Presidential Candidates Focused on Drug Crisis in New Hampshire, But Will it Last?

Feb 14, 2016

In the months leading up to Tuesday’s primary, nearly every presidential candidate mentioned New Hampshire’s opioid and heroin epidemic while on the stump in the Granite State.

But now that the New Hampshire primary has come and gone - will this issue be forgotten on the campaign trail as candidates' shift focus to other states?

How did the drug issue became a talking point on the 2016 trail?

The candidates say they heard from residents about this drug issue at campaign stop after campaign stop. And that is to be expected, more than 400 people died from a drug overdose this year.

Here’s a glimpse into how one candidate, Hillary Clinton, told voters in Laconia about when she first heard about the issue.

“My first visit back to the state for this campaign was to Keene. And sitting around talking to a small group of people I of course expected to hear about the economy, how to afford college, what to do about student debt, healthcare – the kinds of things people expect to talk about in a presidential race," Clinton told the crowd. "The very first question was, 'what will you do about the heroin epidemic?'”

Hillary Clinton hosts a community forum about substance abuse at the Boys and Girls Club in Laconia back in September.
Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR

Clinton was not the only candidate to get this question. At nearly every town hall, forum or diner stop I went to, this issue came up. So much so that it became a regular part of many of the candidate’s stump speeches.

Although this issue tends to be a bipartisan one – are there differences in how candidates talked about it?

Yes and no. Most of the candidates did address the issue in a similar fashion, calling it a disease and saying there’s a need for more treatment.

For instance, Jeb Bush delivered that same message to a crowd last week in Derry.

“I think we need to look at this, first and foremost, as an illness,” Bush said during a town hall. “We need to expand recovery centers so that people that struggle with addiction have a network of people they can rely on that can share, that understand what it’s like to go through this.”

Although this general train of thought was similar for both sides – some of the focus varied. For instance, Democrats seemed to heavily talk about the treatment side and barriers to access. Meanwhile Republicans tended to focus more on stopping illegal drugs from crossing the border and the cost savings of treatment as opposed to locking someone up.

Carly Fiorina with husband Frank and their daughters, Tracy and Lori (front). Lori, Fiorina's stepdaughter, passed away from a drug overdose at age 34.
Credit Photo: Carly Fiorina

But when it came to the details of how to solve this problem neither side was terribly specific.

Case in point: Donald Trump last November.

“The problem of heroin in New Hampshire is unbelievable. It’s like an unbelievable problem that you have,” Trump said at an event at Saint Anselm College.

But Hillary Clinton did release a thorough policy plan. The proposal, which Clinton rolled out in September, called for $10 billion, which involved the feds giving states four dollars for every dollar they spent on fighting substance abuse.

Besides policy - what were some of the other ways candidates touched on this issue?

A lot of the candidates got personal when talking about addiction. Jeb Bush went into detail about how his daughter struggles with addiction. Carly Fiorina described how she had to bury her stepdaughter because of a drug overdose.  And Ted Cruz talked about how he also lost a loved one – his step-sister to a drug overdose.

John Kasish got personal as well, but not about a specific loss he’s endured, but here's what he said when he met with a mother whose son is addicted to heroin.

“If you want me to – forget all the politics. I will call your son," Kasich told the crying mother at a town hall in Derry. "OK. I will call your son, and I will talk to him if you think it will help.”

It seemed like while in New Hampshire Republican, candidate Chris Christie spent a lot of time centered on the drug crisis.

Christie arguably spent the most time talking about it. Even before candidates started fielding questions from voters on it – Christie was already visiting drug treatment facilities in the state as early as May.

Gov. Chris Christie of N.J. talks with local officials and advocates at Webster House, a drug treatment center in Franklin.
Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR

He brought it up at events – explaining how in his state of New Jersey they offer treatment in prisons and are trying to treat rather than lock people up.

He even spent his entire address to the New Hampshire House last month on this very issue.

“We need to stop making moral judgments on their choices and start trying to help them restore their lives," Christie told the full legislature. "You see the child in the womb is a precious, precious life but so is the 16-year-old girl who is addicted to heroin and laying on the floor in county lock up – her life is an individual gift from god. So, is the 42-year-old lawyer who is addicted to pain killers."

But now that Christie has dropped out of the race and candidates have already started focusing on other primary states, do you think the drug issue will be talked about less on the trail?

I would suspect that it comes up less often. The beauty of the New Hampshire primary is voters get to meet one on one with the candidates and bring up these issues. As the race continues, this will happen less and less.  And although living in New Hampshire we might think this drug crisis is unique to us -  it isn’t.

Not just in New Hampshire, but nationally drug overdose deaths outweigh the number of fatal car accidents. There are several bills currently in Washington aimed at combating substance abuse and last week President Obama proposed spending an additional $1.1 billion dollars on this very issue.

And the flip-side to thinking about this is – did the candidates elevate the discussion here? Will it now be talked about more in our upcoming congressional and gubernatorial races?

Gov. Maggie Hassan delivers her final State of the State address on Feb. 2, 2016 at the State House.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

With Governor Maggie Hassan gearing up to go against incumbent Senator Kelly Ayotte in November, we’ve already begun to see how this issue has been a heavy focus for both candidates. In Hassan’s State of the State Address last week – a majority of her speech focused on what has been done to combat this issue and she urged lawmakers to keep sending bills to her desk. And just today Kelly Ayotte sent out a press release on how a major bill she is sponsoring to address the issue has moved forward in the Senate.

And when it comes to the upcoming gubernatorial race, with the drug crisis being one of the major issues on residents’ minds these days - candidates won’t have a choice but to talk about it.