It's our first day in New Hampshire, primary elections are three days away and we are an hour early to see our first GOP candidate, Rick Santorum. The setting is a homey wooden barn, perched on the edge of the small New England town of Hollis. A van is already on location when we arrive, its C-SPAN letters marking clearly that we are now in the middle of 2012 presidential politics—the early stages, at least. For many of us on the trip, which is sponsored by the Department of Political Science, today was our first up-close-and-personal view of American primary politics. The trip was organized and is led by Professors David Green,Rosanna Perotti, Richard Himelfarb and several others, all enthusiastic to see this year's candidates at work.
"I wanted to get more involved with politics," said Danielle Natorski, a junior English major who was one of the almost 50 students signed up for the weekend trip. "I wanted to see the candidates up close, which is very important in this country."
Natorski and her friend, Jonathan Perrone, decided together that they would take the chance to see the political process.
"Just recently, in the last three years, I got into politics," Perrone said. "We saw this as a way to get into the political arena."
Although our group arrived early, Santorum did not take to the podium until he was a fashionable half an hour late. While we waited, we watched as the barn transformed from a simple meeting house to a packed room with cameras in every corner. Behind the podium, Hofstra students volunteered to help hang an American flag, and then watched minutes later as campaign staff fussed over different arrangements. At the front of the room, volunteers set out refreshments and tied patriotic balloons together; while to the rear, voters and "political tourists" stuffed the room, straining for a view over the line of TV cameras. The whole scene came together before our eyes, and then state senator Jim Luther initiated the crowd in local tradition.
"We are the true home of retail politics," he said, referring to the process by which candidates organize grass-roots meetings with voters. "We're not even going to look at [a candidate] if we haven't talked to him and shaked hands," said Luther, to eager cheers and applause.
Finally, Santorum entered after speaking to the crowd outside (who hadn't found room inside the barn), and the next hour was easily controversial and interesting. The difference between watching a speaker in person and on television was apparent from the energy of everyone in the room, as the barn's "town hall" image seemingly reinforced a desire to socialize with strangers and find out where they were from and why they had come. Our group found many friendly but curious neighbors, as voters wondered why we had come so far just to see one candidate (we hadn't, actually; our aim was to see at least five); I found myself personally engaged with talking to a woman who had directed a local campaign for McGovern in the ‘70s, but had since switched from the Democratic party over her dissatisfaction with Obama.
Santorum attempted to respond to actual New Hampshire voters, despite facing a mixed room of locals and out-of-state tourists, and at one point asked only those with state licenses to raise their hands. Overall, we heard a fair share of youths and adults from across New England. Sometimes questions came from supporters, but others were more aggressive: at one point, a Rhode Island teen asked Santorum how he could write "Faith" on his political posters while claiming to respect the division of church and state in the Constitution.
"This happens all the time," Santorum laughed, ignoring the teen's venom. "What words are in the Constitution? …Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion," he clarified, and pointed out that everyone is free to prize their faith.
In an hour, Santorum managed to address social security, suggesting that the age of retirement could be "moved forward" to reduce costs, and dwindling factories, siding with the Republican argument for less corporate taxes and less regulation. His views on abortion and same-sex marriage attracted considerably more attention and passion from the audience, as he placed the problem of abortion rights in how we define a legal "person"—interestingly enough, Santorum claimed he was "agnostic" on this issue at a younger age, but came to see a fetus as a human being through talking with his pediatrician father-in-law—and called marriage a heterosexual privilege (this was met with shouts of disagreement from across the room). All in all, it was hard to feel bored during the discussion, since very few people in the audience were too embarrassed to let their true fears or feelings be heard by everyone gathered around them.
A surprise treat and a second chance for questions
After the debate, the news that surprised us most was hearing that we should hurry back onto the bus, to hear Santorum address our questions in a more private setting. Sound travels terribly in our tiny coach bus, as opposed to the effective acoustics of the Hollis barn; but still, there was something very flattering and special about having this familiar candidate all to ourselves, even for a short while.
Etana Jacobi, a senior who is dual-majoring in Political Science and Global Studies, had the rare privilege to engage in a one-on-one argument with Santorum during his brief visit. Jacobi was the sole New Hampshire resident in the trip, making her eligible to vote in this week's primary, but was prevented from asking a question earlier in the night because she had been standing behind the candidate's podium.
"I wanted to ask him a direct question while we were listening to him, either about marriage or clean energy," she said. When she found out that Santorum would be taking questions on the bus, too, she seized the opportunity. "I wish I [had been] a little more eloquent, because I hadn't thought about my question sooner," she thought afterwards.
For Jacobi, the experience was an important chance to understand the candidate. Her intention, she said, was to hear from each and any Republicans with an open mind. But on clean energy and many other issues, she was disappointed with Santorum's preparation for the future.
"[Santorum] was beating around the bush. He said our air was clean and he's from Pennsylvania, so he understands that; but I've been to Pittsburgh, and you can't breathe the air."
Natorski, on the other hand, reacted more positively to the candidate and less so to his audience.
"[The meeting] was overwhelming, but kind of rude—people shouting out things, I thought that was rude," she said. "He went out of his way to do us a favor and come on our bus, and with questions being asked, that's fine; but he was kind of being attacked, which I think is rude to do to anybody."