The political state of selfies

One player on the campaign scene fits in your pocket

There are a lot of dynamics that will make the 2016 New Hampshire primary unique. The Republican contest is the most wide open since 1964. The Democratic contest features Hillary Clinton, the most dominant non-incumbent potential presidential candidate in American history.

There are also smaller, but important, tactical reasons why things will play out differently. The primary got moved back a month to February. Every major candidate will need to have a Super PAC, whereas in 2012 just a few did. Also the Republican National Committee appears to be very serious about limiting the number of debates.

But those are considerations for the professional political class of candidates, operatives and journalists to obsess over. In terms of the rest of us, it’s clear voters will experience the primary very differently than in years past.

Go to any event with a presidential candidate and you’ll notice right away that nearly everyone in the audience has a smartphone in hand. When a candidate walks into a room, these phones go into the air and people begin taking pictures. As the candidate makes opening remarks, heads are down staring at screens as pictures upload to Twitter or Facebook accounts. When the event is over, the most important thing for many people is to get another picture with the candidate.

In the process, though, some of the intimacy has vanished. The very act of watching a candidate through a cell phone screen creates distance. Granite Staters used to be more interested in sizing up candidates than in framing a picture.

It also means that the power dynamic has shifted. The candidate once came to beg for support. Now it is the voter asking for a favor — a souvenir selfie with the candidate.

Cameras are hardly new to the New Hampshire primary experience, but they were never this ubiquitous. Now, instead of shaking someone’s hand, these candidates turn around for another picture.

It’s not all bad. Certain mobile apps make it easy to broadcast a livestream of the event so friends in different states or stuck at work can watch. It allows people to tell their own stories of a candidate and, sure, document some memories along the way.

The fear is that these voters will have technology and logistics on their minds more than policy and politics when they see these candidates. Politicians like to joke that in New Hampshire voters need to meet you at least three times before they even begin to commit to voting for you. In 2016, it might not be how many times voters have met a candidate, but how many times they took a picture with one.

Maybe people just need to put away their phones. Here on the 100 year anniversary of the New Hampshire primary, will the state’s voters actually vet the candidates? After all, someone in Arizona can take a cell picture the same way someone does in Atkinson. What we do when the phones aren’t in the air is what makes New Hampshire special.