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Diplomacy in Action

Primary Day in New Hampshire: The View from the Editor's Chair

Felice Belman, Editor, Concord Monitor
New York, NY
January 10, 2012

 10:00 A.M. EST


MODERATOR: Thank you. Good morning, everybody, and thank you for calling in to the Foreign Press Center’s teleconference on the – on today’s New Hampshire primaries. We have with us today Felice Belman, the editor of the Concord Monitor, where she’s worked on and off for around 20 years as an editor, and before that as a state politics reporter. She’s coming to us today from Concord, so – and unfortunately, she doesn’t have a lot of time today, so we’ll just go ahead and begin with her statements.

Felice, if you want to start.

MS. BELMAN: Thank you so much. Well, this an honor and kind of a funny one to be talking to so many people I can’t see. There is no snow in Concord this morning, which is unusual for the New Hampshire presidential primary. We sort of pride ourselves in making the candidates deal with terrible weather up here, but it didn’t happen this year.

The polls have already opened. In fact, in a funny tradition, there are two very tiny towns in the far northern corner of the state, and they vote right after midnight. And the rules say if you can get every registered voter to the town at midnight, they can all vote at once. When you know everybody has voted, they close the polls right away. And so Dixville Notch, which has had this tradition for like 1,000 years, they had exactly nine voters, and they all voted right at the stroke at midnight, and they counted the votes right away, and the results were a tie between Romney and Huntsman. Each of them got two votes, and then the rest were scattered. Every – the other candidates, many of them got one vote a piece. What always happens on election day is that’s all that the media has to report for hours upon hours. The polls have closed in Dixville Notch, and Romney and Huntsman are tied, but only nine people voted, so it’s kind of – quite a silly tradition.

This campaign has been a really strange one. I’ve been in New Hampshire since 1988. They always seem different. What felt different about this one was how slow it was to get started. Mitt Romney, who ran four years ago in the Republican race, and who lives right next door in Massachusetts, and who, in fact, has a fancy summer home in New Hampshire – he’s so familiar to voters up here, and he’s got so much money that it took a long time for other candidates to jump into the race.

Some of them ignored New Hampshire all together. Michele Bachmann, who was in the race until last week, didn’t even bother to campaign here. Rick Perry was a very small presence here. Their thinking was twofold. One, their message might resonate elsewhere better than it did in New Hampshire, but frankly, also, they just didn’t have the financial resources necessarily to be going all over the country. And so we have seen much less of the candidates up until the last few weeks than we have in the past. It hasn’t been as busy as it was, certainly four years ago, but in most of the other elections we’ve seen.

That all changed after Iowa voted last week. It’s become just a madhouse here. The Concord Monitor is a small paper with a small staff, and we’ve been going nonstop for the past week, but really trying to do a good job the past year, too.

So that’s a little bit of the flavor of what’s going on, and I’m happy to take whatever questions you might have.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phones. Again, to ask a question, please press *1. It’ll be just a moment for our first question.

Our first question comes from Lara Marlowe. Please state your media affiliation, and you may ask your question.

QUESTION: I’m from the Irish Times. I actually have three questions in one. First of all, regarding Dixville Notch, someone told me this morning that Barack Obama actually got three of the nine votes, in other words he won that poll at midnight. Is that correct?

MS. BELMAN: Well, it’s actually two different ballots. There’s a Republican ballot, and there is actually a Democratic ballot. So those were Democratic voters voting on the Democratic ballot. There are all these fringe candidates you’ve never heard of. It’s very easy to get on the ballot in New Hampshire. All you need is $1,000. And so in addition to the people you see on the news all the time, there’s all these people you’ve never heard of. Barack Obama was up against them, and for whoever took a Democratic ballot, they voted for him. So it’s not that he beat the Republicans. It’s that it was actually two different races.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Dorres Marta, please state your media affiliation, and you may ask your question.

QUESTION: La Racon Newspaper from Spain. Good morning. I would like you to tell us how do you see the Republican candidates overall, if you compare as well with the Republican candidates in other primaries.

MS. BELMAN: It’s been such a strange election that I feel like we’re judging them differently than we used to. This year, for the first time ever, so much of the campaign has been conducted via nationally televised debates, mostly on the Fox TV channel, but also elsewhere. And so that’s how they were reaching voters. And so the way you had to measure them was did they get in a particularly terrific line or terrific attack against one of their opponents, or did they fumble in a debate. One wrong word in a debate, and it’s all over the news the next day. And so much of the campaign has been who messed up in a debate rather than who is doing a good time talking one on one to voters in New Hampshire over time. And so I feel like the measurements are quite different.

That said, it’s a funny kind of choice this year. It feels like it’s Mitt Romney or someone else. And everyone else has had a shot pretty much at being the anyone else. It seems like there’s a sense of inevitability about Romney, and yet there’s still – I don't know – 60, 70 percent of the Republican voters who aren’t quite happy with him yet. And so they’re sort of jostling for who’s going to be the alternative, and I’m not sure we know the answer to that yet.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Christina Bergmann, please state your media affiliation, and you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yes. Hi. I’m with Deutsche Welle German international broadcasting. I have two questions, if I may. First, if you could lead us a little bit through the timeline of tonight, so what is happening when, and when do you expect to get any results, or what’s the typical – what’s your expectation?

And then the second one is about what is the – how do the voters in New Hampshire relate to the fact that, as you mentioned, a few – some of the candidates aren’t exactly there, for example Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. Thank you.

MS. BELMAN: Yeah. Sure. So today the polls are open in every little town. There’s 232 towns in New Hampshire. Most of them are very tiny. They all have their own town clerk. In many of them, the voting is done by hand. And so even though the polls will largely be closed by 7:00 or 8:00 tonight, it will take a few hours for all the counting to be done. In the big cities, it’ll be quick, but sometimes, as we saw in Iowa, a few votes really can make a difference.

And so I also think tonight it really feels like the race is for second and third place. It doesn’t seem like anyone has caught Mitt Romney for first, and so the real suspense will be who comes in second and who comes in third.

Yeah. The fact that Rick Perry hasn’t spent much time here really shows. He had – there was some excitement about him when he first joined the race, and he came up to New Hampshire a couple of times. But he really hasn’t spent the time here, doesn’t have much organization, doesn’t have a crowd of volunteers who are making calls this morning and giving people rides to vote if they need a car ride. He doesn’t have that sort of infrastructure. And so I think he gave up on us and we gave up on him.

Gingrich, it’s funny. I mean, I think he, too, doesn’t have the sort of campaign infrastructure certainly that Mitt Romney has, but there are people who like how unpredictable he is, like how sharp his attack has been. But I don’t – there are people perhaps, too, who were entertained by him and willing to think about him, but it doesn’t seem as if he’s going to do too well. In his case, I don't think it’s because he hasn’t been here so much as people find him unpredictable or he makes them nervous a little bit.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Janine Harper, please state your media affiliation, and you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Fuji Television. I just wanted to know – it’s kind of following on the same line of questioning, but you said that this election has been different and the candidates haven’t made themselves a presence in New Hampshire that much. New Hampshire is kind of famous for being the place where our presidents are picked. Do you think that they will have the same honor this time around, or will the candidates’ lack of attention to the state hurt that?

MS. BELMAN: Well, I think that the campaign, both here and everywhere, has really become about Romney and whether he will be able to win all the early states and wrap it up quickly or whether the whole campaign will be prolonged into the spring. Excuse me. I think if someone surprises us in New Hampshire and really is able to do well as a second- or third-place finisher, and therefore gets the attention in the next contest and money, more important in fact, New Hampshire will have played a role that sort of winnows the field.

I think for the candidates who didn’t do well in Iowa, if they also don’t do well in New Hampshire, they’re going to have a very hard time getting the attention of voters and the money from supporters that they will need. After South Carolina, many of the states are really big. I mean, to compete in Florida, you need an awful lot of people and an awful lot of money. There’s many different television markets, and you need to be on TV all the time. And so people who don’t do well early on, they lose the confidence of people who might be willing to support them later. So I do think – even though the New Hampshire race hasn’t been as, sort of, robust as it has in the past, I think there’s still an important role to play in sort of helping to narrow down the field as the race goes on in the later states.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Stephan Bussard, please state your media affiliation, and you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yeah. Le Temps newspaper. Hello, Ms. Belman. I have a little question about the Obama campaign. We’ve been talking a lot about the GOP campaign. But it seems that the Obama campaign is pretty much present in New Hampshire, and I would like to have your view on that. And how difficult will it be for Obama to win New Hampshire since his approval rate here is around 41 percent? Thank you.

MS. BELMAN: Yes. We’ve not been paying much attention to the President’s own campaign because all the activity and excitement has been on the Republican side. But in fact, he’s got a bigger presence in New Hampshire than anybody else, and it’s not just for the primary. I mean, obviously he’ll win the Democratic primary today, such as it is, but he’s really getting everything in place for the long haul. He’ll be here – his campaign apparatus will be here between now and November. It’s funny. He didn’t win the primary here last time, but he is popular among Democrats and moderates, or has been. Whether he will be able to beat Romney if Romney is the nominee, who knows?

There’s been a lot of talk about a third party candidate, that voters seem so frustrated by the choices currently before them that perhaps someone will run as an Independent. And depending on who that person is, he or she could take votes away from Mitt Romney or from the President, depending on what sort of politics they have. And so it sure feels like anything could happen in New Hampshire and nationally between now and November. I also think the fact that the economy seems slowly to be picking up, that unemployment slowly is going down, only helps the President. Whether people will feel better about the economy by November, I guess that’s still an open question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Again, if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. Virginia Robert, please state your media affiliation, and you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yeah. I work for Les Echos, the French business daily. I was wondering how media fared regarding your advertising budgets with the campaign. Did you see a big boost?

MS. BELMAN: It’s interesting. We don’t get – every now and then we’ll get a full-page, full-color advertisement from someone unexpected, like Rick Santorum. Or on the newspaper website – right now I’m looking at The Monitor website, and there’s a big Mitt Romney ad at the top of it. But I don’t think newspaper or even newspaper website advertising is really where the campaigns put too much money, and they haven’t for the past – I don’t know – 10 years or so.

What you really see is the local television station gets the lion’s share of that advertising revenue. There’s only one network affiliate TV station in the whole state of New Hampshire, and they have a really fancy office, and everybody jokes about the fact that it was bought for them by Steve Forbes, who ran for president some years ago and spent so much money on advertising that suddenly the TV station was really rich where it hadn’t been before. But I think for newspapers, it doesn’t really work that way unfortunately.

OPERATOR: Lara Marlowe, please state your media affiliation, and you may ask your question.

QUESTION: This is Lara Marlowe of the Irish Times again. How badly do you think the concentration on Mitt Romney’s role at Bain Capital over the last couple of days has hurt him? Is this – could this possibly bring Romney down in the same way that the negative advertising against Gingrich in Iowa brought him down?

MS. BELMAN: What’s so strange to me is that it took his competitors so long to focus on this. It’s partly because it’s a Republican race, I think, and being a successful businessman is a plus in a Republican race. But these attacks – these new attacks about what Mitt Romney actually did at Bain Capital and whether he was a job creator or, in fact, someone who was responsible for people losing their jobs, it’s a really serious attack, and it hasn’t really been one that has been made in depth in this race or four years ago until just now.

I think for New Hampshire voters, this may be coming late. It may cut into his support some. And then there are the expectation games. If he only – if he doesn’t get 40 percent of the vote, is that not good? If he only gets 30 percent of the vote, I mean, that sounds like a big win, but if you were expecting 40, maybe it’s not. So a lot of this is the spin after the fact. How wounded is he? I think in a way these attacks are really forward-looking, and people assume he’s going to do well – very well in New Hampshire, but the South Carolina race is coming up very quickly, and a lot of these attacks are really aimed at catching people’s attention down there.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Again, if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. Zoltan Mikes, please state your media affiliation, and you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Good morning. Zoltan Mikes, World Business Press Online News Agency. My question is: New Hampshire is considered for a liberal state; I would be interested how the candidates, Mr. Romney and Mr. Huntsman, play to their more liberal side, in the case of Mr. Romney, the healthcare issue, and in case of Mr. Huntsman, his serving as ambassador to China under Obama. And the other question is: What are the chances of Ron Paul in such a liberal state?

MS. BELMAN: So I think the notion of calling New Hampshire liberal isn’t quite right. I mean, the things that make New Hampshire different from Iowa and South Carolina are more like a libertarian streak, which is to say the voters over time have been conservative when it comes to economic and fiscal matters, matters of taxation, and more liberal when it comes to social issues. So there’s sort of a mix there. The biggest number of voters are neither Republican nor Democratic; they are undeclared, which is to say they don’t really align themselves with either party.

So it makes it tricky for these candidates, because they’re trying to speak to – appeal to New Hampshire voters. In this race, they have to appeal to both Republicans and Independents who have the right to vote in a Republican primary. But everything they say here will also be broadcast all over the country, and so technology has made it harder to have one message here and a different message somewhere else.

Huntsman – I think in terms of his service with the Obama Administration, it wasn’t until very recently that he really found a way to talk about that that was compelling, and it’s been in the last few days. He says, “I put country above politics. Mitt Romney puts politics above country.” He points out not only that he served as ambassador to China. He said, “When my President called, my country came first. I didn’t worry about party.” He also points out that he has two sons serving in the military, which is sort of an oblique reference to remind voters that Mitt Romney’s beautiful sons who have been here campaigning are not in the military. And so he’s sort of made it about patriotism.

I think it’s a really strong message. He only sort of found his voice that way in the past – I don't know – 72 hours. So whether enough people have had an opportunity to think about that, I’m not sure. But it seems effective and it seems like, well, why didn’t he think of that 18 months ago.

As for Romney and healthcare – boy, that’s really complicated. New Hampshire Republican voters don’t like the national – the ObamaCare, as it’s called, the national healthcare reform. Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts is quite similar to that. I don't think he has found a way to talk about his plan versus what’s been done in Washington in a way that’s convincing, in a way that says it was good for Massachusetts, but when President Obama did it, it was bad for the country. It’s not a message that he has made in a convincing way. Mostly he doesn’t like to talk about it, but I imagine as we go forward it’s something that his competitors will continue to point out, I think.

MODERATOR: Okay. That looks like it was our final question. So if there are no further questions, I just want to thank Felice. Thank you again for being able to join us.

MS. BELMAN: Oh, sure thing.

MODERATOR: Wait. We have one more from Lara Marlowe, if we want to take that.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. This is Lara Marlowe from the Irish Times. A technical question. Do I understand correctly – excuse me – that the primary winners until April are accorded delegates proportionately, in other words, the second and third place winners will also get some delegates, but from April on it’s winner take all? Is that how the system works?

MS. BELMAN: Yeah. I don't think it’s as much about literally the date as every state has its own rules. And so you really have to look at the rules of each state. But I do think that the first few contests – I believe you’re right about that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. Well, again, thank you, Felice, for being able to join us today, as your insights have been really helpful. And thank you to everyone else for calling in. Have a great primary day.

MS. BELMAN: Thanks so much.

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