To win N.H. GOP primary, first you win over activists

By James Pindell GLOBE STAFF FEBRUARY 20, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. — When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie flew to New Hampshire on Monday, media coverage focused on his 30-minute speech to a local Republican fund-raiser.

But more important to Christie’s likely run for president were the three hours he spent before the public event huddling with local Republican activists — a tacit acknowledgment that without earning the support of key people on the ground, there is no way a candidate can win the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

So there was Christie at the Copper Door restaurant in Bedford shortly after arriving in the state. Meeting him were people like Andy Crews, who runs the local car dealership; Sean Owen, who runs a marketing firm; Ellen Christo, who hosts fund-raisers at her Seacoast home; and Bill Greiner, a well-known Bedford entrepreneur.

Then he was off to two similar gatherings in Concord, one with state senators and the other with grass-roots organizers and party officials like Karen Testerman, who started a socially conservative think tank, Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield, and Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard.

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A year before a vote is cast in the 2016 presidential nomination process is the period political scientists call “the invisible primary,” an intense campaign among would-be presidential candidates trying to woo major national political donors and activists early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

View Graphic
Graphic: Endorsement tracker

The invisible primary sets the stage for what kind of campaign will take place. It defines who will run (and who won’t); who will have money to run a top-tier campaign and who will have to scrap it out; who has momentum and who is fading.

This early — a full year before voters signal who is actually ahead and who is behind — politicos have only three data points to help them analyze who is up or down any given day. Two of them — money and early state polls — are quantifiable and easy to understand. The third, what kind campaign teams these candidates build, is harder to access but equally important.

Capital is hoping to shed some light on the process: tracking for Boston Globe readers the choices of 115 crucial Republican activists in New Hampshire as they consider the emerging GOP presidential field. So far, only a handful of the people on our list have signed on with a campaign — not surprising, considering no one has formally declared his or her candidacy yet. But in the months to come, their choices will help explain who’s doing well with Granite State voters and who’s struggling to connect.

The people on the list are well-known to the savviest candidates or their handlers. They include big-name office holders (US Senator Kelly Ayotte, for instance, and former governor Steve Merrill) as well as insider movers and shakers (Concord lobbyist Bruce Berke, for instance, and Jared Chicoine, who ran Ron Paul’s New Hampshire campaigns in 2008 and 2012).

And this explains why Hilliard, the local sheriff, got a meeting with Christie this week — in fact, it was his second such audience. Hilliard has also sat down with former Texas governor Rick Perry and Florida senator Marco Rubio, who impressed him with his knowledge on drug prevention. When former Florida governor Jeb Bush called on a recent Saturday, Hilliard almost didn’t take the call because he didn’t recognize the number on his cellphone. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina also has been calling Hilliard, trying to arrange a time to meet in person.

“I see my role as part of the traditional New Hampshire primary process,” said Hilliard. “I am willing to meet with just about anyone and spend the time to vet them before finally deciding who would be a great president. After that I will work hard for them.”

What form does this hard work take? It depends which activists you’re talking about. Grabbing the endorsement of Leann Moccia or Stella Scamman on the Seacoast means there is a good shot they will advocate to get you speaking spots at a widely attended chili fest or at the Portsmouth Rotary, the largest of its kind in the state. If Paul Chevalier likes you, he can arrange 50-person meetings with veterans at every VFW in the state. When a campaign needs to build an infrastructure of volunteers or a day of campaign events in North Conway or New London, it can be accomplished easily if a candidate has the support of Gene Chandler up north and Michele Holton in the Sunapee region. Jack Kimball, a former state Republican chairman, can vouch for a candidate among the Tea Party base.

Having this local-yokel knowledge of who will really work hard for your campaign is key to winning the primary. For example, in the city of Keene, a campaign would be forgiven for heavily courting Republican Mayor Kendall Lane. But who you really want on your campaign is his ex-wife, Jane Lane. She was most recently the Cheshire County GOP chairwoman, knows every player in the county, and will make introductions — just ask Mitt Romney, whom she endorsed in 2012.

Recent political science research backs up the theory that endorsements matter. Researchers at Georgetown University, James Madison University, and the University of California at Berkeley and at Los Angeles found a direct correlation between the quality and quantity of endorsements and the ability of a candidate to win the presidential nomination.

Indeed, in recent New Hampshire presidential primaries, the candidate with the most support from the establishment won, including John Kerry in 2004, John McCain and Hillary Clinton in 2008, and Romney in 2012.

“In a small state like New Hampshire, running for president of the United States is like running for class president,” said Ryan Williams, who managed communications strategy for the state Republican Party and for two US Senate races in the state. “If you can get the support of the cool kids, it will help build your campaign.”