Two microphones, a roomful of voters, and John McCain. It’s one of the most iconic scenes in New Hampshire primary history, and one of which McCain himself is particularly proud, as he noted several times during a town hall meeting Saturday in Manchester.
"Great experiences of my life have been here in New Hampshire," the Arizona Senator told the audience, reflecting on his come-from-behind victories in the 2000 and 2008 primaries. "No one had given me any chance to succeed, and it was a town hall meeting that obviously allowed me to win.”
McCain was back on the trail again this weekend, but this time it was on behalf of his friend, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham. Graham’s campaign is similar to McCain’s earlier White House bids in many ways. But this year, he's just one of a number of Republican candidates modeling their campaigns on the McCain model. Chris Christie, John Kasich and others have made the McCain-style, no-holds-barred town hall the foundation of their New Hampshire effort. Whether any of them will achieve McCain’s success is another matter.
"Almost every candidate running right now, they are doing John McCain-type things," says longtime political strategist Mike Dennehy, who ran McCain’s New Hampshire campaign when the insurgent beat frontrunner George W. Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary. Dennehy, who’s now working for Rick Perry’s presidential bid, says McCain wasn’t the first candidate to engage with New Hampshire voters in the town hall format, but he held so many of those events that they’ve become almost required for presidential hopefuls.
"Voters want a dialogue," Dennehy says. "They want to meet the candidate, shake their hands, look into their eyes, ask a question and have it answered. It's now become expected of presidential candidates because of John McCain's efforts in 2000 and again in 2008."
A grueling process
But there’s more to winning the New Hampshire primary than engaging with voters in a town hall format. Dennehy says John McCain was as open with reporters as he was with voters – and that’s something candidates are less likely to do today, both because of the growth in the 24 hour news cycle and because it can be a grueling process.
"It's very difficult for a candidate to go from a town hall meeting, where you’re grilled by voters, to then getting on a bus and being grilled by the media," Dennehy says. "You can see candidates doing the first part, but opening yourself up to the media constantly doesn’t exist anymore."
And, Dennehy adds, there are so very many candidates this year, and most of them are much better funded, even at the bottom of the pack. He says McCain-style candidates can’t just outwork their rivals on the town hall circuit. "John McCain slowly built over time," Dennehy explains, "and as the other candidates dropped he continued to grow. I just don’t see that opportunity."
There’s another important historical point, of course: while McCain’s first New Hampshire win earned him political renown, it didn’t make him president. By the time the 2000 campaign moved to South Carolina, he was outspent and out-organized by George W. Bush’s campaign, and it was McCain who ended up leaving the race.
Candidates who tried the McCain approach in New Hampshire have run into the same problem. Sarah Stewart managed McCain's 2008 New Hampshire campaign and then worked for former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s New Hampshire effort in 2012. Huntsman’s town hall strategy helped him rise in New Hampshire polls, but his third place finish wasn’t enough to overcome Mitt Romney.
"The true lesson here is you have to be authentic," she says. "You have to match the campaign style to the candidate. [McCain] was authentic for that style. He felt comfortable and people believed it. It was real."
It remains to be seen whether running the McCain playbook will work for any of this year’s candidates, though Lindsey Graham seemed to be reading off several of its pages at the VFW hall in Manchester. He promised to barrage voters with non-stop campaigning. He cracked self-deprecating jokes, and when questioners pointedly disagreed with him, such as one who criticized what he called Israel’s “military occupation” of Palestinian territories, Graham sounded much like his friend and Senate colleague.
“I’m the worst possible choice for you for president," Graham said, smiling. "You don't want to vote for me, and let me tell you why."
McCain, for his part, said he believed the fundamental elements of the New Hampshire primary would remain strong, no matter how many candidates joined the race and no matter how much money they had.
“There are people with $100 million, $50 million," he said. "I don’t believe that the voters of New Hampshire are bought. And I believe that you want to examine the candidate, I hope you’ve examined this candidate today. And I hope you will tell the others.
"You'd be doing me a great favor, and I think the people of this country, a great favor. Because you hold a very, very unique position that selects the next commander in chief."
So goes the judgment of perhaps the most-examined presidential candidate to pick up a microphone at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire.