CONWAY — The refrigerator is almost empty.
It’s not that the reporters and editors at The Conway Daily Sun are going hungry. Like every newspaper office, this one always has plenty of food around. But one of the lesser-known but more revealing traditions of presidential politics is that when White House candidates travel to the North Country, they stop in at the paper, discuss their campaigns with the staff and then, with a thick Sharpie pen and often with a flourish, sign the refrigerator.
In the last election cycle, 10 candidates affixed their signatures to the Sun’s refrigerator. This time, so far only four have done so — and not one of them is remotely a top-tier contender.
That newsroom refrigerator is an unscientific but important indicator of a new development in presidential politics. While New Hampshire prizes its possession of the first-in-the-nation primary, in this election cycle it is in danger of being overshadowed by its political rival Iowa, which holds the first caucus of the presidential race eight days before Granite State voters go to the polls.
It is not that New Hampshire is being ignored; the Democratic candidates scheduled some 16 events here last week, a remarkable number for a state with a population of 1.4 million, about the size of the Bronx. Indeed, without much effort on Sunday you could have seen Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota open her office in Manchester at 10 a.m. and then scoot over to Stratham (30 minutes away on Route 101 east) to see Marianne Williamson and former Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania at the Stratham Democratic Harvest Fest. There are worse ways to spend a day, particularly since you’d be driving through the spectacular New Hampshire autumn foliage, a week or so from its colorful autumn peak.
Even so, with a field as big as this one, candidates are worrying that if they do not perform well in Iowa, where more than 25 Democratic events were scheduled last week — about half again as many as in New Hampshire — their campaigns might not even survive long enough to get here during the raucous February week between the two events.
“If they’re not in the top five in Iowa — and that’s maybe generous — then they’re done,” says Melanie Muns, the vice chair of the Hampton Democratic town committee and a member of the party’s Rockingham County executive committee.
She and her husband, Chris Muns, the chair of the town committee, fear the New Hampshire primary is being eclipsed by the Iowa caucuses.
“We’re not seeing them as much as Iowans are,” he says. “And of the supposed top contenders, the one who jumps out for not being here is Kamala Harris.”
“She’s spending the least amount of time here,” Ms. Muns says of the California senator, “and it’s been noticed.”
The gap between the two early political states is reflected in Facebook advertising spending, one of the measures of the new politics. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont each have spent about twice as much on Facebook ads in Iowa as in New Hampshire, according to figures compiled by the Democratic political firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts spent $83,500 on Facebook advertising here — but $109,400 in Iowa.
Klobuchar of Minnesota has visited Iowa 20 times and New Hampshire only 14, but she bought airtime in both states when she unveiled her first television ad last week. Her emphasis on Iowa has a clear rationale. She has the support of only 1 percent nationally, according to the Monmouth University Polling Institute survey. Moreover, her native state borders Iowa. And if she cannot produce a breakthrough there, where she is at 3 percent in the Des Moines Register/CNN Poll, her nomination will likely fade fast, perhaps even before reaching New Hampshire, where she also draws the support of 3 percent, according to a poll conducted by the St. Anselm College Survey Center.
Besides the emphasis on Iowa, two important differences in campaigning are emerging here.
One is in the nature of campaigning. For decades, presidential candidates flew into New Hampshire, targeted a town, booked the gymnasium for a speech and rally, sent postcards to every party member in the community and hoped for the best. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois did that on Memorial Day weekend in 2007 here and produced an enormous crowd at Kennett High School.
But that is old school.
“Now,” according to Neil Levesque, the respected executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, “the candidates are micro-targeting and figuring out who the potential supporters are in the area and inviting them to house parties.”
The second development is the hesitation of political activists here to align themselves with a candidate.
A dozen years ago, as the 2008 election approached, the rosters of activists siding with Obama, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina were full. Now, with the primary only four months away, many of the activists who ordinarily would be working hard at phone banks, canvassing neighborhoods and distributing handbills and lawn signs are holding back, examining the unusually large field of candidates and awaiting more visits from the leading contenders.
“It feels like there are more people on the fence than there are people who have committed,” said Muns. “It is almost as if everybody is in a wait-and-see mode, waiting to see who is going to break loose.”
The exception is Warren, who has deployed a formidable operation here, is familiar to voters because she is from neighboring Massachusetts and has devoted enormous time to the state. She’s now in a statistical tie with Biden but, Levesque points out, is the top second choice for voters who now support another candidate. If some of those White House aspirants drop out, she would presumably gain their support. Sanders has only half the support of Warren and Biden in the Granite State, but if his recent heart attack prompts his backers to abandon his campaign, Warren would surely be the beneficiary.
Meanwhile, some of Biden’s supporters in South Carolina, where he is well-positioned, are contemplating a trip to Iowa to explain why they back the endangered front-runner. They might consider a trip here.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.