It started as a run-of-the-mill campaign event, the sort Quinn Mitchell had gone to dozens of times, even at the tender age of 15. With his eyes trained on Ron DeSantis, he stood in the crowd at the late June town hall in Hollis, N.H., as the Florida governor made his pitch to be president.
When the time came for questions, Mitchell stepped up. As a staffer held up a microphone, Mitchell read from his phone. The teenager did not mince words.
“Do you believe that Trump violated the peaceful transfer of power, a key principle of American democracy that we must uphold?” Mitchell asked.
Seemingly caught off guard, DeSantis appeared annoyed, if at least somewhat impressed.
“Are you in high school?” he asked in an aloof tone before sidestepping the question with a rambling answer.
The exchange circulated widely online and elevated Mitchell, already a familiar face on the New Hampshire campaign trail for the past four years, to a national platform.
To politicians, pundits, and those who know him best — it came as no surprise.
Mitchell is keenly aware that his fervent interest in politics sets him well apart from his peers in Walpole, his tiny hometown on the border between New Hampshire and Vermont. And it’s only one aspect of an intellect well beyond his years.
Homeschooled until the sixth grade, Mitchell from a young age pored over adult-level history books and studied Civil War medical procedures. In his eighth-grade history class, he prepared and taught an entire lesson plan on the Civil War. His social studies teacher, Paul Hopkins, said Mitchell was his only student to pass a citizenship test on the first try, scoring above 80 percent.
His foray into politics was inspired by a chance encounter at a local concert in 2018, when he met then-state senator Jay Kahn after someone pointed him out. Just 10, Mitchell walked up and introduced himself.
The two spoke about shared historical interests, national politics, and New Hampshire’s government. Kahn encouraged him to attend some statewide events and Mitchell took his advice, beginning with small gatherings for the governor’s race and working his way up to presidential primaries.
Without his influence, Mitchell said he “never would have gone to an event.”
News of his youthful enthusiasm spread fast. When Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota attended Mitchell’s church’s Easter Sunday service in 2019, the minister introduced them both on stage after his sermon. At Klobuchar’s town hall in Peterborough the next day, Mitchell posed his first question to a presidential candidate, asking her whether she thought special prosecutor Robert Mueller should testify before Congress. Impressed, Klobuchar encouraged him to keep asking tough questions.
Four years later, Mitchell is still not old enough to drive or vote but has attended nearly 100 events and met at least 35 presidential candidates, from Elizabeth Warren to Donald Trump. But his own aspirations don’t involve holding elected office, he said. Mitchell is more interested in becoming a political journalist.
In August, the high school freshman started a podcast called “Into The Tussle,” which promises an “unbiased perspective on the presidential process.” Candidates have even asked for his advice about courting the youth vote and called upon him to evaluate their performance at forums, Mitchell said. (Like any savvy political consultant, he declined to name them).
Keeping up with politics at this level takes commitment.
He watches C-SPAN and debates, listens to full speeches on YouTube, and surveys media coverage across the ideological spectrum, often staying up past midnight.
But ask Mitchell if he feels like he’s missing out on typical teenage fun and he bursts into laughter.
“I think I lose a couple of hours of playing Minecraft,” he joked. “I honestly just love politics.”
He strongly believes that political candidates should face direct questions from voters and that people have a responsibility to ask them, especially given New Hampshire’s importance in the presidential primary season.
“It’s really an opportunity we shouldn’t take for granted,” Mitchell said. “And citizens here don’t.”
At 34, Donovan Fenton is New Hampshire’s youngest state senator in decades and is familiar with being overlooked by his older colleagues. It’s a challenge Mitchell seems to embrace, Fenton said.
Presidential candidates in New Hampshire need to understand “how important retail politics are to the individuals in the community,” he said. “If a young gentleman wants some answers, you better give it to him.”
Exposed to attacks from conservative media and online critics at a young age, Mitchell is private about personal details and protective of those close to him. (His mother declined to be interviewed.) His first brush with the spotlight came in June 2019 when he attended a campaign event for Joe Biden with his dad and asked Biden if he thought “impeachment proceedings should start” against Trump.
The next day, Laura Ingraham played a clip of Mitchell on Fox News. “All right, kids being used as pathetic political props,” the longtime host said, according to a transcript. “Kids have been starting to quiz candidates on really complicated constitutional matters. They’re not being coached, are they?”
Looking back, Mitchell said he thought “it was a horrible thing to do to an 11-year-old.” But that did not prepare him for the firestorm this summer involving the DeSantis campaign. Mitchell was surprised that the Florida governor had seemingly been stumped by his question in June and wanted to apologize for any embarrassment caused. He also wanted to try asking his question again.
At the July Fourth parade in Merrimack, Mitchell approached DeSantis, who was walking along the route and talking to voters. But he received a cool greeting.
“I know who you are,” DeSantis said. They exchanged a brief handshake before DeSantis kept walking.
Mitchell said he tried to keep up but the candidate’s security detail tugged his shirt and surrounded him, telling him to stay put. His mother confronted DeSantis, telling him, “That’s not OK,” before they hurriedly walked away, Mitchell said.
The tense scene was initially detailed by a Globe reporter and Mitchell later spoke extensively about the event with the Daily Beast, which last month published a story headlined “Ron DeSantis Is Afraid of Questions From a 15-Year-Old.” At an Aug. 19 town hall in Newport hosted by Never Back Down, a political action committee that supports DeSantis, an attendee told the outlet that they saw one staffer snap a picture of Mitchell on Snapchat, adding the caption “Got our kid.”
Mitchell said he saw several others take photos of him at the venue but called the caption particularly “bizarre.” Neither the DeSantis campaign nor Never Back Down responded to requests for comment.
“It’s really concerning if they’re willing to go that extent to shut down a really simple question,” he said.
Nathan Shrader, codirector of the Center for Civic Engagement at New England College in Henniker, N.H., was at the town hall during Mitchell’s exchange with DeSantis and said his question was “respectful and fair.”
He said DeSantis’ reaction was condescending and described the governor as someone who seems to “take on the persona of a bully when someone doesn’t agree with him.”
DeSantis’ campaign was already struggling, but Mitchell is convinced his story turned “the entirety of Walpole against DeSantis.”
“The Trump guys loved it,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a close community.”
On a recent September day, Mitchell was again in the car with his mom, making a nearly two-hour drive to see presidential candidate Chris Christie in Keene. He left school early to make it in time.
The two have met multiple times on the campaign trail and have built a good rapport, with Christie once describing Mitchell as “America’s most famous political teenager.”
Mitchell was still shaken over what had happened with DeSantis, saying the experience had “roughed me up a bit.” But Christie had always taken his questions and Mitchell was eager to try again. It’s his civic duty, he said.
“I hope that I’d be proud that I was at least trying to hold politicians accountable at my age,” Mitchell said of his future. “They have to do a lot to earn someone’s vote in New Hampshire.”