better presidents. Now, some of those things are facts. New Hampshire is small. It is easy to get around here. Candidates have campaigned in New Hampshire on a shoestring budget. But whether our voters make better presidents, whether we deserve to be first. Those are opinions. No one who works at WMUR now would sit for an interview with us, but the station's news director, Alisha McDevitt sent us a statement and it reads: “The first in the nation primary is a big story because it's a New Hampshire tradition. These are lines taken out of our broader reporting of the New Hampshire primary. WMUR does not take positions. We obviously cover those who support the New Hampshire primary and their reasons for doing so. But that does not mean we take an editorial position.”
Part of what we are trying to do here now is put every piece of the primary under the microscope, ask the questions that make people here uncomfortable. And some people certainly are not pleased with that, including local journalists like Joe McQuaid, editor at large of the New Hampshire Union Leader, the only statewide newspaper that we've got. Here he is recently on C-SPAN.
JOE MCQUAID The local public radio station in New Hampshire, did a podcast this year called Stranglehold. [END CLIP]
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN McQuaid wouldn't do an interview with us for this episode.
JOE MCQUAID And it's a series ostensibly, well it's about the New Hampshire presidential primary, but it’s very negative about the primary. And I'm wondering all the people in New Hampshire who support and listen to that station, what are they getting for their buck? [END CLIP]
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN Now, I would argue what we are doing is not negative, but I understand why my colleagues would be mad or at least baffled. The primary has made New Hampshire's local media important. All local media, us, too. It's boosted careers, helped raise money. In the 2016 election, WMUR sold 20 million dollars in primary-related ads. We dangle the primary when we're recruiting reporters to our station. We use it as messaging during fund drives and when the election rolls around, we are in demand. In the 2012 election, my colleague Josh Rogers made nearly 20,000 dollars filing extra stories on the primary for National Public Radio. And Josh has got just as many stories of insane access to candidates as anybody else does.
JOSH ROGERS You know, in 2004, the Howard Dean campaign rented a sports bar in Manchester, invited reporters to kind of hang out. You know, I shot pool with Howard Dean. You know, it seems kind of preposterous. I mean, you can...
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN But now the access is just not the same. Why? You already know the answer. The Internet, social media, the way we all consume news now. The high thresholds being set to get on the debate stage.
JOSH ROGERS They don't need to build the kind of relationship that they had historically with local media. And while getting an endorsement from a paper is something that any campaign would want. I also know that the record reflects that, you know, those things may not make a hell of a lot of difference.
LAUREN CHOOLIJIAN The Concord Monitor used to be a place candidates look to for that coveted endorsement. But now editor Ralph Jiménez says that the Monitor doesn't even have enough people to form a proper editorial board. And that's why this year, for the first time in decades, they're not going to bother endorsing a candidate.
RALPH JIMENEZ The staff is so reduced that on any given day, we couldn't get four or five people together, even for a top tier candidate. And if you can't do all of them or most of them, at least, it's not fair to just do a few and write about them. So we're forced economically to take ourselves out of the game for endorsement purposes. I actually wouldn't be surprised if this is the last real New Hampshire primary. But that's a debate for another day, I guess.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's sobering that the resources of the local paper in Concord, New Hampshire, have shriveled to the point where it couldn't even assemble half a minion, but not because it can't offer an endorsement that may or may not be relevant. But it isn't vital. It's all the other coverage, the local reporting that the monitor and countless other papers no longer provide, the kind that the national media parachuting in will never do that we all should be worried about.
BOB GARFIELD It's just another reason why we're launching a series about the crisis in local news and we want to hear your stories. Do you feel underserved or if you're a reporter, spread too thin? Do you have specific examples of stories hiding in plain sight for lack of coverage? Please get in touch. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And please, in the subject line, put local news.
Big thank you to the hosts and producers at New Hampshire Public Radio who brought us these stories. That's it for this week's show On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, and Jon Hanrahan, and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Anthony Bansie and our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair.and Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
UNDERWRITING On the Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.