Backyard Politics in New Hampshire

What I learned—as a political outsider—visiting a low-key campaign event for John Kasich.

The New Hampshire coastline (Don Kasak / Flickr)

I was standing with a hundred New Hampshire Republicans, waiting for a presidential candidate I’d never heard of. Stuck to my finger was a “Kasich for Us” sticker handed to me by a smiling aide. I held it instinctively away from body, like a questionable sock from the laundry pile, not quite sure what to do with it.

Surreptitiously, I observed the gathered crowd as they milled around the scrubby back lawn, munching hot dogs from paper napkins. Conversation, and the occasional mosquito, buzzed among packed rows of foldable lawn and beach chairs. Women wore outlet-preppy dresses; men, polo shirts and shorts. All looked as though they could be heading to a drink with neighbors, or a dinner of fried clams at the seafood joint down the street.

The youngest attendees by far, besides me, were the handful of clean-cut 20-something young men handing out stickers, each with identical dark hair and campaign t-shirts. I spotted just one non-white attendee, though perhaps this wasn’t surprising in the Granite State, where diversity is largely economic. Other than the microphone and speakers, it looked and felt like a backyard gathering—no flashing police lights, no suits or ties. Just a warm summer evening, Bud Lights being snapped open, and the smell of the pounding Atlantic surf two blocks away.

My father received the email inviting us to this “informal” Labor Day barbecue, hosted by ex-Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, from a friend on his swim team. (Brown, a local celebrity, is known to run down the grey sands while training for triathlons, wetsuit peeled down to the waist, waving up at beachgoers.) I was tickled to see the phrase “No B.S. Backyard Barbecue” printed on an official-looking banner that hung from the chimney of Brown’s unassuming colonial saltbox home. In the coming months, Brown plans to host all of the Republican candidates, bar Trump.

As I staved off a palpable feeling of otherness, my father—an Englishman who keeps himself better informed about U.S. politics than I do—pointed out notable guests. I was introduced to a man whose badge identified him as the chair of the local county GOP. His pants were printed with small, American-flag-filled whales.

Since I didn’t know how to pronounce Kasich’s name, let alone describe his policies, I decided I’d ask why, exactly, New Hampshire has the first presidential primary. It’s not at the top of any alphabetical list, its geographical position is nothing special. The party chair furrowed his brow, admitting that he was equally as confused about the history—but quickly segued into a passionate explanation of why New Hampshire fought to keep its hold on the first primary. It gave voters and local politically active supporters the chance to really have the kind of one-on-one, personal interactions with candidates that can’t happen anywhere else. It was all about what politics could do for New Hampshire, for the local community.

The chatter faded as Brown’s daughter—a professional musician with tumbling brown curls, a perfect smile, and cowboy boots—performed the star-spangled banner. Everyone held a reverent palm over their hearts. My arms dangled indecisively, as they usually do during these powerful, everyday displays of pride and patriotism. I was born with a U.S. passport, but grew up in the U.K., and continue to grapple with a sense of belonging—or rather, its absence. Maybe it’s wariness of committing myself to an unquestioning loyalty to anything, or maybe it’s a self-defense mechanism. But when I do try to sing along, it feels forced.

When a car pulled up and deposited a cluster of 60-something white men, it was hard to tell which one was Kasich until he took the microphone. His was a very American-dad look: polo shirt tucked into khakis, one hand in pocket, and his opening comment—gosh, what terrible weather we’re having this evening!—was met with hearty laughs. Was it a politician’s carefully calculated Attempt to Humanize Himself, or a tacky icebreaker from someone who’s genuinely just a little awkward?

He then proceeded to his Personal Anecdote: Dissatisfied with his college dormitory at Ohio State, he made an appointment to see the president of the university. When he found out that the university president knew the actual president, young Kasich asked him to deliver a letter to the White House; which resulted in an invitation from Nixon to visit the Oval Office. I wasn’t quite sure what the point of this story was—except to prove that he was exactly the kind of guy I’d have avoided in college—until later on in his speech, Kasich noted that the 20 minutes he spent with Nixon as a teenager massively outnumbered the minutes he’s spent in the Oval Office since, despite a career working in Ohio and Washington politics.

I respected his unapologetic attitude: Love me or leave me, I know what I know, and I’m sticking to it. He talked about tangible results he’d achieved as governor in Ohio and of the importance of keeping the mentally ill and drug-addicted out of prisons and off the streets. Many of his suggestions were sound, constructive, and palatable.

Scattered through his talk, which avoided attacks on other candidates, were Republican trigger points: a mild dig at Hillary, a mention of the right to bear arms, a light jab at Obama. The rote cheers from the audience came on cue; they were happy participants in this political performance. Mentions of God, family values, or small federal government, met with swaying, nodding, and murmuring “mms” of agreement. This slight revivalist-meeting tone felt familiar. I’d been equally alarmed by it when I once saw Hillary Clinton speak—the glazed-over, fervent, rapt attention of a captive audience. But at times, as Kasich spoke, I caught myself nodding, too.

The hearty cheers against all-things Democrat never felt mean-spirited. When Kasich called out a guy wearing a New York Yankees cap in the front row—“You were brave to wear that here!”—the audience, all on the other side of the Northeast baseball divide, let out a cheer identical to the one they’d given the Hillary dig. The pride of identity, of tribe, goes far beyond politics, and has always struck me as deeply American. I’m reminded of how many of my friendships began by finding kinship in a mutual dislike of something or someone. After that connection has been established, the object of dislike becomes almost irrelevant.

After his speech, Kasich fielded questions. A man with bushy red eyebrows drawled on for several minutes without actually asking anything—he just wanted Kasich to acknowledge that they once sat next to each other at a convention. A local government official asked Kasich a detailed and pointed question about funding for drug-rehabilitation programs.

Kasich encouraged us to applaud two question-askers—a psychologist who donates money to build schools in Asia; and a veteran concerned about his rights—sentiment that felt simultaneously, paradoxically, calculated and authentic. The final questioner told Kasich that she’d volunteered for one of his early Ohio campaigns, then read a long, rambling paragraph about alleged college-data security breaches that she had printed out from an education website. Each individual had their own unique set of priorities. It struck me how hard it must be to have to feel—or at least, act—as though you have the solution to all of them.

I don’t envy the life of a politician—especially a presidential candidate. Sticking to a certain script. Avoiding sounding hackneyed, while attending hundreds of events.

But it also struck me was how hard it is to be a good voter. Although my American mother endowed me with the right to vote, it’s a right I’ve never taken all that seriously even as I exercised it. To do it right, I now realized, I’d need to attend a “No BS BBQ” with every candidate. I’d need to do my research, to try to cut through the media noise.

After Kasich wrapped up, my dad and I ran into Scott Brown emptying trash bags. Brown recently ran, unsuccessfully, for the United States Senate from New Hampshire. Many accused him of carpet bagging. But he has owned this house, to which he’d invited us all, for 25 years. He smiled and shook my hand, looking happy but tired, and probably relieved that everyone was heading home.

I’m far from alone in feeling cynical and jaded about politics. But I left feeling surprisingly deeply probed by the experience; trying to reconcile my own beliefs and intuitions with the very humanness and realness of these people, their values and concerns; reconciling cultural otherness with the sense of unity that comes when you realize how many goals we all have in common.

Of course, I won’t actually be spending the next six months in the Granite State. In all likelihood, I’ll never attend an event like this again. But next time I fill out my ballot, or roll my eyes at Fox News, I’m going to try to remember what politics can be: people coming together, with the taste of sea salt in the air.