Was this the most boring New Hampshire primary ever? That’s what Walter Shapiro, covering his ninth primary season, wrote in The New Republic. He has a point: Mitt Romney ran an oppressively dull front-runner’s campaign, chased by an unusually lethargic pack of underdogs. Those who sat through the weekend’s twin debates likely regret having done so.
But with all respect to Shapiro, New Hampshire’s primaries suffered from a certain rote-ness long before this year. The Bedford house parties, the Red Arrow diner visits, the candidates in sweater-vests pretending to enjoy pints of beer: Don’t be too fooled by the homey traditions. Major campaigns have long dominated the primary, and they aspire, as a rule, to be dull as concrete.
That’s why photographer Shane Carpenter and I have spent the last three primary seasons in New Hampshire looking behind the dais, hanging around a shadow campaign that is anything but scripted. A passionate, desperate, totally ignored campaign featuring candidates you’ve never heard of, a field that in 2012 includes 14 Democrats and the largest group of Republican contenders—30—ever on a New Hampshire primary ballot.
Most of these candidates are—with exceptions like bullhorn-wielding satirist Vermin Supreme—trying hard to win something they will never ever win. Consider the long odds faced by GOP candidates Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana, and Fred Karger, the whipsmart, personable, and openly gay former Reagan adviser. They have little chance because they’ve been excluded from the televised debates. But their prospects are still infinitely better than the other lesser-knowns. No matter: they all But they have as much right to their space on the New Hampshire ballot as President Obama or Mitt Romney. All it takes is $1,000, payable to the State of New Hampshire by the filing deadline, and you are an official candidate.
That’s how you get candidates like Craig “Tax Freeze” Freis, who legally changed his name to reflect his fiscal platform. (His other beliefs, like the belief that an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Queens is warning of a Russian invasion, fit less neatly on a driver’s license.) Perhaps just as curious are the candidates—Jeff Lawman, Vern Wuensche, Mark Callahan and others—who are running on sober, mainstream platforms while still lacking any political experience, much less a resume that would typically qualify one for the presidency.
Lawyer John Wolfe couldn’t quite win his race for mayor of Chattanooga a few years back. (He’s just too liberal for Tennessee.) So this year, when no major politician stepped up to challenge Obama from the left, Wolfe decided he had to do it himself. Andy Martin is an online columnist and natural pugilist—the current object of his ire is a “dingbat” Romney surrogate who insulted him last year—who is nonetheless pledging to “fight the spread of hate in America.” Retired product manager Bob Greene is running solely to highlight the need for an energy policy based on the use of Thorium fluoride, an untapped energy source. Substitute teacher Ed Cowan has been driving back and forth in an 11-year-old Honda Insight from his home in rural Vermont, packing lunches to save money, trying not to spend money he doesn’t have. But even on a shoestring budget, his campaign is an investment with no hope of return.
The final vote totals won’t be high, with the possible exception of Roemer and Karger: lesser-knowns typically get somewhere between 10 and 40 votes; it’s an accomlishment to crack 100. For some, that will be a crushing blow. “If I don’t win on Tuesday night,” says Durham investor John Haywood, “I will weep for my country.” But whatever the ingredient that makes these candidates think they can compete with the money and media of national campaigns, it gives most of them something else, too: the belief that there is meaning in defeat.
Realtor Michael Meehan, running as a fiscal conservative on the GOP ticket, arrived November 9 after a three-day drive from St. Louis. He’s run out of money twice and had to wait for his wife, who told him she probably wouldn’t vote for him even if she could, to put more money on the credit card. He’s 57 and says it’s hard sometimes to get started in the morning for a full day of retail politicking with no money. “It’s starting to get rough. I mean, I’m not getting sleep,” he says. “I’m actually starting to dream about it now, you know what I mean? It’s so intense.” But he’s not deterred by the idea of defeat. “If it doesn’t [work out] then I have to find something else,” he says. “I’ve always been that kind of person that just because you didn’t make it right now doesn’t mean you quit.”