letter from nh

Watching the Debate With Andrew Yang Fans in New Hampshire

Welcome to Chunky’s. Photo: Olivia Nuzzi

On Friday afternoon, with four days until the primary, I arrived in Concord and the first person I saw was a volunteer with Donald Trump’s campaign. I just happened to park next to Karyn Olson’s car and I couldn’t help but notice the large Trump Pence 2020 sign peeking through her back window. She was a reluctant Trump voter in 2016, she said, but that was then. Although, as in Iowa, and as in every other state where the Republican Party is still holding a nominating contest this year, the president doesn’t need much help. Olson is all in now — walking through snow to knock doors on his behalf, and talking warmly to a reporter shouting at her from inside a rented Jeep with New York plates. It’s just that time of election year in New Hampshire.

About an hour and a half north, in Somersworth, Tulsi Gabbard spoke at a union hall next door to a coffee shop where I watched Michael Bennet address 13 people a few weeks ago. Many more people turned out for Gabbard, who the latest polling here shows around 3.5 percent — tied for sixth place with Andrew Yang, whose candidacy has recently been treated much more seriously. Unlike Yang, who wasted precious time and resources in Iowa only to come in sixth place with one percent of the vote — Gabbard focused all of her attention on New Hampshire, a geographically smaller place with a straightforward primary system. She also now literally lives here (she’s from Hawaii). Upstairs, Gabbard spoke to the press and then posed for photos with fans before a large American flag. Outside, in front of a C-SPAN truck, I talked to Eileen Tepper, a volunteer who said she traveled from the Bronx to support her candidate. Tepper had once been a basic Democrat who supported Barack Obama and volunteered for his reelection, but now, looking back, she seemed to pity her former self. She was wiser now, no longer susceptible to sloganeering. Tepper, a musical theater performer, said she finally had a chance to show Gabbard a video she made in which she rewrote “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables to explain her support for this campaign after being disappointed with Bernie Sanders for endorsing Hillary Clinton in 2016. Sample lyrics: “But this shining light came through. She was fierce and she had power. And she showed us who’s the boss. Tulsi Gabbard was her name.”

Another hour and a half through a web of winding state routes, and I was talking to the young cashier at a grocery store in Bedford. When he saw my D.C. ID, he asked if I was in town for the Democratic debate, which was close enough. I asked him who he supported, and he said he wasn’t supposed to talk about that with customers, but then he said, quietly, that he likes either Bernie Sanders (who leads the polls here at 26 percent) or Pete Buttigieg (who is second behind him at 22.5 percent).

When I entered Chunky’s, the bar in the antechamber of a movie theater in an empty strip mall in Manchester, a few miles away, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. But inside the TVs were set to the debate, and looking up at them were a mass of baseball caps and beanies that say MATH — announcing better than any sign could that this was in fact the Yang Gang debate watch party, as advertised on Facebook.

I’m bad at crowd estimates. There were maybe 30 people by the time I arrived? Don’t hold me to that. There were enough people that there were no seats at the bar, but because the room itself was so big, it felt empty. There was a man and a woman with two flannel shirts draped over their chairs. The man was also wearing another flannel shirt. A group of Yang volunteers kindly welcomed me into their conversation. They said there was a rumor Yang himself could show up. “He’s supposed to come here, but he didn’t have the best debate, so I don’t know,” one of them said. “He gave me a hug yesterday because I say nice things about him Twitter and he knows my Twitter,” this person explains.

A rare moment in the debate when Andrew Yang spoke Photo: Olivia Nuzzi

Hugging seemed especially important right now. Everybody agreed that it had been a disappointing few days for the campaign. The volunteers said they knew Yang himself was disappointed. They blamed the staff in Iowa, which Politico reported Yang had fired after his anemic performance. They blamed the system. They blamed a conspiracy. It was rigged. The caucus was stolen. The theft was happening right before our eyes. They also blamed the Iowans.

“We’re very depressed, in a way, because he spent a lot of time there and Iowans don’t want the thousand dollars, I guess?” Daniel Ayerzon, a 43 year-old volunteer from Arizona, told me.

Louis Avila, a 23-year-old from Wisconsin, had been traveling with the campaign alongside his 19-year-old partner, Thomas Telzrow. Avila took a leave of absence from his work as a medical technician to be in Iowa and now New Hampshire and, later this month, Nevada. It was Telzrow, who was still frustrated he hadn’t been eligible to vote in the last election, that introduced him to Yang, and the two of them were so inspired that they upended their lives for the cause. But with a move like that comes expectations, and like everybody else, they were feeling let down. They love this guy so much, and watching him on the debate stage, meekly resigned to less than half of the speaking time granted to most of the candidates, answering questions he’s answered a million times the same way he always answers them, was like watching his potential melt into the slush.

Brendan O’Keefe, a 37-year-old carpenter from Maine, said part of the reason he favors Yang over Bernie is because Yang understands “where we’re going,” whereas the Sanders campaign is about “where we’ve been.” But you’ve gotta be able to draw that contrast yourself, as a candidate, you can’t rely on people like Brendan to explain it in the hallway of a movie theater while the sounds of Birds of Prey creep out from under the door.

“I think it’s part of who he is and the way he was raised and things like that,” Telzrow said. The difficulty is it’s what they like about him, that he’s polite and nice and people genuinely seem to like him. But at some point such qualities become incompatible with a desire to win.

“It’s a little disappointing, because, OK, Andrew said that he was gonna be Mr. Nice Guy until the voting started, but we know that, in a debate format, you have to fight to be effective,” Ayerzon said. “He needed to call Bernie Sanders old and Joe Biden old,” he said, admittedly “being exaggerative.” But seriously, he added, “he needs to take the gloves off.”

For Jessica Barbagallo, the night wasn’t defined by despair or disappointment, but by nervousness. An electrician who preferred not to share her age, she told me that on Tuesday, she planned to vote for the first time — for Yang. “I saw him in a documentary, it was on YouTube,” she said. “He went over why jobs are leaving this country, and it had nothing to do with Trump — it had to do with artificial intelligence.” Jessica said that although she is motivated to vote by her hatred for Trump, Yang is what has made her excited. “I believe in him,” she said.

This post has been updated to correct the misspelling of Karyn Olson’s name.

Watching the Debate With Andrew Yang Fans in New Hampshire