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'Bernie's My Man!': On The Ground With New Hampshire Primary Voters

A blue and red diner.
Elodie Reed
Several days ahead of the New Hampshire primary, VPR headed to New Hampshire to take the temperature of primary voters there. What they're thinking about: Affordable healthcare, student loans and revitalizing unity in communities.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is no stranger to New Hampshire voters. Nearly four years ago, he won the state’s Democratic presidential primary with 61% of the vote. On Tuesday, he’ll face the same test, but this time after a better finish in Iowa.  

A couple days after the Iowa Caucus, I set out to speak with New Hampshire voters about Sanders and what’s driving them to vote in the Democratic primary this year. I visited two counties in the state that had very different results in the last presidential election.

First up: Rindge. Thetown historical society’s museum is in an old, white colonial-style home, with a barn attached. When I arrived with digital producer Elodie Reed, we were shown in not through the front door, but the side one in the boot room – which, apparently, is how it’s done in New Hampshire.

The Rindge museum is filled with artifacts ranging from the town charter, which was signed by King George III in 1768, to belt buckles and buttons excavated by town residents.

A white colonial home with a white barn.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
The very New England-y looking historical museum in the New Hampshire town of Rindge.

On Wednesday morning, a group of four sat around a small table in the museum’s kitchen, drinking coffee and eating homemade popovers. All of them have served the town at one time or another – as local election officials, at the fire department, on the select board. They invited us to sit and join them.

Rindge is in Cheshire County, in the southwestern part of New Hampshire. The county borders Vermont and Massachusetts. Educational services, manufacturing and retail are the main industries, and the median income is a little more than $68,000, which is lower than the state average.

Cheshire County is also where Bernie Sanders did the best in the 2016 Democratic primary, getting 70% of the vote. Though among the group at the Rindge museum, Amy Raymond is the only person solidly for Sanders.

A video portrait of four people around a small kitchen table.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
From left to right, Karl Pruter, Idema Harman, Amy Raymond and Karla McCloed at the Rindge museum.

“Bernie’s my man!” she told us. “I just think he’s great.”

The other Democrats in the room haven’t picked their candidate yet, or they’re at least unwilling to share. But one thing they agree on is, the Democrats need a candidate who can beat Donald Trump.

Karla McCloed said that makes it tough to pick one. 

“Do you go more conservative to try get more people, or go a little bit more liberal?” she wondered.

"We need to be more united ... We're torn apart right now." — Amy Raymond, Rindge, N.H.

Raymond chimes in: The field is too big and that’s hurting the party. 

“We need to be more united too by far than we are now,” she said. “We’re torn apart right now.”

In this divisive moment in politics, McCloed reminisced about Rindge’s past. 

“Because if you go back to when we were a real small town, it didn’t matter who you were. Everybody helped everybody out,” she said. “It didn’t matter who you voted for.”

Rind ge, N.H. used to be a smaller community than its current population of 6,000.

“It was more like family,” Raymond added.

Rindge has grown steadily since the 1970s, when the population was just over 2,000. Now the town is home to more than 6,000. Part of the growth was driven by Franklin Pierce University, a small liberal arts college that opened in the 1960s. 

Over at the university, Ishmael Johnson walks across campus in bright blue sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt. He’s a sophomore studying communications, and he said he likes the small, close community at the school. But it’s expensive.

“School costs a lot of money, especially going to a private school, this place is like 50K,” Johnson said.

A person wearing a blue sweatshirt.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Ishmael Johnson, a sophomore communications major at Franklin Pierce University.

Student debt is a big issue for Johnson, and that’s why he likes Sanders.

“He’s talking about bringing down student loans and also just helping the whole community out, not just the rich,” Johnson said.

And Johnson will get a chance to see his candidate on Monday – Sanders is scheduled to hold a town hall at Franklin Pierce.

A field overlooking a frozen pond.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Franklin Pierce University will be one of the many campaign stops for Bernie Sanders in the lead up to New Hampshire's presidential primary.

Not on Sanders’ campaign agenda, however, is the tiny town of Gilsum, about 45 minutes north of Rindge.

Gilsum has a population of about 800, and is known for its annual mineral and rock show. (As of Thursday, the next one is 142 days away, according to the countdown on the website run by town residents).

When we stopped to chat with a mailman, he told us he had delivered a lot of pamphlets for Tom Steyer, the billionaire running a campaign focused on the environment and getting money out of politics.  

But there were virtually no signs for any candidates around town. The general store, a usually reliable place to solicit political opinions, had closed a few weeks ago. 

A stone arch bridge over a river.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Gilsum's famed stone arch bridge, which was built in the 19th century using dry-stacked stones.

After striking out several homes and local businesses, the closest we got to talking with someone was at a house just off the main street. When a man walked out of a shed – he’d been working on one of the several tractors parked around his yard – we introduced ourselves as reporters from Vermont.

We told him we were interested in talking about the New Hampshire Primary, and let’s just say he was not.

“No, in fact I’m so disgusted with both sides, I have nothing to say,” he said. “I don’t like Trump, don’t like anyone in the Democrats.”

"No, in fact I'm so disgusted by both sides, I have nothing to say. I don't like Trump, don't like anyone in the Democrats." — Gilsum, N.H. resident *not* interested in talking primary politics

In New Hampshire’s 2016 Republican primary, President Trump garnered the most support in Rockingham County, 39% of votes there. It’s in the southeast, has a bigger population and is considered the commerce hub of southern New Hampshire. Sanders also won that county in the 2016 Democratic primary, though by a smaller margin than elsewhere in the state.

See county-by-county results from the 2016 New Hampshire Primary for the top vote-getters in both parties: Bernie Sanders (Democratic) and Donald Trump (Republican).

Lots of candidates have come through and eaten eggs while campaigning at Mary Ann’s diner in Derry. The restaurant is a throwback to the 1950s, with old doo-wop and rock songs playing, checked red floors and waitresses in poodle skirts.

Two people in pink poodle skirts stand behind a counter, at which another person sits sipping a mug of coffee.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Mary Ann's Diner waitresses Susann Ingalls, left, and Olivia Mackie, center, serve up customers in Derry, N.H., including Brian Murray, right, who dug into a plate of Irish eggs.

In the corner booth by a wide window, we met Holly McDonald and Courtaney Newbury.  Both women are nurses and work nights. Newbury had just gotten off a 12-hour shift. 

“This is our go-to place,” she said. “They also serve mimosas in the morning, which is real cool, sometimes you just need a mimosa or two after work.”

Healthcare is a big issue for both women. The two said they see people struggle to access and afford care every day on the job.

Two people sit together in a diner booth and smile.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Nurses Courtaney Newbury, left, and Holly McDonald, right, at Mary Ann's Diner in Derry, N.H., where they like to go for breakfast and mimosas after working their night shifts.

“But money is the big one,” Newbury said. “The first thing [people say], ‘How much is that going to cost me? How much does it cost for that scan?’ I don’t know, unfortunately, I don’t.”

“But that’s not part of our job as nurses, either, which is really unfortunate, we just want to care for people, make sure they're healthy” McDonald said.

Both she and Newbury agreed: It’s very disheartening when a patient’s first question is: Is there another, more affordable test?

A row of quarter machines.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
For nurses Holly McDonald and Courtaney Newbury, they'd like to see a presidential candidate run on a platform of improving healthcare through education about healthier living.

Neither of them think “Medicare For All,” a plan supported in various forms by Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would work. McDonald said the way to start fixing the healthcare system is to provide people more education on things like eating well and exercise. 

“We need to help people stay healthier longer, and then if you’re healthier, you don’t need access to all these things and you don’t overwhelm the system,” she said.

McDonald and Newbury are planning to vote on Tuesday in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary. But they haven’t made up their mind on a candidate – they said they’ve been too busy working.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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