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Primary: Ground games got the win

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 16. 2018 12:17AM
Democrat Chris Pappas, candidate for the 1st Congressional District, celebrates his Primary win with supporters at the Puritan Backroom in Manchester on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

The formula for winning political campaigns used to be simple.

Spend the most money, especially on television advertising, and you're more than likely going to win.

"New Hampshire has always been a place where grassroots politics matters but if you weren't spending a whole lot of money on television in the past, it was very hard to succeed," said Jim Merrill, a Republican campaign consultant who ran 1st District GOP hopeful Bruce Crochetiere's campaign until he withdrew from the race in mid-July.

In last Tuesday's New Hampshire primaries, three candidates triumphed despite getting outspent on television and overall.

Chris Pappas of Manchester won the 1st Congressional District Democratic nomination over Maura Sullivan of Portsmouth, even though for every $1 Pappas put on television in the closing month, Sullivan put in $3.

Overall, Sullivan spent well over $2 million while Pappas, days before the primary, had not reached the $1 million mark.

Likewise, Republican Eddie Edwards of Dover in the 1st District and Steve Negron of Nashua in the 2nd District won, even though their chief rivals, Andy Sanborn of Bedford and Stewart Levenson of Hopkinton respectively, were both on television for weeks before Edwards and Negron got their only commercial onto TV in the closing days.

These successes in both political parties raise the question of whether 2018 will go down as an anomaly driven by the strengths of the individual candidates or whether it marks a new paradigm and signals that a new voting demographic calls for a new strategy.

"The results here in 2018 really make you wonder whether all the traditional rules have changed," said Greg Moore, state director of Americans for Prosperity who helped manage Republican John Stephen's two campaigns for Congress in the 1st District.

All three of these campaigns had one thing in common - consultants and/or campaign staffers with experience in running good ground games in New Hampshire.

RightVoter LLC worked for both Edwards and Negron, playing more of a leadership role in the Edwards race and a supportive one for Negron.

"I equate it to a time where people used to march up in line and do battle with one another in an open field. Over time folks realized if you hid in the bushes and launched an attack you might be more likely to survive," said RightVoter executive Mike Biundo.

"Politics has changed; you can't just do it the same way you used to do it."

Negron's chief consultant was Roger Wilkins, an experienced organizer who also worked on the staff of New Hampshire's former U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta as well as other campaigns.

Pappas had Kari Thurman who played a major role in Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's winning Senate campaign in 2014 and also worked for U.S. Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Annie Kuster.

When 11 Democratic candidates signed up to run in the 1st District Democratic primary, Pappas and his team realized that being more visible would help them stand out.

"We did 250 events over a 10-month period; that's a whole lot of grassroots," said Wyatt Ronan, Pappas' communications director.

"This is not a model that can be replicated in a short period of time."

The Pappas team focused heavily on driving turnout in Manchester, Portsmouth, Laconia, Dover and Conway.

The Pappas campaign came up with a host of themes, from ice cream socials to senior center visits and "80 Ways in 80 Days" to meet Pappas on the trail.

"It helps when you have a candidate who has so much energy and just loves meeting people," Ronan added.

The Pappas campaign did outreach to the refugee population with the candidate visiting a barber shop in a Hispanic neighborhood in Manchester and hosting two events with the Nepalese community.

"We wanted to signal to them they have a place in this campaign and Chris will be a voice for them in Congress," Ronan said.

Officials with both the Negron and Edwards campaigns believe their secret weapon was the candidate.

"Steve Negron is the happy warrior, someone who is willing to take the fight to his opponent but do it in a respectful way," Merrill said.

"What really impressed me about Eddie Edwards was how eclectic his supporters were. They ran the gamut ideologically from very conservative Bill O'Brien to moderate Renee Plummer. You've got to admire that ability to attract such a wide variety."

All three campaigns used digital media to help reach their goals, from driving turnout at a local event to mobilizing volunteers who would help blunt an opponent's attack.

"Social media truly is the new frontier," Moore said. "You can target messages to a discreet universe of voters for pennies on the dollar compared to how much you would spend on television or even to send a direct mail piece. Digital advertising is sure to become a bigger and bigger chunk of a candidate's budget with every election to follow."

When Sanborn unloaded against Edwards on immigration and gun owner rights, the Edwards camp aired YouTube videos of the candidate responding to the assaults.

Merrill said another change is more senior citizens are using Facebook to get information about politics.

"What we are seeing is that traditional broadcast television is no longer the go-to medium for getting the word out to voters," Merrill said.

"It's very clear that digital advertising is increasingly effective; more and more voters, especially millenials, are living on their smartphones."

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