A sign marks the entrance to the Occupy New Hampshire Primary camp in Manchester, New Hampshire January 8, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Manchester, NH—New Hampshire is a small state, so its primary does not allocate many delegates to the Republican National Convention. The reason New Hampshire’s primary is so important is the momentum it creates for the winning candidate. And the reason it creates momentum is because the national media obsessively cover it in great detail. So, in some sense, the media coverage is itself the primary.
Ground zero for the media in New Hampshire right now is the Radisson hotel in downtown Manchester. Television news networks and major news organizations have set up makeshift studios and filing rooms—akin to the media pavilion outside a national party’s convention—in the Radisson’s lower levels and on its front lawn.
Directly across the street from the Radisson is a park, which has been turned into an encampment, with a circle of tents and an information shack, and a rotating cast of protesters on the sidewalk in front. This is the heart of Occupy New Hampshire, a protest movement inspired by its more famous progenitor on Wall Street.
Wisely situated for maximum media visibility—the protesters wave signs for passing cars and get a supportive honk every minute—the movement is organized much like the media entourage. At any given moment the vast majority of Occupy activists are not in the park but out at campaign events, peacefully but forcefully making their voices heard. According to organizers, there are roughly 600 people taking part in Occupy activities in New Hampshire right now. The core group is from within the state, but many have come in from all over New England.
During the question-and-answer session at Rick Santorum’s town hall meeting in Hollis on Saturday, Santorum was peppered with challenges to his extreme social conservatism. He was asked by his mostly young interrogators why he doesn’t respect the separation of church and state, why he opposes civil rights for gays and why he opposes abortion rights. To his credit, Santorum engaged respectfully and gave thorough answers. Towards the end the protesters briefly broke into a chant of “We are the 99 percent.”
At Mitt Romney’s rally in Exeter on Sunday night the protesters were not treated with such courtesy, nor did they represent themselves as effectively. During Romney’s speech they started chanting, “Mitt kills jobs!” Romney said he is confronted by these activists everywhere he goes, and encouraged the rest of the crowd to shout them down with shouts of “Mitt! Mitt!” They did. At this point there wasn’t much to be gained from interrupting Romney again. It seemed rude to the rest of the crowd who wanted to hear Romney, and served no purpose except to excite Romney’s usually passionless supporters. But when Romney started up again, the protesters began again too and they were shouted down again.
But the real fireworks came during New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s speech. (In an apparent admission that Romney does not inspire voters, the campaign inverted the usual format where an endorser introduces the candidate and had Romney speak first.) “Christie kills jobs!” shouted a few women in the crowd. Christie—who has become a conservative hero by belittling citizens who disagree with him—stopped speaking, and said “Is that right?” He took a few steps forward towards the crowd. After twice twisting his head in an exaggerated display of barely controlled anger, the gargantuan governor said, “Something might go down tonight, sweetheart, but it won’t be jobs.” The crowd roared in approval at Christie’s sexist, nonsensical rejoinder and physically menacing behavior. Christie then went on to claim credit for “creating” private sector jobs since he took office. The crowd cheered so loudly that you couldn’t hear Christie finish his sentence. The facts that Republicans are supposed to believe that businesses, not government, create private sector jobs, and that New Jersey’s job growth since Christie took office in 2010 is merely a microcosm of the national rebound from the Bush recession appeared not to concern anyone, least of all Christie himself.
Make no mistake, this sort of simple-mindedness and bullying is very popular with the Republican electorate. Christie drew considerably more applause than Romney. Afterwards, a high school student from Phillips Exeter Academy pointed to Christie and said, “VP?” Christie replied, “We’ll see.”
Leaving the Romney rally there was a sizable crowd of Occupy protesters playing music, handing out literature and bearing signs. The messages on their signs vary, from reducing the influence of money in politics to opposing the recently signed National Defense Authorization Act. It is undoubtedly true, though, that they are providing a counter-message to the relentless conservatism voters and reporters are repeatedly exposed to on the campaign trail.