Ballot Box

Instant Analysis

NASHUA, N.H.–What brought about John McCain’s blowout victory tonight? Beyond a variety of specific issues and McCain’s compelling personal history, I think the key factor was the rule-breaking way in which he ran here. However far McCain gets in the primaries, I think political types will long remember his New Hampshire campaign as a fascinating and unusual one. And I think we will look back fondly at the way he reinvented two commonplace political institutions: the press bus and the town meeting.  

I wrote about   life aboard the McCain press bus a few days ago. The candidate’s decision to provide the media with nearly limitless access was a gamble. One hazard was that verbal promiscuity would lead McCain into gratuitous blunders, such as his comment that if his 15-year-old daughter became pregnant, she would be the one to decide whether to have an abortion. Another risk was that when a scandal broke, such as McCain’s letters to the FCC on behalf of contributors, he might easily compound the harm by giving unconsidered answers. But there was a big payoff, namely a cheerful and contented press corps. McCain’s total availability meant that no reporter had an unanswered question for long, and that even those far down the media food chain got to know and like the candidate. This could not have been more different from the sense of isolation and hierarchy experienced by journalists traveling with the other three major candidates. And for the most part, this bet paid off. The press repaid McCain’s openness with kind and generous coverage.

Though there has been more discussion of McCain’s sunny relationship with the press, I think the other novel phenomenon of his New Hampshire campaign–McCain’s participation in open forums–was of far greater significance. The town meeting, at which voters gather to listen to a candidate and ask him questions, is the quintessential New Hampshire political event. McCain did more of these than anyone else: 114 over a period of several months. If attendance averaged 250, with some repeat visitors, it’s a reasonable guess that 25,000 New Hampshire voters saw McCain in person at a town meeting. But more important than McCain’s ubiquity was the quality of his interaction with voters. At these sessions, McCain forged a surprisingly personal and intimate bond with those who came to see him. At one level, the events were simply great performances by a stand-up comedian who also happened to be a military hero and a crusading reformer. But at another level, they were about a candidate genuinely listening (as opposed to talking about listening), frequently being moved by his audience, and reacting to all comers with a rare degree of spontaneity and candor.

George W. Bush’s events in New Hampshire were far different. Instead of town meetings, he did photo ops and gave speeches. The photo ops, in which Bush would ride a snowmobile, bowl, appear with his parents, or flip pancakes, were media events, not retail ones. And his speeches were remote, highly structured presentations not at all like McCain’s unscripted happenings. Bush preferred brief, infrequent appearances in controlled, often corporate environments like insurance and investment-company offices. At such events, Bush took questions from the audience, but the audience was usually composed of people who all worked for the same company. The human variety was more limited, and with the bosses in the room, the discussion was more constrained. There was no sense of Bush laying himself open to genuine public scrutiny or taking the kind of risks that McCain did. 

It won’t be easy for McCain to transfer his New Hampshire techniques to South Carolina. The press, which feels guilty about giving him a free ride, is due to increase its level of scrutiny. As a result, life aboard the Straight Talk Express may well grow more contentious as well as more crowded. It will also be impossible for McCain to bond personally with as many voters in the more populous state of South Carolina over a much shorter stretch of time. Improvisation will be the order of the day once again.

[For more on New Hampshire, see Charles Lane and Allison Silver’s post-primary exchange in ” The Breakfast Table.”]