New Hampshire Gets a Taste of Elizabeth Warren’s Retail Politics

The New Hampshire primary, like its Midwest cousin the Iowa caucus and the antiquated Electoral College, remains one of those gateway institutions that exist to ensure white, rural voters enjoy a wildly overbalanced say in the process of picking a president.

A little over 1.3 million people call the Granite State home, about 90 percent of whom are white. Peterborough, the small southwest New Hampshire town of just over 6,500 souls perched along the languid Contoocook River where senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) rallied supporters on Monday afternoon, is a fair example of the phenomenon, in that it is about as racially and culturally diverse as the U.S. Senate.

For reasons that become increasingly far-fetched with every passing election season, the New Hampshire primary has historically been more muscular than California’s in ultimately determining who will seize the nomination. At a minimum, it has been the graveyard of hope for many candidates over the years who likely would have enjoyed greater success had the election process begun in a more populated, diverse state.

If you take a drive down Route 101, which runs the length of southern New Hampshire from the Vermont border to Hampton Beach and the sea, you can almost see the rusted hulks of burned-out presidential campaigns littering the sides of the road in this strange little state.

New Hampshire primary voters do take their “first in the nation” status deeply seriously though, as was demonstrated yet again by the capacity crowd in Peterborough on Monday.

Retail Politics for the 21st Century

The line to get into the Peterborough Town House, a stout brick public edifice, ran far down Grove Street two hours before the event began. When the venue reached capacity, an overflow crowd was required to listen to Warren’s speech via several large speakers arrayed on the front steps.

Many were disappointed they couldn’t get inside. Of course, Senator Warren had a plan for that. Standing on a box just outside the front door before the event began, the candidate told the overflow crowd, “The bad news is, there’s no more room inside, so you all are out here. The good news is, there’s no more room inside!” The frustrated but friendly assemblage cheered.

“If you want to hang around,” Warren continued, “you’ll be able to hear it, we’ve got the sound out here. Plus, we’ll get you into the selfie line first. So, if you want to stay around for a picture or to say something to me individually, you’ll be able to do that.”

Ah, yes, the “selfie line.” Sen. Warren, according to reports, has posed with voters for more than 35,000 “selfies” — an intimate close-up camera shot taken of yourself with your own phone — since her presidential campaign began. Her offer to bump the thwarted to the front of the line mollified the crowd, and she came through as promised: Moments after Warren concluded her remarks, a pair of campaign staffers ushered the overflow folks to a side door, where they got first crack at 30 seconds with the senator and a snapshot.

Call it retail politics for the 21st century. This was no fly-by-night operation that had swooped into Peterborough; the event itself was carried off like clockwork.

By making the selfie line a campaign staple, Warren has struck a unique balance between intimate retail politics and present-day technological omnipresence. I’d bet long money there are a dozen Democratic campaign managers kicking themselves for not having thought of it first.

Of course, the selfie thing is just one piece of a much broader strategy and set of policy proposals that have helped Warren to establish herself as a front-runner and strong fundraiser. Along with fellow candidates Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, Warren now appears in the top tier of every poll, and her campaign on Tuesday announced a second-quarter fundraising haul of $19.1 million.

Progressive Populism in High Gear

Warren’s signature progressive, anti-corporate rhetoric was also on display in Peterborough. “We have a government that works great for giant drug companies but not for people who are trying to get a prescription filled,” Warren told the cheering crowd inside the Town House. “We have a government that works great for investors in private prisons and immigration detention centers, but not for people whose lives are torn apart and who are appalled by what’s happening at our border. We have a government that works great, works fabulously for giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere — just not for the rest of us who see climate change bearing down upon us.”

Warren’s performance in Peterborough was deeply folksy. She sketched out her personal biography, describing how she was the youngest child of an Oklahoma family that was able to survive hardship on her mother’s minimum wage job, then a young professional trying to land a special needs teaching job while “visibly pregnant,” and eventually a law student turned law professor whose entire course load “was about money” and how it moves through the world. She then credited her presence on that town hall stage to her Aunt Bea’s availability as an in-house child care specialist.

“It was child care that nearly killed me,” said Warren about her years as a young, divorced working mother, a line that thrummed through the crowd. Warren then combined her story of struggling through those early years with the financial details of her education — four-year degree at a community college that cost $50 a semester, Rutgers law degree that cost $450 a semester — to underscore how much more difficult it is to get ahead today.

“A full-time minimum wage job in America will not keep a mama and a baby out of poverty,” she proclaimed, “and that is wrong, and that is why I’m in this fight.”

She went on to present her two-cents plan for taxing the rich: You get to keep your first $50 million, but every dollar after that gets taxed two cents to fund programs “so everyone else gets a chance.”

With that money, Warren claimed, we can fund universal child care for every baby followed by universal pre-K, raise the wages of child care workers, divert $50 billion in funding to historically Black colleges and universities, cancel student debt for 95 percent of people, and provide free tuition to technical and four-year public colleges. “All that,” she said, “for two cents.”

“I have the biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate,” she stated before launching into a litany of big-broom proposals: End lobbying as we know it and block the lobbyist revolving door in Washington; require Supreme Court justices to adhere to a strict code of ethics; make all federal candidates release their tax returns; end partisan gerrymandering; end voter suppression; and overturn Citizens United.

While Warren’s proposals are bold, at root she is advocating for a reformed capitalism rather than for socialism, and there is always a bit of mental disconnect at play when listening to a politician rail against the systemic inequities of capitalism before claiming the cure is some form of better capitalism. Critics from the left have also pointed out that, though she sits on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, she has been opaque on foreign policy during her campaign.

Warren’s political instincts also remain dangerously shaky for someone who intends to take on Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and the media machine that sustains them. This was made evident by her blunder regarding her attempt to use a DNA test to prove her Native American heritage. Going back to 2016, her endorsement of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders remains an open wound for many progressive political activists.

All that being said, Warren’s progressive rhetoric is largely matched by her actions in Congress. The list of bills she has sponsored during the 116th Congress alone demonstrates that, as much as she is able to while a member of the Senate minority, she has sought to legislate in Washington what she preaches on the campaign trail.

The implementation of Warren’s most progressive proposals is currently difficult to imagine given the ongoing existence of men like Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). Yet New Hampshire during primary season is a place for big ideas proffered in small rooms.

Addressing the naysayers who claim her policy ideas are too difficult to achieve, Warren reeled off a litany of other struggles throughout history — for workers’ rights, voting rights, civil rights — whose goals were also deemed too difficult to achieve. “They persisted,” she said during her foot-stomping conclusion. As soon as Warren’s remarks were done, the outside speakers immediately began blaring “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. True to their word, the campaign staffers led the overflow crowd to the front of the selfie line.