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What New Hampshire Voters Are Watching

With a quarter of them still undecided, this primary could come down to a powerful TV ad or news clip.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Shortly after 5:30 Monday evening, Suzanne Roantree, a TV reporter for the New Hampshire station WMUR, did a segment on a Manchester sidewalk about the large swath of Democrats who were still up for grabs in the New Hampshire primary. “Those undecided voters say that they are looking for a candidate who will follow through on the promises they made on the campaign trail,” she said.  

In an interview with me on Monday afternoon, University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith estimated that 25 to 30 percent of New Hampshire primary voters were still grappling with their decisions. The enduring mystery (which will only be partly answered by New Hampshire exit polls) is what will tip them over the edge to a decision.

Will it be a powerful last-minute TV ad? An emotional moment in a television news clip? A careful study of the issues? A stray conversation with a neighbor? Or a convincing last-minute pitch from a campaign volunteer?

Judging from the roughly 35 minutes of prime WMUR news coverage I watched from my hotel Monday night, it would be hard for any perplexed voter to find much sustenance from local television. WMUR led its 5 p.m. newscast with a gushy story about Donald Trump’s impending arrival for a disrupt-the-Democrats speech in a hockey arena: “Tonight roads are blocked off, and thousands of people are descending on the Queen City for President Trump’s campaign rally.”

When WMUR pivoted to the Democrats, it highlighted rallies of the two candidates leading in the polls: Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. 

Each got an emblematic sound bite. Sanders said, “My friend Mr. Buttigieg and my friend Joe Biden, they have dozens and dozens of billionaires contributing to their campaigns.” (Buttigieg must not be that much of a friend if Sanders doesn’t even use his first name.)

And Buttigieg got to play the generational card. After running footage of a long, snaking line of voters waiting to get into one of his upcoming rallies on Monday, WMUR showed the former mayor saying, “We will be working together in a way that makes us proud. I don’t believe that because I am young ... I believe that as a matter of experience, having seen in a war zone what Americans can do to work together.” 

WMUR had also opened its studios to the candidates, offering each of them one minute to make their final pitches to voters. For the most part, their brief speeches, which were broadcast on WMUR on Monday night, were predictable, although Biden tried a defensive twist: “My colleagues tell me that maybe I’ve been around too long. Let me tell you something. The fact is that my experience has brought me a lot of serious wisdom.... We’re going to have to unify the country, reach across the aisle. I believe I’m best equipped to do that.”

The ads that aired during the commercial breaks were more revealing. A case can be made that nobody in America profits more from politics than WMUR. Steve Forbes spent so much money buying up airtime on the station in 1996 that WMUR’s headquarters, built a few years later, is fondly known as “the house Steve Forbes built.” This year, several candidates could afford to run 30-second spots. While I watched WMUR on Monday night, I saw three TV ads from Tulsi Gabbard, who seems like a virtual reality candidate, disdaining almost any personal campaigning. Andrew Yang, another fringe candidate who must face the blunt message from the math if he does not perform better in New Hampshire than he did in Iowa, ran two commercials.

The two Bernie Sanders spots I saw cleaved to tried and true talking points: “My opponents will tell you that their campaign contributions from the wealthy and the powerful don’t have any impact.” Likewise, twin upbeat Buttigieg spots were all waving flags and generational inspiration.

I only saw a single ad from Elizabeth Warren—who, contrary to most prior expectations (including my own), has become the forgotten woman in this New Hampshire campaign. In it, someone who voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016, as well as a Hillary Clinton backer, and a former Republican, talked about how Warren “could beat Donald Trump.” Democrats, they said, “should have the courage to unite behind the best candidate.” (Unless a candidate is plunging in the polls, it normally does not take courage to unite around him or her.)

I did not see any ads from either the Biden or the Klobuchar campaigns—obviously, they have been advertising, but they don’t have the resources to compete with some of the better-funded candidates, like Sanders and Buttigieg (though I did see one forgettable spot boosting the former vice president’s experience from a super PAC backing Biden’s campaign). Later, when WMUR turned its attention to Klobuchar, it highlighted her momentum in a news segment about one of her rallies. At the Exeter town hall, more than 500 voters had filled the room. Other would-be supporters were watching the video in an overflow space on the next floor. When the Democrats in the overflow room heard something they liked, they stomped on the floor in pleasure so they could be heard below. Watching that segment on WMUR could convince voters that Klobuchar is a potential winner. 

I have been coming to New Hampshire to cover the primary since 1980—and I can’t recall a contest in either party with more on the line that this year’s. With the Associated Press refusing to call the error-plagued Iowa caucuses and Sanders and Buttigieg likely to be still scrapping over the ambiguous results through Inauguration Day, New Hampshire has become the first one that counts.

And as the sun rises on primary day (though the WMUR forecast calls for early morning snow showers), I do wonder about how many New Hampshire Democrats changed their minds about their votes three times overnight.