Wolfeboro, N.H. — Never was the contrast between two presidential candidates clearer, even as its implications grew murkier.
On a brisk November night in this quaint north-country town, Jeb Bush stood inside the Wright Museum of World War II and spoke yearningly of “back in the day” — a time when Americans stood united against foreign enemies, when cable news shows didn’t polarize the electorate, when primary contests weren’t “food fights.”
His audience, some 150 locals seated in folding chairs, nodded and murmured in agreement. The median age was Medicare-eligible; nearly every attendee had white hair, though some covered it with caps commemorating service in the conflicts of epochs past. Flanked to his right by a 42-ton Pershing tank — used by the Allies 70 years ago to capture the Bridge at Remagen while invading the German interior — Bush told the story of his father, the Navy’s youngest fighter pilot, getting shot down and eluding Japanese internment thanks to a serendipitous rescue by an American submarine. It was this generation, Bush told them — their generation — that made America truly great.
The next morning, 55 miles away, Marco Rubio took to a factory floor and stood behind a podium with a sign that read, “Restoring Strength for a New American Century.” To his left, standing two and a half feet tall and weighing 100 pounds, was a masterful bit of machinery: a TALON military robot developed to carry and fire heavy weaponry while detecting IEDs on the guerrilla fronts of Iraq and Afghanistan. Sleek and jet-black, the robot’s foundation is identical to that of a Pershing tank, with rugged wheels enclosed by a heavy-duty track designed to traverse all terrains. Unlike the Arsenal-of-Democracy–era behemoths, though, the TALON is powered by lithium-ion batteries and operated by remote control.
Rubio explained that his host, the company Granite State Manufacturing, was producing this kind of innovative combat equipment to win the wars America has yet to fight. “We cannot survive the global perils of the 21st century with a military built for the 20th,” he declared. As a political motif, it was consistent with what Rubio had preached the previous afternoon while addressing a roomful of Millennials at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester — right around the time Bush’s campaign bus was touring retirement communities up north.
As Bush and Rubio crisscrossed New Hampshire for 72 hours in the first week of November, this juxtaposition was jarring and highly instructive, crystallizing the contrast — thematically, stylistically, rhetorically — between the two candidates. It is one that Rubio’s team relishes and is eager to emphasize as the campaigns jostle for supremacy among the center-right Republicans who traditionally pick the party’s nominee. For Bush, who has underwhelmed voters and underdelivered on expectations of monopolizing the GOP’s mainstream, the best hope of winning this do-or-die state — and restoring his viability as a nominee — may lie in exploiting the other end of the polarity that has become essential to Rubio’s message.
That is because, in the face of his struggles, two fundamentals of the race remain unchanged: Older voters are well disposed toward Bush, and New Hampshire has a lot of them.
Polling this year — in New Hampshire, in other early-primary states, and nationally — has shown Bush regularly performing better among older voters than with the broader electorate. For example, a Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald poll of New Hampshire conducted in mid October pegged Bush’s favorability–unfavorability rating among likely GOP primary voters at 57 percent to 37 percent; but among those 65 and older, it was 70 to 27 percent. That same week, Quinnipiac released an Iowa poll showing Bush underwater among likely Republican caucusgoers: 43 percent viewed him favorably, 51 percent unfavorably. But among those 65 and older, the numbers were roughly reversed: 52 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable.
New Hampshire has the third-oldest population of any state, behind only Maine and Vermont, according to Census Bureau data from 2013. Its population of residents 65 and older jumped 8.7 percent just between 2010 and 2012 and has continued to rise since. This is reflected, naturally, in the state’s voting-age population: Exit polls showed that 58 percent of New Hampshire residents who voted in November 2012 were 45 or older, compared with 54 percent nationally. That difference is amplified in Republican primaries, which traditionally skew older. In New Hampshire’s 2012 GOP primary, 69 percent of voters were 45 or older, according to exit polling.
This confluence of realities — New Hampshire’s aging population, the disproportionate tendency of older voters to vote, and Bush’s popularity among that demographic — explains why half of the “Jeb Can Fix It” bus tour was spent in far-flung Carroll County, 90 minutes north of the Manchester media market. A quarter of all Carroll County residents are 65 or older, according to the Census Bureau, nearly twice the national average.
After months of dismissing any state as a must-win, Bush is pushing his chips in on New Hampshire and making little secret about it. Jesse Hunt, Bush’s state communications director, said significant resources have been reallocated from his Miami headquarters to the early states as part of the campaign’s recent shakeup, and noted that New Hampshire is the focal point, with twelve paid staffers on the ground, more than anywhere else. Within that focus on the Granite State, Bush’s operation has begun homing in on its most dependable demographic.
“These,” Hunt says, looking out over Bush’s audience inside the Wright Museum, “are the reliable voters.”
It was here, speaking to an elderly audience in the oldest county of America’s third-oldest state, that Bush embraced the very theme that Rubio aims to transcend: the past. Fielding questions on Medicare, Social Security, and veterans’ care, Bush adopted a reflective and visionary tone. He spoke at length about his eight years of governing Florida, including the time he directed a local government agency to help “an elderly shut-in” get rid of a raccoon in her attic. He empathized with a curmudgeonly questioner who wondered why it’s so hard these days to find kids willing to rake leaves for their parents. And Bush’s standard line about his dad being “the greatest man alive” drew an unusually enthusiastic ovation.
At times, Bush sounded more presidential historian than presidential candidate. “The next president of the United States needs to be a true leader, the kind of leader we’ve counted on in difficult times,” he said. “This is not the most difficult time in American history, by far. World War II was a difficult time. The Great Depression prior to that. The Civil War. And we’ve always counted on presidents who prayed to their Creator on bended knee, who had the strength and fortitude to stick with things, the humility to listen to people and to recognize it’s not all about them.”
The event couldn’t have looked or sounded more different from Rubio’s appearance earlier that day at St. Anselm’s in Manchester. There, addressing an overwhelmingly youthful audience that had been warmed up with an unedited version of Tupac’s “Changes,” Rubio related to Millennials with talk of Candy Crush, student-loan reform, NFL football, Uber, and, of course, the forthcoming Star Wars film. It wasn’t without substance; Rubio made his case that the old guard of politicians is peddling “20th-century solutions to 21st-century problems.” America, he told them, “is in desperate need of leaders that understand life in the new economy.”
Bush’s ideal in prescribing global governance was somewhat different: “Think of American leadership in the context of this museum,” he said in Wolfeboro. “But for us, who? Who but the United States had the capability of freeing the world of the aggressive nature of Nazism and Fascism in the Pacific and in Europe? Only the United States can do this.”
Heads continued to nod; an approving buzz cascaded through the room. It was, in months of monitoring Bush on the campaign trail, among the most receptive audiences this reporter had seen. Attendees swore afterward that this Jeb Bush wasn’t the same awkward shrinking violet they’d watched on the debate stage in Colorado a week before.
Voters like these, Bush allies argue, fit a twin profile: They are comfortable with his message and background (read: both governing experience and family record), while also reluctant to support another young senator on the heels of Barack Obama’s presidency.
There are two dangers, however, in Bush’s banking on older voters to put him over the top. First, the 65-and-older bloc doesn’t always cast the decisive vote. John McCain, for example, won every age group except that one in New Hampshire’s 2008 primary (losing it to Mitt Romney), though he still won the state. Second, older voters like Bush, but not as much as they like some of his rivals — especially Rubio.
Indeed, the same polling (including the two surveys mentioned above) that reveals Bush’s relative strength among older voters also shows Rubio outperforming him — often by wide margins — among that demographic. Ultimately, then, the critical margin between the candidates could come down to broadness of appeal: Rubio’s forward-facing message resonates across the electorate, even with its eldest segments, while Bush’s backward-looking narrative (his Florida record, his family name) is attractive to older Republicans yet repellent to younger classes of primary voters.
There was one flicker of diversity at Bush’s Wolfeboro event, in the form of 23-year-old college student Jessica Simmons. Easily the youngest person in attendance, Simmons stood after Bush had fielded a dozen questions and explained that she is close to earning a psychology degree but can’t get another student loan. Bush was sympathetic, using the moment to make a point about an outdated education system, and told her he was confident that she would succeed.
Simmons said afterward that she hadn’t studied the candidates closely but was impressed with Bush. However, she noted, an older woman seated next to her had whispered some advice: “You should ask that question to Marco Rubio.”