The XX Factor

When the Republican Debate Comes to Town

Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry prepares for the first debate of the 2012 political season focused solely on the economy

Photo by Scott Eells/Getty Images.

The Republican Debate has descended on Hanover, NH, a town of 10,000 people, more than 80 percent of whom voted for Obama in the last election. As it happens, it’s my town of 10,000 people, which means that I am both walking around with my press pass and waving to my son’s fifth-grade teacher. And as I wait for the debate to start, the primary point of a post about having the Republicans debate in my town is that it’s weird. Normally the college green is covered in lounging students and a once-a-week farmer’s market. Right now there are television trucks exactly where the farmers usually set up.

I’d like to draw some sort of conclusion from the fact that the corralled protesters are nearly all against the entire debate rather than for one candidate or another, but given the town’s demographics, I think it was inevitable. There are dozens of “End HIV in Our Lifetime” protesters, clearly also Dartmouth students, because they broke free of the fence intended to hold the demonstrators and ran around the media platform exactly the way they’ll run around the homecoming bonfire in the same spot next week. One “Feminists Against Bachman” girl, shouting alone: “She’s even worse because she’s a WOMAN. She doesn’t care about WOMEN!”

There were dozens of “Hands off Our Social Security” demonstrators, clearly of a liberal persuasion (one sign: Social Security Isn’t a Fraud, Rick Perry Is!) and about 20 middle-aged and older people “Occupying Wall Street” on a sidewalk in front of the Bloomberg tent, audibly wondering if it was public property or if they were going to get in trouble. A few Herman Cain supporters, with signs, a few for Romney, and (equally inevitable for New Hampshire) at least twice as many Ron Paul supporters. And a relatively small number of locals, gawking.

It’s that small number that interests me. Other than the people who won the lottery (or donated enough) for seats in the tiny Spaulding Auditorium (predominantly white, male, and wearing ties), there’s not much interest here. Not in the media circus, and not in the candidates. This may be a blue town, but I’d estimate half the residents will vote in the upcoming primary. All that’s required to vote in a primary here is a willingness to declare your affiliation with the electing party for however long it takes for you to fill out your ballot. Some of those people cast spoiler votes, but many vote sincerely, in a kind of second choice race. And neither they, nor the real Republicans in town, are really tuned in yet. An unscientific survey of likely-voting women by the New England Post found the group unable to name most of the candidates, and 89 percent of those polled say they haven’t yet settled on a candidate. (That’s 89 percent of NH residents who still answer the phone to pollsters.)

And into that climate, clamoring for attention, come eight candidates, ready to sit around the oval table (specially made for the occasion), Charlie Rose style, and vie for soundbites in the chairs usually reserved for the cellists of Dartmouth’s orchestra. They’re specially designed to allow for sitting up straight right at the front of the chair. Bloomberg Television doesn’t subscribe to Nielsen ratings, so we’ll never have a good estimate for how people were watching, but I have a feeling the candidates are the only ones on the edge of their seats.