What better way to conduct a civics lesson than to observe politics in action? Nearly a dozen diplomats from nine countries did just that when they traveled to New Hampshire the first weekend in January to observe the run-up to the Granite State’s primary presidential election—part of a trip organized by the Diplomatic Observer Program to explain the U.S. electoral system to foreign representatives.
The Washington-based envoys were all familiar with U.S. politics, but the mission gave them an understanding and appreciation they couldn’t get from reading books or newspapers, they told The Washington Diplomat following the trip.
“Exciting,” said one observer. “Educational and eye opening,” said another. “Intense, almost dramatic,” said Danish Ambassador Friis Arne Petersen, a member of the delegation that also included Lithuanian Ambassador Audrius Bruzga, as well as Askar Tazhiyev of the Kazakh Embassy and Orla O’Hanrahan, deputy chief of mission at the Irish Embassy.
From Friday night until Sunday before the primary on Tue., Jan. 8, the group was spirited from one event to the next across the state in a whirlwind schedule that included a dinner with the Democratic candidates; brunch with the Republican candidates; visits to campaign headquarters; rallies and voter forums; and briefings by pollsters and political analysts from Fox and CNN. Participants—most of whom stayed in private homes during the tour—also attended the live television debates of both parties as well as the Sunday morning broadcast of “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
Danish Ambassador Petersen said the exchanges among the candidates during the debates were “very competitive” and that the opportunity to witness the primary “was attractive for me as a diplomat.” Petersen also observed that retail politics—the old-fashioned method of campaigning in person—forces candidates to make their case persuasively to the electorate. “It gave me an insight into retail politics that you can’t get from TV or newspapers,” he said, noting that voters in New Hampshire were “extremely knowledgeable.”
“I have been following U.S. elections since 1980 when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, and this is the first time I have been to New Hampshire to see a primary,” the ambassador added. “I have a much better understanding of the candidates and their strengths and weaknesses.”
On the day of the primary, Petersen was in Denmark, where he appeared on a Danish television program as a commentator on the New Hampshire race. He spent four hours in the studio, early in the morning on Denmark time, as the show broadcast the primary live to Danish viewers, who are extremely interested in the U.S. election process, Petersen said, pointing out that a contingent of Danish business, trade union, political and other leaders came to New Hampshire to observe the primary firsthand.
The ambassador explained the under Denmark’s parliamentary system, “we don’t have primaries. There is only one national election, and all candidates for the parliament are on the ballot regardless of party affiliation.” The prime minister is then chosen by a vote of parliament.
“The U.S. election is a high priority for my embassy,” said Petersen, who will be “covering it” very closely until Election Day.
For Askar Tazhiyev, minister-counselor at the Embassy of Kazakhstan, “seeing the exercise of democracy in New Hampshire was quite vivid and unique,” he said. “I was struck by the accessibility of the candidates to the voters, offering the possibility of close scrutiny on any aspect that the public wants to know about.”
This scrutiny puts a great deal of responsibility on both the public and the candidates, Tazhiyev observed, calling the interchange between the two “quite exemplary.” Similarly, the Kazakh envoy also marveled at how much stamina the candidates must have, given the enormous strain that the U.S. presidential election process puts on them. “The candidates,” he said, “need to be fit.”
“All the diplomats in our group agreed it was quite educational to see such a level of activity, engagement and transparency, and that these features of the New Hampshire Primary should be duplicated in other states,” Tazhiyev said. He added that he was impressed by how well informed the voters were about the issues—including the large number of students who attended the television debates—as well as by the qualities of leadership demonstrated the candidates.
And in such an open system, “empty populism doesn’t work,” Tazhiyev said, arguing that if candidates don’t have substance, they have no chance of winning in New Hampshire, no matter how much money they spend.
“It is touching how you have preserved your democratic traditions and principles that were established by the Founding Fathers,” he said. “It’s interesting that even aspects that seem archaic are still preserved, such as the Electoral College.”
The most remarkable feature of the process, he concluded, was its unpredictability. Despite all the polling and the scientific approach to electioneering, Tazhiyev said you could never be sure of the outcome—an observation that was confirmed when Democratic contender Hillary Clinton upset the predicted favorite, Barack Obama, days later.
“It was quite an open and interesting insight into the primary process,” agreed Lithuanian Ambassador Bruzga. “We know more now than before. My first impression was very positive. I have a great appreciation for grassroots democracy now that I have seen it close up, and it’s a perspective you can’t get from newspapers alone. I came back with the best of impressions and respect for the people who take their responsibility to participate in the process very seriously.”
He added: “The U.S. primaries are not like in other countries. The selection of candidates in my country is more straightforward and it doesn’t take that long. In the U.S., elections are much more elaborate and the expectations are huge.”
O’Hanrahan said the mission was her first trip back to New England since she served as Irish consul general in Boston, which is heavily populated with Irish Americans. She praised the “variety of briefings,” the debates and the public events that offered a “flavor of the campaign.” In particular, she said she enjoyed learning the history of the state and hearing University of New Hampshire professor Andrew Smith, who is a polling expert, discuss the technical details of the primary process.
“Our job [as diplomats] is to inform ourselves and to report back home,” she said. “My colleagues and I and our government back home are greatly interested in your system.”
O’Hanrahan explained that in Ireland, the election process for national leaders is much shorter. The prime minister asks the president to adjourn the parliament for three weeks to allow for electioneering, according to O’Hanrahan, who found the contrast to the U.S. process remarkable. “I am fascinated by your system. The scale is enormous.
“It was interesting to see the local flavor and the give and take between the voters and the candidates in the town meetings in schools and gymnasiums throughout the state and in the phone-ins. There is no substitute for experiencing a campaign on the ground.
“It’s a long campaign, very taxing,” she continued. “In Europe, campaigns are compressed into much shorter time.” But some similarities remain. “New Hampshire, with its many small towns, reminds me of Ireland,” O’Hanrahan said, noting that candidates in both countries “are very accessible” to local voters.
The “Diplomatic Observer” mission to the New Hampshire Primary was organized by George Bruno, a former U.S. ambassador to Belize and now a Manchester attorney, with the help of his colleagues from the USA Group International consulting firm: former U.S. Ambassador Dick Swett and former Assistant Secretary of State Betty Tamposi. Bruno’s Diplomatic Observer Program also works in conjunction with the University of New Hampshire, the World Affairs Council of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Political Library in Concord.
When asked how important it is to help foreign officials understand U.S. politics, Bruno, who served on election observer missions to Kosovo, Pakistan and Romania, said that providing diplomats with a close-up view of grassroots democracy, how it functions, and how voters choose their political leaders promotes better U.S. relations around the world. “We try to take the mystery out of our election system,” he said.
Added his colleague Swett: “We are going all out to provide as full and unvarnished view of American retail politics as possible,” he said. “The stakes are high—and America’s leadership is on display, both at home and abroad.”
About the Author
Alan B. Nichols is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.