Meet the Primary Superfans

Secretary of State Bill Gardner pointed out old campaign photos on the walls to Amy Klobuchar when she visited his office to file to be on the New Hampshire ballot. Photo by Elizabeth Frantz

Not everyone loves our first-in-the-nation-primary status (we’re looking at you, every other state out there) but for some, it’s like having Christmas, Halloween and the Fourth of July all happen at the same time. Meet some of the biggest fans of our 100-year-old political event.

It’s nearly here … the 100th anniversary of New Hampshire’s primary being first in the nation. It’s a status New Hampshire did not initially seek out, but nevertheless has become an identity the Granite State continually defends.

How did it come about? Well, it was essentially an accident.

New Hampshire’s first-ever presidential primary, scheduled three years in advance, was originally to be on the third Tuesday of May 1916. But a year before the inaugural event, the date was moved up to town meeting voting day in March out of convenience for officials who didn’t want to organize two completely separate elections only months apart. The resulting primary, held March 14, 1916, was a week after the Indiana presidential primary and the same day as Minnesota’s. It wasn’t until the next cycle after Indiana had moved its date back to May and Minnesota’s primary had been discontinued that first-in-the-nation status was unlocked for New Hampshire on March 9, 1920. (Direct voting for presidential candidates, as opposed to convention delegates, didn’t begin until 1952 but details, details.)

What keeps that first-in-the-nation tradition alive? Decades worth of cheerleaders — from Democratic and Republican Party leaders to major players in state government, past and present. From all the presidential hopefuls who keep coming back every four years to all the politically minded Granite State voters who give those candidates, known and unknown, their attention and criticism.

Here are some of those key players and superfans that embody and protect that first-in-the-nation tradition.

Bill Gardner

Secretary of State Bill Gardner uses the historic desk of Stephen A. Bullock to finish some of his regular work. He’s taking advantage of the quiet after the candidates and press have left the Statehouse for the day on November 7, 2019. Photo by Elizabeth Frantz

The most powerful protector of the first-in-the-nation honor is Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a soft-spoken man. In accordance with state law that requires the primary to be held at least seven days before any similar election, it’s Gardner who selects the all-important quadrennial date, sometimes up against incredible national pressures to compromise New Hampshire’s status. For 43 years he’s stood his ground, rooted and unwavering, in contrast to his meek demeanor.

Incredibly proud of the primary’s upcoming centennial, Gardner made sure every presidential candidate who walked into his office last year to file to be on the 2020 ballot knew the full extent of the historic election they would be a part of. His teaching aides included a commemorative poster he had made outlining key founders and dates, the growing collection of wall photos featuring candidates since 1976, and the desk of Stephen A. Bullock, who wrote the 1913 law that created the primary.

Not just a guardian and historian, Gardner is also an ardent believer in the historic inclusivity of the New Hampshire primary and the low barriers the founders created for those that wanted to be on the ballot.

“It was about the little guy and it always has been,” Gardner explained to Montana governor Steve Bullock, who filed as a Democratic candidate (any relation to the New Hampshire Bullocks yet to be determined). “It always gives an opportunity for the person that doesn’t have the most fame or fortune to have a chance here. A fair shot for everyone. That’s what it’s about.”

Jon and James Kelly

Jon (left) and James Kelly Photo by Elizabeth Frantz

With a record-breaking number of candidates in the field, political junkies in the Granite State have had to act fast and frequently to see and hear what all the presidential hopefuls have to say. Two examples, Jon Kelly and his son James of Penacook, saw four candidates over two days back in May. They started their weekend standing near the front door of a Concord house party, ready to engage former Maryland congressman John Delaney when he walked into the door. After hearing him speak, they drove to Warner to hear New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, then on to Milford to a potluck with entrepreneur Andrew Yang, then to Laconia the next day to catch New Jersey senator Cory Booker.

Traveling to see candidates is something Jon remembers doing with his father, and while James’ earlier participation as a kid was involuntary (he was once one of those babies thrust into the arms of candidates like Bill Richardson and Gary Johnson), the 14-year-old now comes along to campaign events of his own free will.

Jon and James met John Delaney, former congressman from Maryland, at a house party campaign event at the home of Gerri and Ron King in Concord on May 11, 2019. Photo by Elizabeth Frantz

“I was a big Bernie fan, and once I saw Bernie and got into his campaign, it got me interested in politics in general,” James says, referring to Sanders’ 2016 run.

The pair are on a quest to see and compare as many candidates as possible. “It doesn’t bother me that they poll low. I think they’re interesting people,” Jon says of some of the lesser-known. And party affiliation isn’t important either, though this cycle is mostly dominated by Democratic candidates since President Donald Trump is the Republican incumbent. He’s unregistered with any party and undecided, but James is all-in with Andrew Yang as a nonvoter.

“It still affects me even though I can’t vote. And a lot of the time it’s fun, and as a kid, you get more attention sometimes,” James says.
James tries to get a handshake in addition to hearing what the candidates have to say. “There’s something cool about knowing that you might be meeting the president.”

Carlos Cardona

Carlos Cardona introduces Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s, during a house party for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Cardona-Swain home in Laconia on May 27, 2019. Photo by Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post Magazine

House parties, like the one the Kellys attended to see John Delaney, are a staple of New Hampshire’s retail politicking tradition, and Carlos Cardona of Laconia is in line to hold the unofficial record for hosting the most presidential candidates at his home for this cycle.

Among them have been Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, John Delaney, Eric Swalwell, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Tim Ryan, Seth Moulton, Joe Sestak, Marianne Williamson, Michael Bennet, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Bernie Sanders and more.

Carlos Cardona with his serving platter, which is signed by multiple Democratic presidential candidates. Photo by Elizabeth Frantz

Why does he do it? “I was elected chairman of Laconia City Democrats and thought it should be something as a chair and committee we should do — host and offer our locals a venue for them to meet the candidates,” says Cardona.

His willingness to open his home to campaigns has brought candidates to a city often ignored as smaller and farther away than common campaign stops just off the interstate highways. He treats them all the same, whether they draw a handful of people seated around his dining room table or a rally-sized crowd standing on his front lawn.

He also asks candidates he meets to sign an antique serving platter decorated with painted campaign buttons. The platter was a gift from his daughter’s godmother, who also gave him the idea of adding the autographs as Cardona was hosting Klobuchar. “She came to the event and said to me, ‘You know you should have the platter signed by her. It would be kind of cool and maybe more historic someday.’”

He has become very passionate about the New Hampshire primary and the role it plays in our nation’s elections since moving to the state 14 years ago from Puerto Rico.

“I hope this tradition lasts many more years. It gets neighbors, families and opposite political parties together to discuss, as Americans first, what we want for our country,” he says. “And, of course, the occasional exchange of family recipes and traditions such as this one I started signing a platter for future generations to see we are all part of shaping our democracy.”

Jack Polidoro

Jack Polidoro and his growing collection of baseballs autographed by presidential candidates at his home in Gilmanton Photo by Elizabeth Frantz

Another collector of signatures on the campaign trail is Jack Polidoro of Gilmanton. But while others might bring books and photos, Polidoro most likely has a couple of brand new baseballs stuck in his pockets. “It’s just a hobby, and I’ve been doing it pretty much since 1996. So that’s quite a few candidates. I’ve only missed a few,” he says.

The collection of more than 80 balls is mostly in storage, but the dozen-plus signed by the current field of candidates are displayed in his condo.

“Who would have thought of having a baseball signed? Because people go ‘Why? Why are you doing this?’ Well, because I can. It’s different.”
In his experience, most candidates say yes if he can get them one-on-one before Secret Service gets involved and a baseball becomes a potential projectile he can’t bring into an event.

“You could go to the Amherst Fourth of July parade. Amherst draws a lot of candidates. You just walk into the center of the street while they’re walking by and just say ‘Would you mind signing?’ ‘Oh sure.’”

He’s got a story behind every signed ball. When he met Joe Lieberman, Polidoro and his then-wife were the only nonmedia to show up to the advertised campaign stop. After standing outside John Kasich’s campaign bus for an hour waiting for an event to end, he got his signature along with a drawing of his face that Kasich added before tossing the ball back and forth with a staffer. Donald Trump asked Jack if he was going to sell the ball on eBay before signing. And while signing, Joe Biden joked about how he once wanted to be a major league pitcher but didn’t have a very good batting average.

These are “only in New Hampshire” moments for Polidoro. “Oh, it’s just so interesting here. I mean, this is the place to be.”

Vermin Supreme

Libertarian presidential candidate and political satirist Vermin Supreme talks with attendees at his booth during Granite State Comicon at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Manchester in September. Photo by Elizabeth Frantz

No list of New Hampshire primary superfans can be complete without the boot-wearing perennial presidential candidate Vermin Supreme. He’s been taking advantage of the relatively easy ballot process since 1992, in some shape or form, including as both a Democrat and Republican (but not at the same time). “I’m the elder statesman of wing nuts now,” he said during a visit to the Statehouse visitor center in November.

Vermin Supreme stops by the visitor center at the Statehouse in November. Photo by Elizabeth Frantz

When asked to distinguish between Vermin Supreme the man (it’s his legal name, after all) and the character, the satirist drew a Venn diagram in the air. “There’s always been a little bit of overlap,” he says, and that intersection between reality and his whimsical candidacy of make-believe has grown as Mr. Supreme seeks to be the 2020 Libertarian candidate for president.

Campaigning at Granite State Comicon in September, Vermin wore a rainbow tie-dye T-shirt under a glittery American flag vest and multiple neckties. For his Statehouse visits during the filing period, he mainstreamed his look with simple shirts and a sports jacket.

“It’s been a very interesting sell trying to convince the Libertarian Party that a serious party can take a joke candidate and get their 5% [of the general election vote] without being pegged as a joke party,” he explained, referencing his anecdotal favorability with young people and those in nerd and geek culture (hence the visit to Granite State Comicon). “I’ve been trying to put forth the narrative that it’s not inconceivable, and I’ve had success.”

From Journalist to Superfan
Origins of a New Hampshire Primary Groupie

By Darren Garnick

Darren Garnick sets up one of his keepsake New Hampshire primary photos.

To say that I danced with US Sen. Cory Booker at the most recent New Hampshire Democratic Party convention is a slight exaggeration. But I did have a detectable bounce in my step and involuntarily bopped my head as Booker’s campaign theme song, “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers, blared out of a boombox in downtown Manchester. Along with my nephew Kyle, I marched toward the SNHU Arena with Booker’s dancing supporters and took action pics of the presidential candidate that rivaled anything snapped by the professional news photogs crowded around us.

With his upbeat “Lovely Day” soundtrack fueling him — I challenge you to not bop your head to this 1977 song — Booker’s confident glide and contagious joy made me feel happy to be around him. I have admired the New Jersey senator ever since his keynote speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and quite frankly, would find his delivery inspirational even if he were reading the nutritional information off the side of a cereal box.

These are the kinds of things I would never do or say when I was a full-time journalist covering politics. My first New Hampshire Primary was in 1996 when I covered the presidential campaigns of California governor Pete Wilson and Indiana senator Richard Lugar for The Nashua Telegraph. The newspaper industry was relatively healthy back then and The Telegraph had the resources to put every reporter (minus sports) on the primary. After leaving print journalism, I spent the 2000 and 2004 elections working on political documentaries for PBS.

When the 2008 New Hampshire Primary rolled around, I was no longer affiliated with a media organization and focused my freelance writing on offbeat feature stories rather than straight news. As a lifelong political junkie, this was an absolutely liberating development. I could be a “normal” voter now and was no longer obligated to appear as a stoic observer. I could openly act like a New Hampshire Primary superfan.

My daughter Dahlia was born in 2007 and she immediately became my cute political prop. Amused by the tradition of baby-kissing politicians — but still germaphobic enough to keep their lips away from my baby — I became obsessed with the idea of photographing Dahlia in the arms of the next president of the United States. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were innately gentle. Rudy Guiliani freaked out when Dahlia cried in his arms, while John McCain was remarkably calm when he faced a similar meltdown.

Capturing my kids in scenes with tomorrow’s historical figures has been a bottomless source of entertainment for me — a hobby that simply would not exist without the New Hampshire Primary. In 2012, I followed my then-9-year-old son Ari with a video camera as he asked the candidates which superhero they identified with the most. The resulting magic wasn’t in their answers — almost every politician chose Superman — but in the way they interacted with an inquisitive child. It was surreal listening to my young son explaining the powers of Martian Manhunter to former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

With both my children tapped out, I turned to my favorite cartoon character for New Hampshire Primary duties in both 2016 and 2020. In what I call the “Dinosaur Primary,” I’ve asked the candidates to playfully pose with a stuffed Dino Flintstone toy, the same one I’ve been photographing in my travels since college. As with my previous photo projects, I seek participation from candidates across the ideological spectrum — it’s a brief opportunity to press the pause button and infuse some levity into an increasingly hostile environment.

I can’t predict how long the New Hampshire Primary will hold onto its coveted first-in-the-nation status, but I hope that Dino and I are still chasing down presidential candidates when I’m in my 90s.

Categories: People, Politics