A viral moment between Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis and a reporter in New Hampshire briefly drove the conversation among members of the political chattering class this week.
After delivering a standard stump speech in front of 100 people at a VFW Hall in Laconia on Thursday, DeSantis took no questions from the stage and began interacting with the crowd. This followed two days in Iowa where he similarly took no questions, which frankly is par for the course at early presidential campaign events. Still, a reporter asked DeSantis why he didn’t.
“People are coming up to me, talking to me, what are you talking about? ... Are you blind?” DeSantis asked.
Then again he repeated, “Are you blind? People are coming up to me, talking to me [about] whatever they want to talk to me about.”
After declining to take audience questions after his first New Hampshire campaign event today, Ron DeSantis lashed out at a reporter for asking him about it while he was chatting with members of the crowd individually.— Jonathan Allen (@jonallendc) June 1, 2023
Here’s the video, via @NBCNews —> pic.twitter.com/Z2WtLy0JNj
It made sense that the snappish exchange spread like wildfire on social media.
There is a widespread belief in three things at the moment: that DeSantis is the only Republican who could deny Donald Trump the 2024 Republican nomination; that DeSantis doesn’t interact well with people; and that interacting with people and taking their questions is the only way to win the New Hampshire primary.
The jury is out on the first two. But that third assumption is increasingly an outdated myth.
The New Hampshire presidential primary is over a century old. The modern version of it began in 1976 with Jimmy Carter’s win in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, which cemented the path to the White House for decades since.
Carter’s wins were the stuff of legend. A former Georgia governor and peanut farmer, he was the ultimate underdog in a large field of current senators and household names. His 1976 “Jimmy Who” campaign took hold for its earnestness and scrappiness. His was never a well-funded campaign. He stayed in the homes of supporters instead of hotels.
This is the point of the New Hampshire primary: that vice presidents, senators, governors, and rich business people chat with average voters before becoming president and deciding whether to change the tax code or send troops to war. The process is supposed to make better presidents.
Ever four years since, candidates have tried to rely on that magic. In 1984, Gary Hart took part in ax throwing. Bill Clinton worked Dunkin’ Donuts and bowling alleys years before his wife, Hillary Clinton, welled up in a Portsmouth diner. Republican John McCain, a two-time New Hampshire primary winner, changed the nature of campaigning with a so-called town hall format where he would take upwards of 20 questions at each event.
The truth is that the take-all-questions format and showing up to campaign on the streets — dubbed retail campaigning — has been on its way out since McCain’s New Hampshire win in 2008. And that same year, the Democratic contest was really a duel between who could get thousands of would-be voters to fill early state rallies — Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
Appropriately for our Instagram age, candidates don’t actually have to be good at pressing the flesh and kissing babies; they simply have to craft the perception that they are.
Any argument that New Hampshire is still the place where, above all, a person with the audience is king (or queen) should note what happened after 2008. Mitt Romney, who was extremely awkward at diner stops, was the runaway winner of the 2012 New Hampshire primary. In 2016, the New Hampshire primary winners were a charmingly prickly Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who rarely took a question from the audience and famously never spent the night in the state.
The leading candidates were catching on that year. Florida Senator Marco Rubio was probably the most ruthless. He showed up at the same space in Laconia that DeSantis did this week very late for his own event, advertised as a town hall. He gave his stump speech, took two questions, and then his staff kicked everyone out after 30 minutes. Rubio was scheduled to do a live hit on Fox News.
He did the same thing in Iowa, and his campaign manager explained to the New York Times their new theory: “More people in Iowa see Marco on ‘Fox and Friends’ than see Marco when he is in Iowa.”
In 2020, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke curtailed the number of questions they took at their New Hampshire events so they could spend more time in a selfie line with attendees. It was also a smart move.
In 2024, taking between zero and a few questions is the norm for candidates in New Hampshire.
After DeSantis’ viral moment this week, a fellow candidate, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, released a video trying to show she will take the endless hard questions. But the truth is that instead of taking a dozen questions at her events, she generally takes three.
Suddenly that is the new standard.