Continuing our Town Hall tours—in which CJR talks to voters, partly to encourage other journalists to do so, too—I visited Portsmouth, NH, in the southeastern corner of a swing state that backed the president four years ago. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll at the end of September showed Obama leading in New Hampshire by seven percentage points. As of this week, Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight blog on The New York Times website gives an “adjusted polling average” advantage to Obama of 1 percent.
What was on voters’ minds as they walked around Market Square in Portsmouth, sat in the lively cafes, shopped in the boutiques? As I went about my work, interviewing locals, I found people worried about everything from gay marriage to women’s health, and more about the economy and their own retirements.
Margaret Messer was dashing off to her car but she stopped to talk. She lives in nearby Stratham and works across the border in Massachusetts as an executive assistant at a high-tech firm, a job she landed five years ago after a short spell of unemployment. “I took the job in high-tech, thinking that’s where the money is,” she said. “I did not realize my pay would be frozen for five years.” Her expenses, she says, have shot up while her income has been flat. When Messer began commuting to Massachusetts—10 to 12 hours a week—a gallon of gasoline cost about $2.50; now, she says, it’s close to $4.
Messer, 47, is a registered Republican and will vote for Romney. “I’m not happy with Obama’s war, or the way things have gone economically,” she said. But then she has never voted for a Democrat. “It’s not that I don’t like Obama,” she wanted me to know. “I respect he’s our president. Like most Americans I’m just frustrated with the economy right now.” What should Obama have done, I asked? “I don’t know,” Messer said. “ I’m sure he’s asked himself that. Maybe he can bring more jobs back to America. I just know something has to be fixed.”
What would Romney do, I probed further. “I think he will try. Time will tell. I don’t know what the answer is.” She had not heard of Romney’s comment about the 47 percent who pay no taxes and allegedly devour government help. She confessed she has little time to watch TV or read the newspaper because of the 10 to 12 hours a week she spends commuting.
And she has not paid attention to Medicare or Social Security issues. “Maybe in 20 years I will,” Messer said. As for Social Security, she said she would not rely on it. “It could be gone before I retire. It’s a possibility. I have to rely only on me.” What money would she rely on? “I have a 401(k) and the equity in my house,” she replied.
Carol, an elementary school principal who lives about 45 miles from Portsmouth, was doing some shopping in a kitchen store when she agreed to chat. Now 60, she spent her career in education—first as a classroom teacher and for the last 18 years as an administrator, a job she likes a lot. Still, retirement is on her mind; she just doesn’t know when. Carol, who wouldn’t give her last name, said that the New Hampshire Department of Education had warned teachers that their pensions from the school districts would be inadequate to live on. We will need supplemental income, she told me. What about Social Security? She thinks the age for getting it will eventually rise: “My kids are going to have to work longer,” Carol said.
She told me that her husband’s business was not in good shape, and Carol offered a glimpse of what the sour economy has done to some small firms. He’s an auto repair specialist and his business is “stagnant. It’s month-to-month, week-to-week, which is hard when you have employees,” she said. Why was the business so bad? “When people get insurance checks for auto repairs,” she explained, “they use the checks to feed their families. You can’t blame them.”