Retail politics isn't dead yet

This man has shaken every candidate's hand since 1988
This man has shaken every candidate's hand since 1988

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    This man has shaken every candidate's hand since 1988

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This man has shaken every candidate's hand since 1988 01:04

Story highlights

  • The New Hampshire primary takes place Tuesday
  • Dean Spiliotes: Retail politics tradition in New Hampshire is still vital

Dean Spiliotes is a Southern New Hampshire University civic scholar and founder of NHPoliticalCapital.com. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)There has been much hand-wringing in New Hampshire this presidential primary season over the fate of retail politics -- the face-to-face interaction between candidates and voters long cherished here as the embodiment of American participatory democracy. Indeed, political observers are increasingly worried the traditional link between electoral success and time spent on the ground here campaigning appears to be breaking down.

Are we right to be concerned?
It is possible that when all of the ballots are counted for Tuesday's primary, among the top Republican performers in New Hampshire will be candidates -- Donald Trump and Marco Rubio -- who collectively have spent the least amount of time engaged in retail politics here. If so, they will have triumphed over other highly credentialed politicians -- John Kasich, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush -- who have paid their dues the old-fashioned way, with endless town hall meetings, house parties, and diner visits.
    Dean Spiliotes
    Just look at Kasich, who has held over 100 public meetings with voters in this state's high school gymnasiums, veterans' posts and coffee houses. Similarly, Christie has logged more than 70 days in the state, often turning in marathon Q&A sessions at our fire stations, public libraries and churches. And Bush, for all the talk of his massive war chest early on in this campaign, has been similarly active, regularly talking with voters in businesses and homes throughout the winter months.
    These presidential hopefuls have staked their electoral fortunes to New Hampshire in a way that the other leading candidates have not. As a result, some local observers fear that a poor showing by them would signal the end of our retail politics tradition, spell trouble for our jealously protected status as the first-in-the-nation presidential primary and represent a nationalization of the presidential selection process.
    Yet such fears seem largely misplaced.
    Anyone who has closely watched the current presidential primary cycle unfold in New Hampshire, especially over the past month, should be reassured that the retail politics tradition in New Hampshire is still vital and likely to play its central vetting role in our presidential selection process for many elections to come. And even those candidates who have been less frequent visitors to the Granite State appear to have embraced, if belatedly, the retail ethos at the center of our political culture.
    So why have those of us who are long-time observers of the political scene felt some unease this time around? There are two culprits at work here: the digital technology driving the small device you are likely staring into right now, and the big money flooding the information environment that citizens must navigate on their way to the voting booth.
    For a start, the rise of social media has fundamentally transformed the retail politics experience for candidates and citizens, alike as people increasingly self-segregate into virtual communities of like-minded individuals in ways that can make geographical boundaries less relevant to how we experience politics and form candidate preferences.
    The speed and ease of digital communications mean that for retail politics, everything local is now also instantaneously global, a reality to which candidates have needed to adjust. But while that has occasionally pulled them off their focus on the ground game in New Hampshire, the ubiquitous smartphone can also enhance the retail experience if used effectively to connect with the candidates and the local community.
    In addition, television ads fueled by big money -- over $100 million in New Hampshire this cycle, according to Bloomberg Politics -- have homogenized a previously regional political discussion, turning a tin ear on the cultural nuances of our state in the process. What the candidates may not want to hear, though, is that much of this money may be going to waste, especially during the supersaturated final days of the primary campaign. Voters still deciding on who to back in Tuesday's primary seem mostly to be tuning out the ads in favor of actually going out to see the candidates, as they did in droves over this past weekend.
    Of course, unrestrained campaign spending will continue, until the candidates, Congress or the courts decide otherwise. But much of what we see and hear as a result is just background noise.
    As a result, even in this new, more chaotic political environment, New Hampshire still has the kind of intimate, civically minded electorate, as well as deep grassroots tradition of participation needed to make this state an ideal place to thoroughly test the mettle of our future presidents. And despite the money being spent on the campaigns -- and the changing way we communicate with each other -- New Hampshire voters will this Tuesday once again demonstrate that they have a special role to play in the presidential selection process.
    The tradition of retail politics in the Granite State isn't going anywhere. Voters here just might have to get more comfortable with the idea that we are increasingly sharing the process with a much bigger audience than our little corner of New England.