‘Is there a concert on tonight?’, a bystander asked a cop at a traffic light outside the Southern New Hampshire University arena. If only. In fact Democrats from all over New Hampshire (and, let’s face it, probably Boston and Vermont too) descended on Manchester’s Elm Street for the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club dinner.
Supporters of various candidates stood out in the bitter cold, cheering the names and slogans of their choice for president. A small contingent of Trump supporters also braved the weather in hoodies, one of whom had brought along a large cereal box labeled ‘Biden’s Corn Pops’.
While branded as a dinner, in truth what unfolded was more like a sporting event. Think WWE without the surprise guests, or drama. On the floor, where the university team usually play basketball, members of the local party sat around circular tables, with an elevated podium in the center. Special guests included Sen. Chris Coons, the Irish ambassador and Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox, who is in town to campaign for Pete Buttigieg.
In the bleachers, fans of the remaining 11 Democratic candidates were grouped together, without being served so much as an hors d’oeuvre. To the press’s left was a surprisingly large Deval Patrick contingent (is there a name for his supporters? The Devalued? Plastic Paddies?), though I suspect many had made the trip north from Massachusetts. To our right, Mayor Pete’s army extended around a full corner of the arena, clad in bright yellow t-shirts, wielding clappers and glowsticks in an attempt to push the rest of the room into sensory overload.
Next to them were the Bernie fans — whom it would be unfair to dub ‘Bernie bros’ given how diverse a mob they were, young folk of all races and genders brandishing flashing LED placards and led in their chants by dance captains (good to see the socialists so organized). Then there was the Warren contingent, perhaps the largest group, wearing white t-shirts and flashing wristbands. So numerous were fans of the Massachusetts senator that some were divided from their comrades by the bloc of people still supporting Joe Biden. The Yang gang had been demoted to the nosebleeds high up in the rafters. There were maybe four Michael Bennet voters present.
The 12,000-strong arena was not entirely full (7,000 if you believe Andrew Yang’s count), with two stands of the tier on each side cordoned off. In contrast, supposedly the Trump rally in the same venue on Monday is a sellout.
As a European who isn’t particularly patriotic, it was heartening to see the whole room stand, hand on heart, as the New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus led a beautiful rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. So much for leftists hating America.
Early in the night, Elizabeth Warren emerged from a balcony above her supporters, who screamed en masse as she waved. Perhaps she was aiming for Eva Peron: from afar it looked a lot more Michael Jackson.
— Matt McDonald (@mattjpfmcdonald) February 9, 2020
Though not the largest cohort present, the Bernie fans dominated the atmosphere. They have an almost static energy: one supporter shouts in a quiet part and the rest of the section pick up the chant like a van der Graf generator. When Sen. Maggie Hassan talked about the Senate failing to act on election security, peals of ‘Moscow Mitch’ emitted from the Sanders squadron and were picked up by others around the arena. Attempts from different activists were less successful: ‘More women in power!’ chanted a solitary man in the Deval Patrick section, pumping a fist in which he was clenching a handful of glowsticks.
The New Hampshire politicians who spoke largely focused on issues that united the room, garnering approval from all quarters…with one notable exception. Rep. Annie Custer was building to a crescendo and already had the whole room clapping, when she concluded her address by saying ‘I look forward to the next Democratic president of the United States moving into the White House…with…his…husband!’. An audacious applause hijack.
On to the main course, and Custer’s candidate of choice was the first to speak. ‘Join me not only to end the era of Donald Trump but to launch the era that must come next’, Mayor Pete said. The Bernie brigade directed a few heckles at the former South mayor, with chants of ‘Wall Street Pete’, boos when he said America doesn’t need a revolution, and, when Pete described meeting a 10-year-old who needs insulin, cries of ‘Medicare for All’, in which they were joined by the Warren women.
The next mealy-mouthed moderate to take the stage was debate champion Sen. Amy Klobuchar. ‘What unites us more than anything is that we know that the heart of America is bigger than the one of the guy in the White House,’ she said meaninglessly, before declaring ‘I have won every single election I’ve ever run back to fourth grade.’ There was, though, visible support on the floor for the Minnesota senator. She blew a kiss to the Bernie section as she exited.
Vice President Joe Biden was less ambulatory than usual in his remarks and earning polite applause from the Buttigieg and Warren groups at various points. His experience at addressing large rooms showed, even if he slurred his words slightly. The choice line: ‘I lost my wife and daughter in a car accident, I lost my son after a lengthy battle with cancer when he came back from Iraq, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna lose this election to this man.’
Equally at ease in the arena was Andrew Yang, who followed Biden: ‘I did the math, do you know how many Californians you are worth?’ His routine was perhaps best-tailored to the audience, as it featured various call-and-response answers. Some people may be tiring of the Yang shtick (a few of the reporters around me groaned when he entered to Mark Morrison’s ‘Return of the Mack’), but his ability to unite this crowd perhaps shouldn’t be overlooked.
Next up was Tom Steyer, in his shirt sleeves and tartan tie. ‘We’re going to have to kick Donald Trump’s ass on the economy,’ Steyer said. Again. And again. And again. His strategy for doing so seemed to involve conceding all of the headline points about the stock market and unemployment to the president. I’m not sure Stey is your guy.
The shrieking resumed when Elizabeth Warren came out. ‘Our democracy hangs in the balance’, she said, three days before a primary vote and eight months before an election. Though as Warren struggles in the polls, she did aim a barb at Mayor Pete: ‘I’m not running a race that has been shaped by a bunch of consultants.’ Meow.
Bernie’s supporters whipped out drumsticks when their boy entered the arena. But the rest of the crowd were muted in their response to the front-runner, with many just applauding for his line about supporting the Democratic nominee regardless of who it is. ‘I see more enthusiasm here than over there,’ he said, gesturing at his enclave.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for the last three speakers, who must feel slightly aggrieved to have to follow the headline acts. Democrats poured out of the venue after Sanders finished his speech.
— Matt McDonald (@mattjpfmcdonald) February 9, 2020
It was kind of a shame for the final three candidates: Deval Patrick actually spoke quite well, and could have earned a decent reaction from a fuller arena. ‘Thanks for hanging around,’ said Michael Bennet to an emptying room, before ending his speech on an excited little jump. Tulsi Gabbard, who had been on Jesse Watters’s Fox News show at the start of the night, addressed, I would estimate, fewer than 1,000 people, and was introduced as just ‘Congresswoman Tulsi.’ Her final billing seemed particularly harsh given how she has consistently polled ahead of, say, Tom Steyer. Then again, she doesn’t have money to donate to local candidates and PACs if she doesn’t make it past this primary.
Despite the presence of 11 candidates for president, I left the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club dinner hungry. And sober, terrifyingly sober. It was haunting to watch the night’s festivities unfold while two bars at either end of the floor went mostly neglected. A Democratic dinner in a basketball venue should be for the many, not the few.