Gerri King has never felt so unsure.
At this point in a Democratic presidential primary, the 77-year-old consultant has always had a favorite candidate. She’ll have observed him or her intently over coffee and dessert at her home in Concord, New Hampshire—where she receives most of the contenders every four years at her well-attended house parties and luncheons—and she’ll have made careful note of how they respond to questions from her friends and neighbors. Once she’s convinced of a particular candidate’s abilities, she’ll have begun to fervently campaign for him or her.
That’s how it went with Barack Obama in 2008, and with Hillary Clinton in 2016. But this time around, with just hours to go until the New Hampshire primary, a final decision has eluded her. There are just too many good options, King told me. “I feel like I’m foreign to myself,” she said. “I used to think, when people would say [they were undecided], How could you not know by now? Well, now I know how you can not know!”
The primary is still bloated with candidates, and the muddled results from last week’s messy Iowa caucus did not help much to narrow the field. That makes today’s election in New Hampshire even more fraught. A victory for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, for example, would help cement his front-runner status, and a win for Pete Buttigieg would show that the former mayor’s success in Iowa wasn’t an aberration. How Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Vice President Joe Biden perform here could make or break their campaigns.
There is a lot of pressure, then, on the voters of the Granite State. And there is a nonzero chance that King, despite her almost unparalleled access to the candidates, may walk into the voting booth this afternoon without knowing whom she’s voting for. I talked with King yesterday about that pressure, a weight felt by thousands of undecided voters across the state. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Elaine Godfrey: Walk me through your political involvement this year. Which candidates have you met?
Gerri King: [My husband, Ron, and I have] hosted 12 candidates in our home this year, starting a year ago when Cory Booker came and 120 people showed up—with six days’ notice—during the holidays on a Saturday night. When we get that many people, a candidate’s staff has to help take our furniture out to the garage to accommodate them. Obama was at our house when he first ran, and Howard Dean was here when he ran a long time ago.
It’s the norm here that we see candidates. It is not the norm that there are so many undecided—us included. The reason that I haven’t decided—and many of our friends say the same thing—is that there are so many good candidates. So it’s a good reason. When I’m asked what I think of the candidates, I describe them [as making up] one perfect person.
Godfrey: You held an event at your house a couple of weeks ago for undecided voters to hear from Buttigieg supporters. Tell me about that.
King: Gary Hirshberg, who started Stonyfield yogurt, and Jennifer Frizzell, who’s very big in policy, are both supporting Pete Buttigieg. They asked us [if they could] come to our house and meet with undecided voters. We put out word to our very long list of people, probably 150 or 200 people, and said we were having that event. People came just to hear why they were supporting him.
Godfrey: What did you hear from voters there? Were people worried about still being undecided?
King: I haven’t seen people terribly stressed. I’ve seen them a little nervous. It’s like when you’re in college, and your paper’s due tomorrow. I don’t know if people are going to pull all-nighters …
Godfrey: How about your own decision-making process? How are you thinking about all of this?
King: When I start, I always keep an open mind. I didn’t think my mind would be open at this point! I was on NHPR public radio a couple of months ago talking about undecided voters and they called and said, ‘Do you wanna come back?’ I said, ‘My list has gotten longer instead of shorter.’
The story we tell about my husband is, he thought he was really narrowing down and then more candidates came to our house. Ron’s response was: ‘Damn it!’
Godfrey: Who has impressed you most?
King: I have to say, this really sounds sort of silly, but to a candidate, they have been gracious. They’ve been fun. We do all the cooking [at our events]. I was brought up Jewish, and I make a dish called noodle kugel. The only time I make it is for candidates. What happens is, I put a sign out that says, “Our experience is that if the candidate takes a bite of the kugel, they win something.” I [also] put out a disclaimer saying I really apologize to Howard Dean because I didn’t serve it [to him] and see what happened? I think Obama had kugel for the first time here.
Godfrey: Do you have a top three right now at least?
King: A top seven! I certainly like Pete. I like Warren. I think Amy [Klobuchar] is great. Biden is probably the most experienced. I also really like what Tom Steyer is brave enough to say. Because we’re a neighboring state, we kept up with [Deval Patrick] as governor of Massachusetts, and he’s terrific. He is really good.
Godfrey: Are you picking someone based on electability? On their ability to turn out voters? What are your concerns as you’re deciding?
King: It’s their leading potential. I’m often asked if I think various candidates are electable. My response is to remind everybody that we did not think Obama would win, because he was a man of color, and we sure as hell didn’t think Trump would win. I think we have no way of knowing who is electable. I can’t use it as criteria anymore.
I used to base it on how people felt about particular issues. In this case, although they have various ways of getting there, they all agree. Health care, how we’re treating immigrants, climate are very high on my list. That’s part of the reason it’s hard to decide! I can’t separate it by issues.
Godfrey: What does it feel like to have the eyes of the country on you?
King: One of the reasons people are undecided—a much larger percentage than there ever has been in New Hampshire—is we feel a responsibility. What happens here does matter and has mattered in past elections. So, yes, in addition to my making a choice, it does feel like a responsibility to the process. I haven’t met a single person who hasn’t said [they] will work tirelessly for whomever gets the nomination. That’s not the issue. The issue is: Who do I choose on Tuesday?
Godfrey: It’s not like Iowa, where you could go into a caucus undecided and be convinced. You have to know going in that you’re going to cast a vote for someone.
King: You walk in and you have to check somebody. I’ve never been in this situation, and I’ve been doing this for decades. I’ve always known. I’m [usually] out canvassing and making phone calls; I’m helping train other people to do those kinds of things. It’s been very strange not to be out there.
Godfrey: Were you hoping that Iowa was going to help you make this decision by shaping the field more?
King: That never occurred to me, and it never has. I’ve usually known by the time Iowa happens who I’m supporting. It never even entered my mind.
Godfrey: The turnout in Iowa was roughly at 2016 levels, which is not what Democrats were anticipating. Do you expect a low turnout in New Hampshire?
King: I’m probably the wrong one to ask, because every single person I know will vote. Concord traditionally has very high turnout. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t voted. I don’t meet people who don’t vote.
Godfrey: What are you going to be doing between now and tomorrow when you go vote? How are you going to narrow it down?
King: In a couple of minutes, I’m going to go deliver a speech, a professional speech. I’m working in between. We’ve been asked to be on CNN this afternoon. And I’ve been asked to be on Fox on Tuesday.
I go to sleep thinking about the election, and I wake up thinking about it. And in between, I think about it.
Godfrey: But how are you going to do it? You’ll just end up making a decision at some point in the day tomorrow?
King: I think I will, yeah. I feel like I’m foreign to myself! I used to think, when people would say [that], How could you not know by now? Well, now I know how you can not know!
Godfrey: I just can’t believe how cheerful you sound. This is a high-pressure situation—I think I’d be more stressed.
King: [Laughs] Because with all the pressure, there is an enormous amount of excitement. It is such a kick. It is really hard to explain to people what fun this is. I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, I could never stand going to all those events.’ The people we talk to couldn’t stand not going! It’s become part of our process and our life.
Godfrey: Is there a chance that you walk into the voting booth tomorrow and still don’t know, and just have to make a decision then and there?
King: I hope not. I guess I won’t know until tomorrow, and by then it’ll be too late for your article!