DURHAM, N.H. — Would you know what to do if you were approached by a presidential candidate? Say, if a megawatt politician like Hillary Rodham Clinton or Jeb Bush, Joe Biden or Chris Christie wanted to shake your hand? Would you ask those burning questions about Common Core education standards, immigration reform, and student debt? Or would you stand there stammering, a bit too flustered to remember much more than your name?
Far too often the latter happens, which is why a group of activists in New Hampshire wants to make sure residents are ready when candidates seeking votes in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state swing through coffee shops, bookstores, and town halls.
And much like hunting dogs catching the scent of a bird in a field and pouncing, voters must seize the opportunity to question politicians — to become political bird dogs, say activists with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that facilitates the trainings through its Governing Under the Influence project.
“We have so much access that people throughout the country don’t have,” Olivia Zink, a grass-roots engagement coordinator with the organization, told a group of students from the University of New Hampshire, at a recent bird-dog training session. “We really need to be prepared and be ready.”
In this small state — some counties in Arizona and Wyoming are bigger — the likelihood of bumping into candidates is pretty high. Already scads of potential 2016 presidential contenders have dropped by, well-known politicians like Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, who recently announced his candidacy, and lesser-known hopefuls like Carly Fiorina and Peter King.
In recent days, Paul and Cruz, Donald Trump and John Kasich have been in the state — a full 10 months before ballots are cast — heaping attention on its voters because they go to the polls first and have the power to knock a candidate from the race, lift somebody up, and scrutinize the front-runners and underdogs up close.
“We do these trainings, and I will ask how many people have spoken to a presidential candidate in a room of older people, about half the hands go up,” Zink said.
But not so much for 19-year-old college students. So on the University of New Hampshire campus about a dozen students — and one senior citizen there to show solidarity — sat in a semi-circle, learning the ins and outs of how to grill a political candidate.
For 90 minutes, they learned what to do and what to avoid at presidential campaign events. Good questions, for example, focus consciously on a particular issue and put candidates on the spot while informing those listening. Rambling, long, overly technical questions full of unfamiliar acronyms are no good — and neither are softball questions.
There were tips on how to position yourself to be able to ask the question: Arrive early, go in a team, be ready, ask first, and shake hands.
“You hold on. Don’t let go,” Zink advises, of shaking a politician’s hand. “I had a friend who was at an event and held onto the candidate’s hand, walked him down the hall and out to the parking lot because they sort of wanted to have a conversation about nuclear weapons.”
Then it was time to put theory into action with a mock town hall, where Governor Goodluck (who is fictional, by the way) made a formal appearance, and then a meet-and-greet at the faux Freedom Cafe with politician Rosie Roosevelt of North Dakota (also fictional).
“Hi! Rosie Roosevelt,” Zink said, shaking hands with the students as they mingled. Zink, to get into character, had added a black blazer to her outfit. It took about four or five introductions before the first question was asked.
“I have a question about the federal minimum wage. I was wondering if you could talk to me about it,” 18-year-old Jonathan Brown asked.
“Sure, what about the federal minimum wage would you like to know?” Zink, aka Roosevelt, responded.
At $7.25 an hour, it’s possible to work and still live below the poverty line, he said. “Is there anything you plan on doing to fix that?”
“As governor, I stood up for family values, and thank-you much for raising that really important issue,” Roosevelt replied. The minimum wage in her state is a “much more reasonable” $8 an hour, she added, trying to pivot to the next student.
But Brown, a freshman at UNH, wasn’t done. New Hampshire has the lowest minimum wage in New England, and he wanted to know what Roosevelt would do at the federal level to raise it.
Her response: “I believe in states’ rights.”
During the debrief later, Zink said this was an example of a good exchange because his questions were direct and simple — and he was able to quickly ask a follow-up question, a benefit to being in a coffee shop versus a town hall.
“So you just can’t sort of have that one zinger question,” she tells the group. “You have to be knowledgeable about that issue and really quick on your feet.”
This is the fourth presidential cycle that the Quaker organization has trained activists in New Hampshire. They also handle training in Iowa, another early-voting state.
Organizers said everyone from faith groups to students to civil rights activists is trained. This election cycle the organization has trained about 250 people — and counting.
Zink estimates about a quarter of the people trained actually attend presidential events and bird-dog. The group keeps tabs on who’s been asked what on its website, with a special section called the “Bird Dog Report.”
Helping voters become political bird dogs is not limited to this group. The Alzheimer’s Association’s New Hampshire chapter, for instance, has also been training its advocates to get their message across to presidential hopefuls during primary season.
“We are here to listen and ask questions if it comes up, specifically what would the governor do, how committed is he to funding for research?” Marissa Chase, the association’s New Hampshire campaign coordinator said recently before an appearance by former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, a potential Democratic presidential candidate. “The only way we’re going to end it is to fund research.”
That evening, about 40 people milled about at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, where O’Malley spoke. Some approached and shook his hand afterward, asking specific questions about everything from organized labor to immigration reform.
Eric Zulaski, who works for the Quaker organization and has been through the bird-dog training, said he asked O’Malley a question about military contractors’ influence on policy before the event out on the sidewalk, where he held a sign protesting money in politics.
And this is a key difference between now and six months from now, Zink noted — room to mingle.
“As it gets closer to the primary, as the year moves on, it’s going to be packed,” she said in the university conference room. “So our opportunities to influence the candidates’ positions are better when we act early.”