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.”
Carol made it clear she would vote for Romney. “He has a better sense of the economy and investment,” she told me. “Some of the things he’s said are misunderstood. He’s not for the rich, really. What he says has been taken out of context. He’s for putting Americans back to work, and keeping the welfare numbers down.” She is convinced that Romney “has the know-how to get those opportunities for people.” She likes Paul Ryan, too. “Ryan has strong feelings,” she said. “I’m okay with him.”
Kathy Guerriero, 50, has the opposite politics. She calls herself a “diehard Democrat,” who met Obama a few weeks ago when he campaigned in New Hampshire. She was in a park in Rochester, where she lives, and some official asked her to go to the front and talk to the president. “He shook my hand, and I said, ‘Teachers love you,’ and he said, ‘We love teachers, too.’” The experience thrilled her.
Guerriero has been a special education teacher for 28 years and considers herself lucky to have found a teaching job this summer, since she is a newcomer to the state. Teaching jobs are hard to find, she said, because New Hampshire teachers tend to stay put for a long time.
“I just feel Mr. Romney is not in touch with middle class people—the working people of America,” she told me. “I wouldn’t vote for Romney if he were the last man on earth. He can’t do anything for me as a woman or as an educator or a middle class American.
“I’m nervous he will tax the middle class,” she added. Guerriero said that women’s healthcare “concerns me a lot. I’m concerned about all women in America. I don’t like that old white men in Washington DC should be telling women what they should do.”
As for Medicare, Guerriero told me her 92-year-old mother was on the program and it was valuable to her. “I think Romney will make cuts to Medicare. I just believe that. He frightens me.”
Culbert, a 67-year-old corporate lawyer from Boston, was spending the day in Portsmouth with his wife. He was sitting outside Starbucks waiting for his wife to return from shopping. He liked Portsmouth, he said, because of its nice mix of people. Culbert was happy to talk, though more about his home state than about New Hampshire.
He’s a Kennedy Democrat supporting Obama and “very much” a supporter of Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. Why? “She’s intelligent. I like her agenda—proactive, middle class values, and peoples’ rights.” Culbert thought that Scott Brown “has done a pretty good job but he’s nowhere near her level of intelligence.”
What worries him about Brown returning to the Senate, he said, is that he will become a reliable Republican vote that could stymie the Democratic agenda.
“Brown has been on a temporary assignment,” Culbert said. “We need Democrats in the Senate to support the Democrat point of view. I think if he got in he would be a full-fledged Republican.”
Why Obama, I asked? “Obama has done a very good job under very difficult and trying circumstances, with polarization and bias,” Culbert explained. He thought that the president had tried to go the extra mile and meet people in a centrist position.
Still, “I’ve been disappointed with some of the things Obama has not accomplished and his inability to move his agenda along,” Culbert said. Medicare is not a factor in his decision to support the president. “The Medicare issue is a fog no one has been able to penetrate. It’s bound up with healthcare cost increases, and until they are resolved Medicare won’t be resolved.” He wasn’t worried about Paul Ryan’s voucher plan, because he doubts it will happen. “It would be difficult to put that level of program in place,” he said.
We discussed press coverage of the election. “I have almost stopped listening to the political ads and the stories on PBS. I turn it off and tune it out. I’m not going to be influenced by them. I think most people feel that way.” As I put my notebook away to leave, Culbert had a comment about Mitt Romney. “He’s out of touch with the difficulties and the responsibilities so many Americans have to face,” Culbert said.
One man I met—he was minding his toddler son—declined to give his name. He is 36 and works in higher education. We spoke quickly and, like Culbert, he has made up his mind: “I’m an Independent,” he said. “And I will likely vote Democratic.”
He voted for Obama in the last election. What were the deciding issues for him? “The Democrats are better on social issues, like gay marriage,” he said. “That should be a non-issue.”
Word on the street in Massachusetts: Divided