My Turn: What to do if you want to win in New Hampshire

For the Monitor
Published: 1/15/2020 6:01:01 AM
Modified: 1/15/2020 6:00:12 AM

The New Hampshire presidential primary rewards those who exceed expectations. On the ground level, this concept is often ignored. To “win” New Hampshire, a campaign operation must master statewide vision, organizational strength, restraint and creative late-game execution.

Statewide vision

Campaigns need a game plan for reaching every potential voter multiple times. New Hampshirites are among the most reliable voters in the country, and they take their first-in-the-nation primary status seriously. They reside in one of the nation’s smallest states by size and by population. There’s no excuse for ignoring individuals based on geography.

The same goes for party affiliation. Eligible voters can change their party affiliation from Democrat to Republican to “undeclared” fairly easily. In election cycles like this one when only Democrats have a competitive field, some Republicans temporarily switch parties so they can vote in the Democratic primary, just as some Democrats switch when an incumbent Democratic president faces minimal-to-no primary opposition.

When I worked on Bill Bradley’s 1999-2000 presidential campaign against Vice President Al Gore, we were tasked with ignoring self-identified Republicans. In the more crowded Republican primary, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who trailed Gov. George W. Bush by 50 points nationally less than a week before the primary, imposed no such self-limitations with Democratic voters.

On primary day, McCain obliterated expectations with an 18-point victory over Bush, thanks in large part to Democratic support. For context, 60% of New Hampshire voters participated in the Republican primary, while only 48% voted for the GOP standard-bearer in November.

New Hampshire was, and still is, a purple state. Yet McCain’s direct appeal to Democrats was a difference maker.

Organizational strength

The best campaigns are run almost entirely by volunteers. Successful operations know where to search for help, and when and how to put them to work. Investing one hour securing a volunteer who can work two hours is time well spent.

Some campaigns don’t know what to do with all of their volunteers. That’s a sign of organizational weakness. I once offered to help a campaign on four separate occasions spanning four months. Each time they expressed gratitude and promised to get back to me. But they never put me to work.

A New Hampshire presidential campaign must have a coordinated statewide system for accepting, tracking and utilizing volunteers. If 20 South Carolina college students arrive to knock on doors all weekend, they’ll need free beds and directions to several neighborhoods that haven’t been contacted in a while. If an older couple walks into a campaign office ready to help, give them something to do immediately. Make sure it matters. And make sure that couple knows why it matters.

Because an organization is only as strong as it is useful.


Don’t announce to the press that you’re canvassing on Sunday. Don’t brag publicly about organizational milestones, like completing 100,000 calls. Simply put, don’t give away the game. Behind closed doors, pride in one’s operation might serve to motivate. But beyond those rented walls, the less said, the better.

If a campaign is successful, the candidate deserves all the credit. Her message won it, or his relatability captured voters’ imagination. When campaign officials insert their strategic thinking or work ethic into the equation, they needlessly muddle the message and undercut the person who matters most.

Creative late-game execution

The final New Hampshire polls are released a few days before Election Day. This marks the beginning of an aggressive final push. Traditional last-minute campaigning efforts – shiny brochures, phone calls, TV ads running ad nauseam – rarely distinguish one campaign from another in New Hampshire’s politically saturated climate.

Instead, an operation must be creative and far-reaching. It’s the final word to hundreds of thousands of potential voters. And it must be executed as surreptitiously as possible, so neither the media nor opponents catch on.

Imagine, for example, implementing a statewide hand-written letter campaign addressed to 500,000 identified voters. Kick off the project six months out. Divvy names based on geography. Record each completed note in a centralized database. Then, working with staff and volunteers throughout the state, mail all of the letters four days before Election Day – too late to impact the final pre-election polls, and early enough to ensure voters see it before heading to the polls. No other campaign would do this. It’s a pristine form of retail politics.

Presidential politicking is not rocket science. It requires the ambition to pursue every vote, the discipline to build an organization from scratch, an hourly dose of humility and a closing argument unlike any other.

This is what moves the needle in New Hampshire. These folks have seen it all. Prepare something new, present it authentically and save it till the end. Because the end is all people remember on Election Day.

(B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service, part of the Sanford School for Public Policy. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books – including one on New Hampshire presidential politicking – and has shared political insights across all media platforms.)

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