The Hippo


May 25, 2020








Diner moments
How local places become fixtures on the presidential retail politics circuit

By Ryan Lessard

Presidential campaigns stick to a safe formula when it comes to their New Hampshire visits, making pit stops at popular restaurants and diners to chat with regular people, shake a lot of hands — and potentially earn a few votes.
Hot spots
Neil Levesque, the executive director of Saint Anselm’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics and the chair of the New Hampshire Presidential Primary Centennial Anniversary Commission, says there are several familiar restaurants, stores and other businesses that candidates for president will frequent during an election cycle. They include places like the Red Arrow Diner, the Puritan Backroom and Chez Vachon in Manchester.
“If you’re at the Backroom for lunch, it’s not gonna take very long before you see someone who’s a high-rank elected official or presidential candidate, and that’s kind of exciting,” Levesque said.
So far this year, Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett has already been visited by candidates like former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Diners are particularly popular. In addition to the Red Arrow and Chez Vachon, candidates will visit Joey’s Diner in Amherst, the Pink Cadillac Diner in Rochester, MaryAnn’s Diner in Derry and the Airport Diner in Manchester. And up until its closing in 2008, the Merrimack Diner in Manchester had racked up an impressive list of candidate visits.
MaryAnn’s owner Christina Andreoli thinks campaigns like diners because of the type of people they find there.
“I think it’s just because you get a lot of ... variety. If you were to go to a steakhouse, you’re just gonna have people that can afford that,” Andreoli said. “In a diner type of atmosphere, you get everybody. You get mothers, you get senior citizens, you get people who are working that are on their lunch break.”
She said campaign visits began at her diner about 10 years ago.
“It started originally because somebody who was campaigning, and I can’t remember who it was, but they had called the chamber of commerce and asked for a good place to go that would have a lot of different types of people and a lot of people around that they could come in and shake hands with,” Andreoli said. “They were told that MaryAnn’s was a good place, and it seems everyone’s followed suit. It becomes a bigger deal every year, and now we’re just kinda known for it.”
So far, Andreoli said, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Christie and Graham have visited the diner.
“Funny story is, nobody that’s been in has actually won,” Andreoli said. “We did have Bill Clinton in, but it was after he had already been president.”
Candidates also pay visits to breweries in the state and tour small factory floors or the chic office spaces of tech companies like Dyn in Manchester. Last July, Graham even visited the Bedford town dump. As far as anyone knows, that was a first for a presidential candidate.
But, for the most part, candidates stick to small to medium-sized businesses. And that’s not by mistake. When asked in a recent Gallup poll which institutions people have the most confidence in, respondents scored small businesses very highly. That category received the second-highest score after the military with 67 percent saying they had either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in it. To put that in perspective, it scored higher than the church or organized religion, police, the medical system and the presidency.

Planning visits
Levesque has worked in politics for more than 15 years. He says some visits or public events require more planning than others. He has a personal hand in planning the popular Politics & Eggs events that attract presidential candidates or, between election seasons, other politicians and academics to give keynote speeches. Rand Paul’s appearance at the event on Aug. 11 marks the 11th Republican candidate out of nearly 20 to use the event as a platform for both media exposure and connecting with the who’s who of New Hampshire. So far, the only Democrat to appear this year has been former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
A new event organized by the Concord City Republican Committee called Politics & Pie has already gained national recognition. Six candidates for president, plus one potential candidate who decided not to run, have already appeared and eaten pie while meeting with voters. Kerry Marsh, the chair of the committee, said they took the summer off but plan on inviting more candidates soon.
House parties are another common campaign stop and some homes seem to be more popular than others. BAE executive and former candidate for Congress Rich Ashooh and his wife Lori have invited candidates like Bush and Graham to their home along with members of the public and the media to see the candidates in a more intimate setting.
Levesque says retail politics require somewhat less deliberate planning but that doesn’t mean campaigns leave everything up to chance.
“The campaign managers are risk-averse, so they’ll call the diner and say, we’re gonna come by at this time and keep it a secret, and then sometimes they’ll tip off a bunch of supporters so they’ll kinda be sitting there,” Levesque said. “But you’re gonna get regular people too.”
And those regular people can often lay waste to a candidate’s carefully laid plans. Levesque recalls one infamous stop by Mitt Romney at Chez Vachon in 2011. He sat with a veteran who asked Romney about his stance on gay marriage. Romney, of course, said he believed marriage was between a man and a woman. Little did Romney realize that the veteran next to him was gay and the man sitting across from him was his partner. The whole episode was recorded by a flock of reporters.
“That was a sort of diner moment,” Levesque said.
Usually, a candidate doesn’t stay too long at one place or talking to a single person. The faster they move, the less chance of embarrassment.
“What usually happens is a candidate goes through, shakes a few hands, there’s a lot of media that usually follows behind, and you can see them doing retail politics,” Levesque said. “But there’s a lot of places that say, ‘We don’t allow politicking going on here.”
That’s why Levesque said it’s usually a good idea to get permission from proprietors first.
“You don’t want to have a candidate walk through the door and then be told to leave,” Levesque said.
Generally speaking, big-name politicians don’t get turned away, Levesque says. Store and restaurant owners often like having the gravitational pull of celebrity in their midst.
As far as how campaigns know which places to target, that’s when the expertise of the local party committee comes into play.
“Usually, your town chairs will be very helpful in organizing that,” Levesque said. “If you are coming in through Amherst, you’ll know that Joey’s Diner is a place that is usually friendly to this and ... the town chair sometimes will go in and check with the owner and make sure it’s OK.”
Levesque says most places are not exclusively open to particular political parties, but some are. He believes some apple orchards lean more Democratic, and NHPR recently reported that Geno’s Chowder and Sandwich shop in Portsmouth is considered a haven for Republicans amid an otherwise Democratic city. But even though the Backroom is owned by Chris Pappas, a Democratic Executive Councilor with higher political aspirations, both Democrats and Republicans are welcome to come in and mingle with patrons. 

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