Joyce Maynard: The gift – and the responsibility – of being a New Hampshire voter

For the Monitor
Published: 2/9/2020 7:30:15 AM

So here we are, in that moment that comes once every four years, when the state of New Hampshire, where I was born, captures the nation’s attention – the final days before Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary.

In the aftermath of the disastrous Iowa caucus, and the Senate’s dismissal of impeachment proceedings against the president, the results of this year’s voting take on even greater significance.

And for the first time in over two decades of living on the other side of our country, I’m a New Hampshire voter again.

In California, where I was one of millions, it was hard to feel that my vote made a difference, but so many times over my years in our state – from town meetings to ballot measures – it remained possible to believe that the hours I spent knocking on doors or putting a sign in my yard, calling up neighbors and baking pies for house parties, might actually determine whether a candidate would move forward in the race, or not.

As small a state as we are, in numbers, once every four years our voices are heard across the nation.

Voters get lots of attention here in the Granite State – not only from the press but from the candidates. I once talked for 20 minutes with Jerry Brown in a friend’s kitchen, and with John Kerry, and (this goes back a while; I was 14 years old) on a street corner in Berlin with George McGovern. Back in the ’80s – the first time Joe Biden ran for president – my children’s father and I hosted an egg toss attended by his then-teenaged sons. Later that same day, the phone rang. Our daughter, then 8 years old, got briefly excited when she heard that Paul Simon was on the line, but her joy was short-lived. “Oh,” she said, handing me the phone, “it’s just another candidate for president.”

What we get from our role as the primary state is not simply the gift of proximity to the candidates. It’s the privilege of knowing our votes will be counted, not only in our local polling place, but across the nation.

A candidate who might be an extreme underdog going into the New Hampshire primary can – if she or he connects strongly with New Hampshire voters – catch fire. If New Hampshire voters embrace him or her, someone like Michael Bennet or Andrew Yang or Amy Klobuchar, whose poll numbers are low, can suddenly become a viable candidate for president. That couldn’t happen in California or Ohio or Texas, where the sums of money needed to reach so many runs in the hundreds of millions.

Three and a half years ago, I left California. I bought a little house eight miles down the road from where I used to vote, long ago, and re-established residency in my home state. This year’s election will be the first I get to participate in as a New Hampshire voter in 24 years, and I doubt there will be anything I do this season, or next, that carries more significance for me than casting that ballot. I regard this as a sacred honor. The idea that anyone who has the opportunity to do so would fail to vote defies my understanding.

I don’t pay too much attention to who’s ahead in the polls at this point. To me, it is people like us – the voters of this first primary state – who can determine the outcome of the polls in the weeks to come. Not all New Hampshire voters see things this way, but if you ask me, here’s what sets us apart, as voters in the New Hampshire primary: Each of us possesses a unique opportunity not simply to choose the candidate who best represents our own personal views on the issues, but to help launch the one who will best represent the people of this country – many of whom have vastly different backgrounds and stories from our own – who seek an alternative to the current president in the national election.

This includes moderates. This includes some independents and Republicans, as dismayed as I am by the actions of the current administration. This includes farmers and steel workers and small-business people, whose concerns and positions may differ in some of the particulars from mine. But we are more alike than divided on what matters most for our country.

I would never support a candidate whose values I could not respect and embrace. But I would no more expect my candidate to echo back to me every opinion I hold than I’d ask a DJ to play only the songs that I love best. I’m part of a collective here, called the United States of America, and it seems to me that we are a nation more divided, perhaps, than in any time since the Civil War. As a voter – in any election, but this one more than any before – I look for a candidate who can work to bring us together, not polarize and deepen the divisions wrought by the last three years. I look for a candidate who may not offer me the sun, moon and stars, but who can deliver on the promises made on the campaign trail.

For close to four years now, we’ve been hearing about families who can no longer sit at the same table at Thanksgiving because the divide is so great in their politics. The kinds of lively debate that used to exist between people who saw things differently have been replaced by ugly epithets or chilly silence and sometimes out-and-out fights.

To me, hope for our country lies not simply with getting rid of a dangerous and corrupt individual in the White House but with recognizing the kind of alienation, on the part of many of our fellow Americans, that inspired his election in the first place. Unless we elect someone who can – without violating her or his core beliefs – extend a hand to the people who felt unheard, in 2016, the chasm will only deepen.

This week, I will proudly cast my precious primary ballot for the candidate who, to my mind, stands best positioned to offer an alternative to the corrosive regime we’ve witnessed over the past three years. Right now my candidate remains an underdog, but while that might make my support unrealistic – if I were voting in a later primary state – I vote with the knowledge that we are still early enough in this process that we don’t need to reflect back the story the press is telling us. We can write the story ourselves – knowing as we do that a candidate (possibly an outlier) who does well in our state will instantly become a viable force in the months ahead.

We have a huge responsibility to send a message to our fellow Americans about who we believe has the greatest chance of defeating the current president. Who among them can bring along, lower down on the ticket, the kinds of national, state and local leaders who will return our country to a place that honors our Constitution, and the qualities of decency and fairness and honesty that are repudiated and mocked every day under the current president – most recently, and flagrantly, during the State of the Union address last week.

Five months from now, when the city of Milwaukee hosts the Democratic National Convention that will nominate the candidate to face Donald Trump next November, I’d like to be able to say that the Granite State put the wind in that individual’s sails.

(Joyce Maynard is the author of 18 books, including the New York Times bestseller “Labor Day.” She also wrote a syndicated column called “Domestic Affairs,” which ran in the Monitor for many years. When not completing her undergraduate studies at Yale, she lives in Bennington.)

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