Primary Night on Elm Street

A nightmare assignment finally draws to a close

NEW HAMPSHIRE — Rich Girard, former Manchester alderman, is the host of Girard at Large, a Manchester-based current events talk show that broadcasts every weekday on 1250 AM. Tonight—primary night—Girard is hosting a fifteen-hour broadcast that’s simulcast on Manchester Public Television. Around five o’clock, when I duck into the MPT’s fourth-floor studio off of Elm Street, the city’s main drag, Girard is feeling the strain of an already-long day. Alongside three panelists and an assortment of special guests, Girard is talking election returns, with a local focus. “This hour is sponsored by the Manchester City Republican Committee,” Girard says. “Go to manchestercityrepublicancommittee dot com. I’ve been getting it wrong all day, saying dot org.”

“I think it’s supposed to be dot org,” says one panelist.

“Well,” says Girard, “we’ll find out.”

The simulcast is a low-budget affair. The studio is one big open room with the set in one corner, the board operator/technical director/phone answerer in another, and the cameras in the middle. People walk in and out of the studio at random (like me!). There is plenty of off-camera talking, and I suspect that listeners can hear it at home. Girard and his tables sit at a pair of desks set at a ninety-degree angle. Whenever a new guest arrives, one of the existing panelists has to give up his seat in order to make room.

Nevertheless, the resource limitations don’t prevent Girard and his guests from talking seriously about primary politics and the issues at stake. “There’s nothing better to my mind than a substantive… substantial?” Girard fumbles for the right word. Joe, the board operator, chimes in: “Substantive.”

Substantive,” repeats Girard. “Well, I only got up at 3:30 this morning. A substantive discussion on the issues.”

They’re doing their best, and they’re keeping things fresh. New guests show up every twenty minutes or so: gubernatorial candidates, local dignitaries, state senators. Vote counts from various towns and wards are announced as they come in. Near six o’clock, a special treat: “Mayor Ted Gatsas has arrived!” The mayor, a hearty man, is a Romney backer. Why? “He looks presidential, he walks presidential, he talks presidential, and he’s a leader!” 6:00 chimes. Two hours until all the statewide polls close, and the night is just beginning for Rich Girard.

Five minutes away, on the other side of Elm Street, the Radisson in downtown Manchester has also become a broadcast hub. While I just walked right in to Girard at Large unannounced and sat there for ninety minutes, I’ll have no such luck here. The NBC staff have assumed control of half the lobby, literally cordoning themselves off with a red velvet rope and engaging a private security guard to patrol the entrance to their space. (If I were a paying customer of this hotel, I would be angry at this limitation of my lobby access. But then, all the paying customers are probably rival journalists or campaign staff.) They’ve constructed a rudimentary set in front of a fireplace in the corner, and Lawrence Kudlow is sitting in it, yelling into the camera for no particular reason. Dan Rather and HDNet have another room off the lobby with another security guard. I guess if I were Dan Rather, I would want a security guard, too.

One flight up, overlooking the NBC encampment, the mezzanine Radio Row is busier than ever, with broadcasters setting up shop in various conference rooms: Sirius XM, The Jeff Santos Show on Revolution Radio Network, NRA Radio, the Guetzloe Report with Doug Guetzloe (weekdays 11 to noon on 1190 AM). This last room is shared by a bunch of programs; at the front, a flipboard lists what I’m assuming are guests who have already passed through: Jackie Gingrich Cochran, Rep. Michael Grimm, Michael Meehan - Candidate (“Goliath never saw us coming!”). I feel sorry for Doug Guetzloe.

In the Dartmouth Room, Dan Rea, host of NightSide with Dan Rea on Boston’s WBZ-AM, takes callers and talks politics. Rea, a jovial man in a red Boston University sweatshirt who looks suspiciously like Manchester mayor Ted Gatsas, transitions into a top-of-the-hour news break by dispatching an attitudinous caller who insisted on delivering a speech in an insufficiently conversational manner. “Chris was a brand-new caller. He didn’t know how to play the game,” declares Rea, who comes over to chat as the WBZ update man gives listeners an overview of the primary returns.

“Rachel Maddow was in here the other night,” he notes. Not as a guest, though—she was there to confront Rick Santorum, who was appearing on Rea’s program. Apparently Maddow had been chasing Santorum for days, intent on ambushing the avowed social conservative with a hard-hitting question about contraception. “She finally caught him,” says Rea. (Rick Santorum is not hard to find.) Over the PA, a WBZ reporter at the Santorum primary night event says there are as many reporters there as there are voters.

Back on Elm Street, three candidates are holding their own primary night parties. Jon Huntsman, who couldn’t buy coverage two weeks ago, has a priority press list, which I’m not on. I get in anyway, though, and retreat to the bar’s basement after picking my way through the camera-thronged, press-pass-wearing horde. The room is too small to fit all the journalists who are there, which, if you think about it, is sort of a metaphor for the entire Huntsman campaign.

Newt Gingrich has the opposite problem: a room too large for the size of the unexpectedly small crowd. In the center ballroom of the Radisson, the reporters almost outnumber the Gingrich partisans as a band called Tuxedo Junction exhorts people to “get down, boogie-oogie-oogie-oogie.” Their pleas go unheeded by most everyone besides a cameraman with red tennis shoes, who is furiously tapping his feet to the rhythm. A man toting a sign equating Gingrich to a zombie plants himself in front of the camera dais, and nobody cares enough to remove him.

Buddy Roemer, who is, I think, the only CJR Twitter follower in the GOP field (vote Buddy!), holds an election returns party at JW Hill’s sports bar. Say what you will about his campaign prospects, Buddy’s party certainly has the best supporter-to-media ratio—I count no more than five journalists at the bar; the other fifteen or so people are true blue Roemer fans. Buddy, so far alone among the candidates in actually being at his own party, sits calmly eating a hamburger. “We’re hoping to beat Rick Perry,” says Roemer’s New Hampshire coordinator, Chris Buck. “Wouldn’t that be something?” By 9:30 or so, Buddy is trailing “total write-ins” by eighty-five votes. (Roemer eventually beat out the write-in field—and Michele Bachmann—though he ended up with barely half of Perry’s meager total. You’ll have to click the “show all” tab on The New York Times’s full results page to see him listed.)

Attending these parties feels like a reunion of sorts, with all the people you’ve seen spread out over the trail—Hey, it’s that CNN reporter who talks really loud! Look, it’s that woman from the sports bar in Concord! Wow, it’s that guy who’s always looking for a place to sit!—come together to celebrate the end of this nightmare assignment before moving on to the next stop on the soul-deadening campaign grind. At 10 p.m., with Romney a clear victor and most of the candidates already on their ways to South Carolina, the night comes to a premature end. The parties break up and, for a minute, Elm Street becomes a stream of reporters flowing through downtown Manchester, washing away all the pomp and excitement of the past month. Before heading home, I try to stop back in at the Girard at Large studios, but the door is locked. Apparently Rich ended early, too. I hope he got some sleep.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.