N.H. voters take lack of access to Clinton personally
WASHINGTON — Those everyday Americans who want to quiz Hillary Rodham Clinton on trade, foreign policy, or even her favorite color have one option: They need to be on the right invite list to get in a room with her.
Clinton’s campaign hasn’t held a single event open to the general public since it launched five weeks ago, and there are no plans for an open forum in New Hampshire Friday when she makes her second trip to the Granite State.
This arm’s-length distance between voters and candidates might be how politics works elsewhere, but not in the first-in-the-nation-primary state. New Hampshire residents hold dear a tradition of meeting would-be presidents face to face.
When it comes to Clinton this year, “We feel like we don’t matter,” said Arnie Arnesen, a liberal Democratic activist and local radio host. “I feel like she doesn’t realize it is personal in New Hampshire.”
Clinton’s events so far have included forums in which the organizers determined who would attend. She has occasionally met uninvited people outside events. She’s also attended house parties to interact with voters in an intimate setting — but to get in, you need to be on the list.
The approach is not limited to New Hampshire. Clinton held no public events during her two-day swing through Iowa this week. There weren’t any in Nevada when she stopped there. And to meet Clinton, the average Iowan had to be lucky to run into her or be selected to be part of a carefully controlled event on her first swing through that state last month.
She also hasn’t met with reporters for interviews. Before Tuesday, she’d answered only about a dozen questions from journalists — prompting The New York Times to initiate a feature in which news organizations can publish questions their journalists would ask if they had the chance. Not to be outdone, the Washington Post created an online clock tracking the minutes that have passed since Clinton answered a question from the press.
Under pressure from the news media and Republicans, Clinton departed from her pattern and entertained questions from the media Tuesday in Iowa. She answered six.
Donors contributing money to her campaign enjoy better access. Clinton has held fund-raisers in New York, near Los Angeles, and is set to have one Wednesday in Chicago.
New Hampshire’s long tradition of holding the nation’s first primary gives it a unique status in American politics. A win there can make or break a campaign, so local activists are often courted for years by ambitious politicians. A county-level Democratic dinner can attract the next commander-in-chief.
Any New Hampshire politicos worth their salt will immediately rattle off the names of presidents and near-presidents whom they’ve met.
If Clinton has been slow to engage with voters, it’s not part of a long-term strategy, according to her campaign.
“The focus of our ramp-up period is to hear directly from New Hampshire voters about the issues they care about and have substantive and organic conversations,” said Tyrone Gayle, a Clinton campaign spokesman. He said Clinton has “long cherished” the New Hampshire primary process and noted there is “plenty of time left” before New Hampshire voters go to the polls.
Some Democratic insiders here said they’ve been told by the Clinton campaign not to panic — the campaign tactics will change and Clinton will eventually hold events where a curious New Hampshire voter can hear the candidate answer questions in an open forum.
“I’ve been assured by reliable sources that there will be other stuff,” said Larry Drake, the chairman of the Rockingham County, N.H., Democratic Committee. “They wanted to start with small groups.”
Some of her events have been covered by a single journalist who e-mails notes to other news outlets covering her. Even that’s a selective process: Only the news organizations committing to follow her on the campaign trail benefit from moment-to-moment updates, while the rest receive only a daily summary. It is a system set up by the media at the request of the campaign and has prompted outrage — particularly from foreign reporters.
“We need to be included in all discussions regarding pools access and rules in place set up by some of you,” wrote Laura Haim, the White House correspondent for Canal Plus, a French television station, noting that “billions” of people are interested in the race.
In stark contrast, the Republican field of candidates has been traveling like a herd from one “cattle call” to the next in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a leading Republican contemplating a run, will be in New Hampshire on Thursday and will have two open events: a breakfast with business leaders in Concord and a “meet and greet” in Salem. It’s not always been a positive for his campaign — in Nevada, an unscripted exchange with a young voters about the Islamic State launched unwelcome questions about whether he viewed the war in Iraq as a mistake.
Clinton’s commanding lead in the polls among Democrats means she can avoid these authentic — and awkward — moments. She doesn’t need to boost her likability or name identification in any of the early states.
And no other Democratic candidate is viable enough to force her hand.
“You need a sense of competition in order to make it more pressing on Clinton to do more events,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Candidates run a “coronation” campaign in New Hampshire at their own risk, he said. George W. Bush saw his momentum sapped in New Hampshire in 2000 when Senator John McCain of Arizona out-organized him in the state and scored an upset victory. Al Gore had the same problem in 2000; former senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey performed surprisingly well to a strong second.
Clinton doesn’t have a viable challenger so far, and it’s not clear whether she will.
“The question will be, ‘Is there anyone on the Democratic side who will do to Clinton what Bradley did to Gore?’ ” Scala said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the frequency with which Hillary Clinton’s events were covered by a single journalist.