MANCHESTER, N.H.—Living in Manchester during a presidential election year means witnessing the political process up close. It means having access to candidates from both parties in a way that is inconceivable to most of the country. It means putting party frontrunners over the edge and mercy-killing flagging campaigns.
It also means that finding parking is going to be intermittently shitty for six months.
“I keep trying to tell people, either you get up at the butt crack of dawn to get a spot or be prepared to pay for parking,” Vanessa Russell, a 25-year-old biology major, told me as she gestured toward the University of New Hampshire's packed parking lot.
Outside, a CNN bus stretched across several spaces. Satellite trucks were clustered in a lot across the street. NBC had taken over the available spots in front of a hotel a few blocks up.
New Hampshire holds the first primary in the nation, and is the second state in the country, after Iowa, where votes are cast. A strong showing here can mean an influx of donations, increased media attention, and the kind of momentum that carries campaigns to a nomination. It's the reason candidates of both parties spend so much time in New Hampshire, often starting as early as the July before an election year, and why low-polling Republican candidates like Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush have so much riding on what happens Tuesday.
But New Hampshire, like Iowa, is small. It is also 94% white. Its Latino population is 3.3%, compared with 17.7% nationally. People born outside the U.S. account for just 5.4% of the state population. New Hampshire's black population is also unrepresentative: 1.5% compared with 13.2% nationally.
What this all amounts to is a very small, very white state having a very large say in who should be the next president of the United States. That kind of influence is particularly striking as questions of racial justice, mass incarceration, and immigration have been front and center this election cycle. Because of New Hampshire’s homogeneity, the people and communities most affected by the racism of the criminal justice system or immigration policy just aren't there to make their voices heard when, say, Ted Cruz shows up to a diner to talk to the people having breakfast.
“I think our lack of diversity is very non-representative of the nation,” 24-year-old Amelia Keane, a biology major who chairs a student organization on urban sustainability, told me. “And because of that, the candidates we choose here aren't necessarily the national, I guess, standard."
I asked her how she felt about the state's political clout, and she paused to consider her answer. “I think it should put pressure on New Hampshire voters to be well-informed and be progressive thinkers,” she said. “Do I think that all New Hampshire residents necessarily feel that pressure, that it's tangible? No, probably not.”
Over the course of a mild Tuesday afternoon, I talked to several students about the upcoming elections, and all of them said some version of what Keane told me: New Hampshire's small size and lack of diversity made it an odd fit for such a powerful political position.
But that didn't mean they wanted to give it up.
New Hampshire isn’t first by accident: State law requires its primary be held at least seven days before "any other state shall hold a similar election." And over the years, the primary has moved up on the calendar, with lawmakers fiercely defending its early vote.
But for the students I spoke with, the whole thing seemed much more sentimental than strategic. It wasn’t that they wanted to—or felt better suited to—sway elections, it was just that they always had.
“When I was younger, it was more about, ‘We’re the first in the nation! We have the right to vote!’” Russell, the biology major who had joked about parking, said of growing up immersed in the tradition. “When I was in grade school, it was like, you go into the gym—they have little desks set up with fake ballots—they teach us all about how the system works, and then we vote.”
When I asked Christen Palange, a 20-year-old economics major who lives near Manchester, if she’d ever want to give up New Hampshire’s place as first in the nation, she was quick with an answer.
“No, definitely not,” she said.
For Markice Seignious, a soft-spoken biology major who seemed to know everyone in the student lounge, the campaign and media presence around the campus felt novel. “I moved here in September, so this is my first time being here for an election,” he said of the upcoming primary. “It feels good. It’s good energy.”
Seignious, 23, is from New York, but New Hampshire law allows students living in the state to vote in the primary if they register, which he plans to do.
“The amount of influence New Hampshire has as a state, I think it’s important to think nationally,” he told me when I asked about the homogeneity of primary voters. “If you have the power to do something, you might as well do it for the greater good of the country.”
I asked him what issues he was focused on this election, and what he thought others should be thinking about on Tuesday. “The social injustice going on in the United States,” he said. “That’s a big factor for me right now.” With the exception of Seignious, who is black, every student who I spoke to that day was white.
He told me he was optimistic that New Hampshire voters could think beyond their state border and take a wider view of what’s going on in the country, which was a sentiment shared by the other students as well.
Russell pointed to common ground between the concerns of New Hampshire voters and the rest of the country: "As a student, I think about the cost of education. And as a biology student who's focusing on environmental science, climate change is a big deal."
But getting out of her small New Hampshire town, she added, had definitely shifted her perspective on the state and its place in the election.
"It's crazy that this small state that I live in has such an impact on who will be the future leader of our country," she told me, sounding equal parts awestruck and skeptical. "I grew up in a really small town. It didn't really hit me until I started spending time with my stepfather's family in New York that I started to realize I had been raised in some sort of a bubble.”