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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Grass-roots campaigning changing with the times

The 2012 primary, more than any in recent history, showed grass-roots campaigning to be at a crossroads in the first-in-the-nation state, according to activists and analysts.

The number of New Hampshire visits by the leading candidates suffered this campaign season amid a flurry of nationally televised debates.

“The old-fashioned retail politics, where you could actually talk to the candidates yourself, wasn’t there this time,” said Claira Monier, a Goffstown Republican and co-chair of Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s New Hampshire campaign.

And when it was, those visits didn’t always translate into votes.

Take this statistic: Jon Huntsman, the candidate who held 100 more campaign events than Mitt Romney, finished third in the race. And the man who had the second most visits – Rick Santorum – finished fifth.

It begs the question: Does the candidate with the most money or the one who spends the most face time with New Hampshire voters get results in the state?

The most recent primary results suggests it may be the candidate with the biggest wallet.

Still, some analysts contend the results of last week’s voting only reaffirm the essential role grassroots campaigning plays in the country’s lead primary.

Taken another way, two of the top three finishers in Tuesday’s primary, Romney and Huntsman, held the most public events during the campaign, according to campaign trackers. And those two, along with Texas Congressman Ron Paul, established the best volunteer efforts, showing that grassroots campaigning is alive and well in the Granite State, analysts said.

“I’m not ready to write off retail politics yet,” said Dean Spiliotes, a professor of political science at Southern New Hampshire University.

“Just look at the results, look who came out on top. It was the ones who had the best organization. That’s hard to argue with.”

Arrive late, leave early

Primary week aside, the campaign season was a comparatively slow one.

Candidates arrived in New Hampshire slowly and they left often, balancing their schedule with other early voting states and a rush of nationally televised debates.

Together, the leading eight Republican candidates held 475 public events, according to the Washington Post campaign tracker – down from past elections cycles in both quantity and quality, according to political veterans.

Of those events held, fewer took the form of small house parties and other traditional New Hampshire formats, intended to allow voters to meet and question the candidates face-to-face.

“You didn’t see those more intimate settings where you can actually talk to candidates about what you are concerned about, where you can evaluate the candidate one-on-one,” Monier said. “That was one of the uniquenesses of the New Hampshire primary.”

Of the leading candidates, Huntsman, the former Utah governor, held the most public events with 178, according to the campaign tracker. Santorum registered second with 92 and Romney, the GOP frontrunner, placed third with 78.

In New Hampshire, however, candidate visits are only one element of a true grassroots campaign, analysts said.

Public events only help candidates to reach a small portion of the electorate, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which polled voters throughout the campaign.

Between campaign stops, a true grassroots campaign consists of a broad network of local volunteers to make phone calls, knock on doors and wave signs, among other efforts to reach voters.

“Candidates coming to the state is not an indication of a grassroots campaign,” Smith said. “It’s just an indication that you’re here. It’s the organization, the volunteers you recruit, that gives you visibility.”

In some cases, the role of local leaders – state, county and town chair people – has depleted in recent years as national staff have taken more control over the campaigns, volunteers acknowledged.

“They’re more figurehead positions now. There’s less real responsibility,” said Nancy Stiles, a state senator from Hampton who served as chairwoman of Huntsman’s New Hampshire effort.

The Huntsman campaign enlisted more than 1,000 volunteers in 125 towns across the state, according to campaign figures, and the Romney camp, which won with more than 40 percent of the vote, employed 3,000 volunteers, knocking on 75,000 doors and making 500,000 phone calls, among other actions.

“The other thing that New Hampshire really loves, and people laugh about it, is signs. … We put out something like 35,000 lawn signs,” said Tom Rath, a Concord attorney who served as senior adviser to the Romney campaign.

“People see the signs p, and they know the campaign’s working hard. There is a need to relay to the voters that the campaign is willing to do the little things that make a difference.”

Virtual campaigns

To some extent, advancing technologies changed the face of grassroots campaigning in New Hampshire.

Some campaigns, such as Santorum’s New Hampshire effort, have traded traditional phone calls for autmoted “robo” calls that use recorded messages rather than live voices to contact voters. And other campaigns, such as Romney’s, have incorporated Town Hall teleconferences, in which the candidate takes voters’ questions over the phone rather than in person.

“It’s like you don’t even have to be in the state,” Monier said. “You could be anywhere.”

But rather than negating traditional grassroots organizing, these advancements only expand upon them, helping campaigns to expand their reach, others said.

During the 2008 campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama used Facebook and other social media to draw in millions of volunteers across the country in what they called the largest grassroots campaign in history.

Now facing re-election, the president’s campaign managers have already recruited thousands of volunteers across New Hampshire, holding more than 500 campaign events and opening seven offices across the state.

“The Obama campaign is powered from the ground up – and unlike any other in history, it relies on its volunteers and supporters as the foundation of the organization,” spokesman Frank Benenati wrote in a statement.

“Grassroots campaigning has changed, and it’s still in flux,” Spiliotes said. “It may have to coexist uncomfortably with this other (technological) type of campaigning. But it’s still a very big part of what we do here.

“It’s not dead yet.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or