California May Take a Lesson from the Granite State on Primary Politics

February 5 will be the earliest presidential primary in California history, but early primaries are old hat for those who live in the New Hampshire. It's prided itself on holding the earliest presidential primary in the nation since 1920. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde visited Concord, New Hampshire.

Kitty Felde: Concord, New Hampshire is a picturesque little town of about 42,000. It has one main street, with the state capitol building on one side and the bagel shop and bookstore on the other. Oh, and the campaign headquarters for both John Edwards and Barack Obama, both of whom were in this tiny town just the other day, shaking the hands and answering the questions of New Hampshire voters.

Laura Knoy: We call it the "see 'em, touch 'em, smell 'em test." You know: "I won't vote for somebody unless I see 'em, touch 'em, smell 'em." There's jokes about people saying, "I can't vote for that man, I've only met him twice." (laughs)

Felde: Laura Knoy is host of "The Exchange," the morning talk show on New Hampshire Public Radio. This is her fourth presidential primary behind the microphone. She's met her share of candidates.

[Sound: Montage of Knoy greeting candidates]

Felde: Knoy says it's station policy to limit the number of times a presidential candidate can be a guest on her show.

Knoy: And sometimes after that third interview we would say, "Sir, thank you very much, this is our allotted three times. Good luck to you as you move out from New Hampshire and beyond." And they would say, "Is this all we can do? We want to do more."

Felde: The entire state of New Hampshire has just 1.3 million people ... less than the San Fernando Valley.

Jon Greenberg: The thing about a small state is the candidates will come here, they'll have events in smaller venues. Even the big time candidates, the heavy hitters. Yes, they'll do their big rallies here too, but they'll also do house parties.

Felde: Jon Greenberg is Executive Editor of New Hampshire Public Radio's political coverage. In California, the phrase "house parties" might conjure up the kind of fundraising extravaganza Oprah Winfrey threw in Santa Barbara for Barack Obama. Greenberg says it's different in New Hampshire.

Greenberg: A house party takes place at someone's house. And that means that very often, the space is extremely constrained. I mean when you're in someone's kitchen, or you're standing on someone's front steps, there's real limits on how many people will be able to hear you.

[Sound of Chris Dodd house party]

Felde: Democrat Chris Dodd told the small group crowded into that living room that they in New Hampshire were surrogates for voters across the country.

Senator Chris Dodd: And you like to kick the tires, and poke and turn us upside down, and shake us hard to find out what we're made of, what we care about, what we believe in. As it should be.

Felde: But NHPR's Laura Knoy says the nationwide push to jump on the early primary bandwagon has changed the way candidates campaign in New Hampshire. The big names are holding more mega-events, and fewer house parties.

Knoy: They're busier. They can't just come and camp out in New Hampshire for three months. They need to go to Iowa, which they've always needed to do, but now they also need to come to your state, California.

Felde: So if the candidates are coming to California, is there something we can learn from the old hands in the Granite State?

Greenberg: There is a skill set that more New Hampshire voters have, on average, than a lot of other voters. They are used to thinking of "What question do I want to put to the candidate?" And that actually does make a difference.