Behind a primary’s pageantry, a portrait of polarization

The pageantry of politics celebrated across the frozen terrain of New Hampshire every four years unfolded this week, officially kicking off what portends to be one of the most fateful and divisive national elections in the history of the United States.

While the stakes are high in this election, America is only one of more than 50 countries around the world where critical and divisive challenges on issues as wide ranging as immigration, housing and foreign policy will play a large role in national and regional elections, and where it feels like the existence of democracy itself is on the line. Voters will be testing some of the most robust democracies in the world as authoritarian candidates are poised to make big gains.

Indeed, 4 billion people, or more than half the planet’s population, is eligible to vote in national elections in countries including India, Pakistan, Russia, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Mexico and El Salvador. In these countries, as in America, misinformation and disinformation too often fuel the fires of dissension and fear and contribute to what has become a global phenomenon: polarization.

In America and around the world, journalists will be in the field covering these elections and hopefully serving as watchdogs against this phenomenon. It is often the local reporters who have their ear most closely to the ground, and who are likely to hear the tremors of change that will emerge from cities and towns and small villages.

This week, two of our Report for America corps members were on the ground in New Hampshire serving their local communities with daily coverage of the first-of-the-nation presidential primary, giving their readers insights into what is coming in the next few months of campaigns.

Valley News photographer, Alex Driehaus, who is in her third year as a corps member with Report for America, has not only her ear to the ground but her eyes searching for what she calls “the moments in between.” She searches for them in a Toyota RAV4 with 4-wheel drive and a pair of Canon 5D cameras, one with a short lens and the other with a longer one. She is out there in search of the quiet images that are unguarded and that she believes can metaphorically capture a deeper truth of a big moment like the primary.

As the hordes of national media moved in on New Hampshire for the presidential primary as they do for this pageantry, or perhaps circus is the better phrase, every four years, Alex watched her colleagues from big national media outlets and noticed that their focus is not really on the local community or the issues they care about as much as it is on the national candidate and the staged event. And that can mean they miss these moments, and too often miss where things are headed as a result. Her photos, along with the reporting of her colleagues, put the spotlight on the people and the moments that others will forget after the polls close.

From dueling rallies in Claremont, New Hampshire, two of Alex’s photographs stood out for me as those quieter moments. There was one photograph of a Trump supporter in a red MAGA hat who was in a quiet prayerful pose. And the other was of a discarded Biden placard laying on the ground against a bleak gray snow bank next to an empty chair. We talked about these and here is how Alex framed them:

Thelma Poitras, of Woodsville, N.H., bows her head in prayer during the invocation at a campaign rally for former President Donald Trump at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H., on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America – Alex Driehaus)

The photo of the Trump supporter praying, Alex said, “does almost feel like a religious devotion for those true believers in Trump who are sticking so strongly with him, despite the indictments. They just seemed so dedicated to a cause in a way that a lot of people can’t get their arms around, and honestly that I can’t get my arms around.”

The photograph of the Biden placard was also taken in Claremont, outside the middle school. With Biden deciding to skip being on the ballot for the primary in New Hampshire, some residents felt a bit abandoned by him even though he still won handily on a respectable write-in campaign. The photo features an empty chair, and as Alex put it, “It was between shifts, and seeing the sign and the empty chair there on their own, it felt evocative of how the campaign treated New Hampshire, a sense of abandonment by Biden.”

Signs urging Democratic voters to write in Joe Biden lie in the snow outside Claremont Middle School in Claremont, N.H., on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)

She explained further that both the Trump supporter in prayer and the empty chair of the Biden supporters, are both “images that you can read into, and interpret as you will.”

“We ran lots of pictures of people supporting all sides and holding signs, but it is those in between moments that we are looking for, something that speaks metaphorically. I think that is our purpose.  I think we mix up truth and facts a lot. What is the truth that underlies that staged event?”

Also on the ground was Michaela Towfighi, a Report for America corps member working with the Concord Monitor, which has a long and strong tradition of covering the New Hampshire primary, one that has always been how the national media gauges what the voters in the state are thinking.

In past elections, the Monitor fielded a team of dozens of reporters and provided signature, in-depth political reporting. But the pounding winds of the crisis in local news have taken its toll on the Monitor, like in so many other newspapers. It still does a fantastic job, but with a smaller staff. Michaela, who was assigned to cover housing issues and is working on an investigative project about forced evictions, said it was pretty thrilling to be drafted in as part of the team doing general assignment work on the primary in a kind of “all hands on deck” approach.

Trump signs wait on chairs as supporters enter the venue to claim them before a campaign rally for former President Donald Trump at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H., on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)

Michaela visited Trump strongholds in the state to gauge if the support for the former president remained strong (it does) and profiled some of his hardcore supporters as the news of his victory in the primary came in.

“It was eye opening,” she said, to have a chance to really listen to voters and their concerns, she said, adding that she was surprised how the national media seemed to largely overlook the local community issues and the voters and focus on the movement of the candidates at the planned events.

Her biggest observation: “Just about everyone from all sides, including Trump, Biden and Nikki Haley supporters, talked about how divided America is.”

She added, “Almost every voter said the one thing they did not want is a Trump v Biden race,” and yet that is exactly how the vote turned out.

It seems this age of polarization is shaping the landscape on many issues in New Hampshire and also shaping a lot of local political races and very local issues.

“Understanding the local elements of this primary is complex. I would say there is a lot we have not unpacked yet,” Michaela added.

Doreen Brandolini, of Sunapee, N.H., holds a sign for Nikki Haley, the first candidate she has ever campaigned at the polls for, outside of Newport Middle High School in Newport, N.H., on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)

I caught her as she was driving to Concord to continue her reporting on a series of articles about housing and many families that are facing evictions due to a complex and tangled bureaucracy where in some cases the local government is taking homes and auctioning them off. She had helped with campaign coverage, but it was clear  that this was the place where she could help explore an issue that resonates deeply with the community she serves in New Hampshire.

“I am going to really stay on this, and we have a lot more stories coming out in our series,” she added.

So please stay tuned for that and we hope you will look out for all of our Report for America corps members who will be contributing to the political coverage in their communities in the weeks and months ahead as America plunges into this fateful moment of decision, not only for a presidential candidate but for the fate of our democracy.

From left, Konner Gregory, Dale Rickert and Janet Rickert, all of Springfield, Vt., don Trump-themed headgear while waiting in line to enter a campaign rally for former President Donald Trump at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H., on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)
Robert Gerard, of Claremont, N.H., holds a DeSantis 2024 sign tucked under his arm during a Town Hall meeting with GOP presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Newport, N.H., on Saturday, August 19, 2023. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)
Alec Eastburn, of Fort Myers, Fla., wears pins in support of GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley during a Town Hall meeting with the candidate at Claremont Senior Center in Claremont, N.H. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)
GOP presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a Town Hall meeting in Newport, N.H., on Saturday, August 19, 2023. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)
GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks during a Town Hall meeting at Claremont Senior Center in Claremont, N.H., on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)
Frank Palmieri, left, of Lebanon, N.H., salutes while listening to a rendition of the National Anthem during a campaign rally for former President Donald Trump at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H., on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)
Campaign rally for former President Donald Trump at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H., on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)
Assistant Town Clerk Suellen Leischner helps people register to vote at Newport Middle High School in Newport, N.H., on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)
Custodian John Spencer peeks in on primary voting after cleaning the floors in the cafeteria at Claremont Middle School in Claremont, N.H., on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)
Deborah Chase, left, and Nancy LaClair, both of Claremont, N.H., wave to passersby while holding Donald Trump signs outside Claremont Middle School in Claremont, N.H., on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Photo by Alex Driehaus/Valley News)