In Today's N.H. Primary, Town Halls Don't Pack the Punch They Used To

Nov 6, 2015

If any single mode of campaigning could be said to typify the New Hampshire Primary it would probably be the town hall meeting, where would-be presidents throw open the floor to questions from all comers. Some New Hampshire Primary winners - think John McCain - have put town halls at the very center of their strategies. But that’s not been the case with top candidates this year.

Spend any time on the New Hampshire presidential campaign trail, and it won’t be long before some candidate starts to emote about how the town hall epitomizes running for president here. Here’s Ohio Governor John Kasich:

"You know, I tell people around the country you go to New Hampshire, you go to a town hall, they poke you they smell you they look in your in the eyes, and then the figure out you ought to be president. Am I right, do you like this? I think it’s great."

So do plenty of other people, particularly those who’ve been party to years of local presidential politicking, like Manchester State Senator Lou D’Allesandro:

"Town halls are what town halls are. To me it’s a way of life here, and we’ve got to keep that. We have to sustain that. And if we ever lose that we lose a portion of New Hampshire that’s vital and makes us what we are."

But the idea that a candidate will, in this day and age, necessarily prosper by keeping a schedule larded with town hall meetings is an open question.

"The days of the 2000 and 2008 John McCain campaign, I believe those days are gone," says Mike Dennehy, who  ran John McCain’s New Hampshire efforts.

McCain's campaigns which often featured four town hall meetings a day. Dennehy is convinced  candidates will always need to interact with voters face to face, but he says a social media fueled news cycle make it unwise for candidate to rely too heavily on the town hall format. 

"I do think it’s still important, but the political environment right now isn’t favoring the candidates who are having more town hall meetings," he says.

The huge crowds that turn out for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have to be seen as positives; but campaign event where attendance is counted by the thousands also present challenges.

GOP strategist David Carney says outcomes in tight races can hinge on the quality of the data campaigns rely on to identify supporters and mobilize them on election day. The bigger the crowd, the harder that data can be to collect.

"When you are a hot item like those two guys, people show up because they heard about it, they didn’t necessarily RSVP, and maybe they sit there and sign in," Carney says. "The question to those campaigns with staff and volunteers is: What are they doing with that data now? Are there people on those campaigns that are touching people?"

And whether or not front runners are relying on them much right now, town halls are still here. And according to David Carney, a candidate who wants to maximize the benefit will understand the form is evolving.

"You use new technology to determine who you invite and how you invite them and keep track of who you attend and keep track of who attends and follow up," he says.

That may not be a sentiment shared by those who celebrate the town hall meeting as a thing of legend. But it’s definitely the future.