Even out on ice-covered Lake Winnipesaukee the talk turns to politics, as voters in tiny New Hampshire, which plays a disproportionate role in picking American presidents, mull which Democrat should face Donald Trump in November.
“I’m surprised the candidates aren’t out here. This is where the constituents are,” said Heidi Barrett-Kitchen, chair of the 2020 Great Meredith Rotary Ice Fishing Derby which was expected to attract up to 10,000 people over the two-day contest ending Sunday.
Every four years this state of just 1.3 million residents is swarmed by presidential hopefuls desperate to win the nation’s first primary, set for Tuesday on the heels of the troubled Iowa caucuses last week.
Iowa’s vote is considered the kickoff to the nominations race.
But New Hampshire tends to set the tone for the long state-by-state primaries battle, and weed out the weakest candidates.
“Being first in the nation is something we pride ourselves on,” Barrett-Kitchen told AFP as anglers socialized out on the frozen water or huddled in “bob houses” where they cut holes in the ice — hoping to hook the largest specimens of lake trout, pickerel, or black crappie.
The results from New Hampshire’s century-old primary tradition are closely watched by the rest of the nation, though, and for good reason.
World War II general Dwight Eisenhower won the state’s primary in 1952, a victory that set him on the path to the White House and cemented the state’s role in American political life.
Of the 17 presidential elections since then, 14 candidates who won their party’s nomination contest in New Hampshire went on to become president. Of the three remaining times, a runner-up in the state won the White House.
In other words, little hope for anyone coming third.
But the 2020 race remains wide open, with 11 candidates still chasing the Democratic Party’s nomination.
The national Democratic frontrunner, former vice president Joe Biden, is polling a distant third in New Hampshire, behind Senator Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“Most voters in New Hampshire, the overwhelming majority of voters, make up their mind during this week, and this weekend,” Bill Gardner, the state’s secretary of state since 1976, said in an interview in the capital Concord.
“Anything can happen here,” he said.
“And the person who won or didn’t win in Iowa, it doesn’t have a major impact on what happens here.”
Candidates are aware of the stakes, and how seriously Granite State voters take their role as the first to hold a US primary, and pour millions of dollars and attention into the race.
Several candidates — including Sanders, Buttigieg, and Senator Amy Klobuchar — have each hosted 65 or more campaign events in New Hampshire since June 2019.
Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang has held 95 events, while Senator Michael Bennett and congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, both longshots like Yang, have each met with voters in the state 97 times.
‘Hard time’ deciding
Polls show Sanders, a leftist who handily beat Hillary Clinton here in 2016 before ultimately losing the nomination to her, likely to win New Hampshire.
But independents are a potent political force in the state, whose motto famously is “Live Free or Die.”
New Hampshire has more independents than registered Democrats or Republicans, and they are allowed to vote in either primary, prompting both parties to campaign hard to attract their support.
“It can get overwhelming sometimes,” retiree Theresa McCormack, a registered Democrat from the town of Campton, said of the candidates’ relentless pre-primary campaigning.
“I think people are having a hard time in deciding which way to go, including myself,” she said while grabbing lunch on Lake Winnipesaukee.
The state is especially in the spotlight this year after Iowa’s caucus, in which participants publicly display their support for a candidate rather than vote by secret ballot, turned into a fiasco.
Amid concerns that the smartphone app — that failed to completely deliver Iowa results — had major security flaws, New Hampshire could help ease anxiety about the nomination process with a clean and clear result Tuesday.
Gardner, the guardian of New Hampshire’s primary, insisted Iowa’s snafu would never occur in his state.
“Everyone in New Hampshire votes on a paper ballot,” he said.
“You can’t hack a pencil.”