At a moment during his 2008 New Hampshire presidential primary run when his campaign was on the ropes and his political career seemed near its end, John McCain had an experience that put everything into perspective.
At a campaign event in Wolfeboro, a woman in the audience asked whether McCain would consider wearing a bracelet with her son’s name on it. Matthew Stanley had died at the age of 22 while serving in Iraq. His mother wanted McCain to promise to never forget her son’s death — and to promise his death wouldn’t be in vain.
McCain put on the bracelet. He not only didn’t forget Stanley, he mentioned him at nearly every event afterward, including during his acceptance speech for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination and during a debate against Barack Obama, to whom he would eventually lose the general election that fall.
“Every once in a while,” McCain said later, “you have an experience, an event in our lives, that puts everything into the right priority and into the right importance in your life.”
An aide to McCain, who died Saturday at 81, confirmed that he continued to wear the bracelet into his final days.
“That bracelet perfectly represents how I remember John McCain,” said Richard Brothers, one of McCain’s first supporters in New Hampshire during his stunning first run for president in 2000. “There was the sense of honor, there was the fact he was asked at a town hall, and then there was always a piece of New Hampshire with him after. The Granite State had a special relationship with him.”
McCain’s life can be documented on a map. In Annapolis, he was trained in the family business and learned a sense of duty. In Vietnam, he spent nearly six years as a prisoner of war. In Arizona, he made a home. In Washington, he spent 35 years making policy. And in New Hampshire, he redefined how politicians ran for president, ensuring that more citizens got direct access to the next leader of the free world.
Since 1952, when the modern era of the New Hampshire presidential primary began, the first-in-the-nation primary has only grown in importance. During that time, only McCain and six others have won a competitive New Hampshire primary twice. And among that small group, only a handful have truly transformed what it meant to run for president. McCain was one of them.
Before McCain launched his run for president in 1999, campaigning for president meant making numerous visits to Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates held press conferences, attended debates, gave speeches at party dinners, hobnobbed with party elites, and participated in their own highly controlled campaign events.
Then McCain showed another way. He appeared at diners and libraries and town halls and invited everyone to show up. In the beginning, few did, even when he offered free ice cream. Along the way, McCain would come to call these events “town hall meetings,” in the style of the New England annual ritual. And eventually the crowds grew.
The format was always the same: McCain would give a few brief remarks and then open the floor up to anyone who wanted to ask a question. Over the next hour, anything could happen and any topic could be asked, something risky for a politician — but he had nothing to lose given where he started.
“He was fearless as a politician, and that’s why he thrived in that environment,” said Mike Murphy, the national strategist to McCain’s 2000 campaign.
In the course of a year, McCain went from a candidate with poll numbers in the single digits to topping the front-runner, George W. Bush, by more than 20 points on New Hampshire primary day.
As McCain took the stage to celebrate his win, he told supporters, “Thank you. God bless you. Welcome to my 115th town hall meeting.”
“The impact wasn’t just that he beat Bush so soundly, but that he created a blueprint for how to run for president that other candidates tried to copy for years after,” said Scott Spradling, who was the political director for WMUR-TV in Manchester during that campaign.
In every New Hampshire primary campaign since, there has been a candidate who openly ran a a McCain-style campaign. In 2004, then-US Senator John Edwards of North Carolina held over 100 town hall meetings and made it a shtick that he kept count on his campaign website.
In 2008, McCain ran for president again, this time beginning as the front-runner. By late summer, his campaign was bankrupt, and there were serious questions about whether he would drop out. Instead, he went to Claremont, N.H., to hold yet another town hall. It worked. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney tried his own town hall series in response, but McCain won anyway.
“The first primary was about upset, and the second was about survival,” McCain told a New Hampshire audience in 2011.
During the 2012 campaign, nearly every Republican in the primary ran a McCain-like campaign, including Romney. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and then-Texas governor Rick Perry styled their entire campaigns on the idea that they were McCain-like underdogs who would meet anyone and take any question.
In the 2016 campaign, no fewer than four candidates ran explicitly the McCain way: Governor John Kasich of Ohio; Chris Christie, then the governor of New Jersey; former Florida governor Jeb Bush; and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
The problem for all these other candidates: They didn’t have McCain’s talent in that format.
Indeed, as Donald Trump crushed this group by forgoing town hall meetings for large rallies, the McCain style of running for president might have become a thing of the past.
But there is a difference between McCain’s town hall meetings and large-scale rallies that became the way Barack Obama and Trump became president: the people.
Those who run for president are often governors or US senators or business titans. For decades, they have interacted largely with a rarefied elite. In a New Hampshire town hall meeting campaign, candidates are forced to talk to everyday people, even if for a few months, before they head to the White House and make decisions about war and who wins or loses in tax policy.
In 2011, looking back on his two wins, McCain told a New Hampshire audience that he was “probably the luckiest person that you will ever have the opportunity of knowing.”
“I’ve had such great good fortune in my life to be able to be part of this great nation and part of the incredible experience of running for president of the United States. But my fondest memories will be, quite frankly, of the experiences I’ve had here in New Hampshire,” McCain said. “Because it is such a unique place and the people are so unique. They believe in Live Free or Die. They believe they should examine every presidential candidate.”
And by the example McCain set, he allowed these voters to not only examine him, but many other candidates as well.