Setting the stage – Campaign rallies in small-town New Hampshire

By Maren Schäfer

On a sunny Saturday morning, I made my way up to Hollis, New Hampshire. It was early fall and the leaves had started to change. The highway and back roads were fairly empty, winding through forests and occasionally lined with New England-style houses. It was a pleasant ride and I reached my destination in the early afternoon. I arrived at what looked, at first glimpse, like a farm-style wedding venue: a barn outside of town, surrounded by fields and forests, complete with a lawn full of white folding chairs.

Campaign rally venue in Hollis, NH. Credit: Maren Schäfer.

The next day, another sunny morning, I drove further north to another small town: Plymouth, New Hampshire. This time, my destination was Plymouth State University. The campus, which is located in the middle of town near a small river, is a collection of brick stone buildings. As I made my way to the venue, little hints pointed at the event that had come to town: an information board in front of the local church, soon followed by lawn signs and, in the heart of the campus, a security checkpoint and a stage.

View on Plymouth Congregational Church and Plymouth State University, NH. Credit: Maren Schäfer.

Each town was host to one of the top Democratic primary contenders: Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders. Both settings were representative of what the two the candidates’ campaigns wanted to achieve: approachability over policy, personal not political. But while Elizabeth Warren’s event seemed more capable of conveying this feeling, Sanders’ event had a certain over-rehearsed and formal quality to it, despite an audience of less than 100 people.

Both politicians are campaigning to become the Democratic Party’s candidate for the 2020 presidential election. The presidential primary elections and caucuses are a part of the process by which parties in the United States nominate candidates for presidential elections. They are held in each of the country’s states, the District of Columbia, as well as United States territories. The next candidate for the Democratic Party will have to run against Donald Trump, a challenge many are willing to take on. The field of Democratic presidential candidates is historically large. Initially, over 25 Democrats were in the race, with the number now down to 17. Warren and Sanders are among the frontrunners: Behind former Vice President Joe Biden at 26%, polls indicate that support for Warren is around 21% and 14% for Sanders.

The primaries and caucuses, which will determine who wins the nomination, are staggered. Some states hold primaries or caucuses as early as January or February, others around mid-June. States which hold primaries early therefore claim a greater influence on the nomination process. These include less populous states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, while larger states such as California traditionally hold their primary elections in June, only very shortly before the general election in November. Neither New Hampshire nor Iowa are representative of the United States as a whole because they are more rural, wealthier, and less ethnically and racially diverse than the national average. Thus, primary election and caucus results are not necessarily representative for country-wide voter preferences.

I’m here because I want to give fair consideration to all candidates on the Democratic side.

(Audience member)

Because primaries and caucuses are staggered, candidates can focus on one area of the country at a time. In smaller and less populous states, they can campaign on a more personal level. For example, Sanders had scheduled three rallies in New Hampshire college towns in just one day (only two days prior to his heart attack), all of which have a population of around 10,000 inhabitants (Plymouth, Henniker, and Hanover, NH). Thus, voters can potentially see more contenders in person. Not only can they inform themselves about a candidate’s agenda, but, more importantly for many, they can get a personal impression of what they are like. When I attended campaign rallies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, I met avid supporters as well as interested citizens who wished to learn more about the respective candidate. One woman told me: “The whole idea of electability… if everybody took that as what they used to determine, then you wouldn’t necessarily get your best candidate. So, you have to go with your gut. That’s why we come here. It’s better than the debate stage” (audience member).

Both Warren and Sanders seemed to frame their performances and policy agendas based on which impression they wanted to make on their New Hampshire audience. This included the rally’s venue and its organization, the way supporters set the stage for Warren and Sanders as well as how they ended the event.


She has ambitious plans but if she only gets something done, that would already be more than others.

(Audience member)
Audience before Senator Warren entered the stage in Hollis, NH. Credit: Maren Schäfer.

At Warren’s rally, I met people of all ages, with most being 40 years or older. With regard to the volunteers, many seemed in their twenties or older than 60. Those who attended the event were middle- or upper middle-class (for example, I talked to retired Kodak managers, Political Science professors, lawyers, and school teachers), many of which were well-travelled. Most of them were familiar with Warren’s policy agenda but, while some were avid supporters, I spoke to many who were there to get a personal impression of the senator and to learn more about her policy plans.

Because Sanders’ rally was on a college campus, many of the attendants were students or parents of students. Therefore, the majority of audience members were in their early twenties. When talking to them, many said that they vaguely knew what Sanders was fighting for and considered the rally an opportunity to learn more about his policy agenda: “I’m not necessarily supporting him, I’m here just to inform myself. I love his energy, I love his concern, you know, for the common man” (audience member). Among those not studying at Plymouth State University were college professors, teachers, and military veterans. Several people had a personal reason to support Sanders: “I’m a combat veteran of the Iraq war and when I got home, he helped me get my benefits, he helped me navigate the VA system, give me health care. He’s just a great guy. I mean, we’ve met him in Vermont, and you know, shook his hand, you know, he’s just a regular guy” (audience member). While most people were from the area, a few had even come down from Vermont to see “their senator” speak and to meet him in person.  

Venue and Organization

While both rallies were well-organized, the venues indicated different target audiences and intentions. As described above, Warren’s rally took place outside of Hollis, NH. Signs guided the attendants to several parking lots. On the lawn behind a barn, volunteers had set up white folding chairs. An American flag had been strapped to the side of the barn and tables with refreshments had been prepared. I waited in line, chatting with the people in front of and behind me, while volunteers walked around, registering us for the event and asking for potential new volunteers. An hour prior to Warren’s scheduled speech, we were allowed to enter the lawn in groups of 10, filling the rows of chairs one by one. We sat in the late-afternoon sun, chatting. It was a very casual atmosphere which felt fitting for an older, middle-class audience.

Announcement of Bernie Sanders’ campaign rally in Plymouth, NH. Credit: Maren Schäfer.

Sanders’ rally was on a college campus in the middle of town. With signs and volunteers pointing to it, the location was easy to find. Plenty of parking was available a few minutes’ walk outside of campus. There was a short line for a security check and computers were available for electronic check-in to the event. Upon entering the restricted area, volunteers handed out signs and stickers to hold up during the rally. In the middle of a small square, which looked like a miniature amphitheater, with a semi-circle of staggered steps, volunteers had set up a stage, which was surrounded by fencing. That, in addition to the security check, created an awareness that such events can be potentially dangerous, especially if the candidate is as popular as Bernie Sanders, because the set-up indicated concern about attacks on the senator. While the rally seemed more formal and professionally organized and less personal than I had expected in a smaller college location, people seemed cheerful and excited, sitting on the steps and chatting with each other.

Setting the Stage

A volunteer shares her personal story. Credit: Maren Schäfer.

Both politicians set the stage with carefully chosen stories told by locals and relating to their main message for the event. For instance, Warren was introduced by Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color to be elected to Congress from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Following stories of two young women, one sharing her struggles as a working mother and the other her experiences of paying for her mother’s health treatment, Pressley again focused on the issues of strong women and health insurance in her speech, thus setting the stage for Warren.

I think it’s really important that people have access to health care and they don’t have to pay 24,000 a year just to remain in good health. Cause people can’t afford that, they can’t.

(Audience member)
A volunteer shares her personal story. Credit: Maren Schäfer.

Sanders, too, chose to let others prime the audience for his speech. One girl described her envy of European students’ tuition-free college experience while being abroad as a Model UN-delegate, another described how she was unable to continue studying because her parents needed the money for her mother’s treatment.  In between, a young man played the guitar, creating a more cheerful atmosphere. During the breaks and while the music was playing in the background, including songs such as “Power to the People”, the stage was set for Sanders. Thus, both candidates primed their audience with locals’ personal stories. These were selected based on what would resonate with the audience at the particular rally and the highlights about which both would talk in their speeches.

The “Personal Moment”

She was funnier than expected, funnier than in debates. People actually laughed at her jokes.

(Audience member)

Warren ended her event with her now infamous selfie line, a well-organized process of posing for selfies with throngs of excited supporters, eager to have a personal moment with the senator. While standing in line myself, I talked to other attendants of the campaign rally. Many were positively surprised by the candidate, saying that “She has much more energy than for example Biden, despite being the same age” and that, “if she only got a little bit of her agenda done, it would already be something” (audience members).

Selfie line at Warren’s campaign rally in Hollis, NH. Credit: Maren Schäfer.

The energy from him is cool, refreshing for his age.

(Audience member)
Bernie Sanders shaking audience members hands after his rally in Plymouth, NH. Credit: Maren Schäfer.

At first, it seemed as if Bernie Sanders would handle things in a more formal way. He closed his speech with a call to action: “We need profound change. We need you involved in political struggle. Let’s go out there and do it!” Right after, he seemed to be immediately leaving for his next event. Many were keen on talking to him and rushed over to the exit in hopes of catching him before leaving. This seemed to make him change his mind. Sanders walked along the fencing to shake hands with everyone and to thank them for their support. After the event, especially younger people, students of Plymouth State University, got a positive impression of the senator: “he doesn’t let his age bother him … the guy comes out and gives a 110% even though he’s old” and “… he is a normal person with very normal ideas and he’s actually trying to make them happen. That’s kinda what inspires me: Anybody can be him, because he is like everybody” (audience members).

Due to differences in the candidates’ political agendas as well as their reputations, many of Sanders’ supporters at the rally in New Hampshire would not vote for Warren and vice versa. Elizabeth Warren has struggled with her past claim of being part Native American. She’s still fighting accusations of having taken advantage of minority rights for her own benefit. While Warren denies this and has apologized, the negative image has stuck with many people. For example, supporters of Sanders said they cannot trust her:

I think it’s wonderful that he speaks his mind and he stands behind what he says. I think that’s really important and makes him more trustworthy as a candidate. … As opposed to anyone really, Trump, anyone of them. Even Biden and Elizabeth Warren. I can’t trust them like I can him.

(Audience member)

At the same time, many supporters of Warren told me at her rally that they would not vote for Sanders. When asked about the reason for this, they answered: “He does not have a plan” and “not another white old man” (audience members). Some even went so far to say:“I may not agree with him but if you don’t listen you’ll never understand him. So, I listen just to understand. Probably the only way I would ever vote for Bernie Sanders would be if Trump was the only other option” (audience member).

Elizabeth Warren at a campaign rally in Hollis, NH. Credit: Maren Schäfer.

Overall, most people enjoyed the events and particularly the personal contact with the candidates. The campaign rallies had not only given them the opportunity to learn more about the candidates’ policy proposals but also to meet them in person. Yet, the events differed in which agenda the candidates seemed to pursue. One of the reasons for this might be that, for Warren, it is the first time running for the presidency. She spent the first half of her speech on her personal story, introducing herself to the audience and conveying approachability. The rally’s atmosphere was a familiar one, with friends and neighbors alike sharing in stories, almost as if out for a picnic. Warren’s appearance was equally casual; taking the stage in a sea breeze-colored cardigan over a simple black t-shirt wearing sunglasses, she first introduced her husband Bruce and dog Bailey.

Sanders, over the cheers of his supporters, jumped right into his long-term demands, starting with the one most relevant for his audience that day: student-loan debt and affordable higher education. He did so in a setting that was formal considering the location and size of the audience (less than 100 people attended the rally). Wearing a dark-blue suit only added to that impression. However, it seemed to underline his long-term experience as a politician. Within a more professional setting, his passionate speech still resonated with the audience.

Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Plymouth, NH. Credit: Maren Schäfer.

I am glad I made my way up to New Hampshire on that sunny weekend. I had the chance to witness two potential Democratic candidates and to gain inside knowledge for my own research on the extent to which political rhetoric resonates with audiences. And who knows, I may well have shaken hands with the next President of the United States.

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