On the trail

Seacoast voters pick up tips for bird-dogging presidential candidates 

It’s early on a Saturday morning at the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Exeter, and would-be presidential candidate Jefferson Lincoln is making a campaign stop. Well, sort of — Jefferson Lincoln is actually Arnie Alpert, the state co-director for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the campaign stop is an exercise to help the crowd of 14 trainees in the church learn how to bird-dog presidential candidates.

Bird-dogging politicians is a time-honored New Hampshire tradition. At town hall meetings, diners, fairs, and any other event where a candidate might show up, you’ll find bird-dogs, volunteers dedicated to asking candidates about the issues they think aren’t getting enough attention.

“Nobody else has this opportunity the way we do, and we have an obligation to use it,” Alpert says.

Successful bird-dogging requires training, though, and that’s where Saturday’s session comes in. For about two hours, Alpert and Olivia Zink, a coordinator for the AFSC’s Governing Under the Influence Project, run the aspiring bird-doggers through a series of three exercises — an interview with a TV news reporter, a town hall meeting, and an impromptu candidate meet and greet — and offer tips on how to ask questions and get answers.

“You never know when you’re going to run into a state rep and have a chance to tell him or her what’s on your mind.”
— Arnie Alpert

Zink says AFSC has conducted 26 bird-dog training sessions for about 400 people in the state this presidential election cycle — as good an indication as any that the 2016 campaign is in full swing. The training is non-partisan; AFSC doesn’t support any candidates or parties. Instead, the goal is to focus on the issues — especially corporate influence in politics — and shift the political conversation away from bland generalities to specific points.

“It’s an art, not an exact science,” Zink says.

The three exercises are a good approximation of the situations voters might find themselves in if they’re following candidates on the campaign trail. Alpert and Zink keep the mood light; there are lots of jokes, lots of little jabs at evasive politicians.

For the first exercise, the group splits in two and lines up across from each other down the center aisle of the church. Zink provides the prompt: one side will pretend to be reporters asking the question, “The presidential primary is 10 months away. What issues are important to you?” The other side will just be themselves — they’ve got a minute to deliver an answer. “Speak from your heart,” Zink says.

There’s lots of chatter about economic inequality, higher taxes on the rich, and increasing the minimum wage. Bernie Sanders’ name gets thrown around a few times. Zink calls time, and the two sides switch. After a second run-through, the group debriefs. Zink asks how it felt to be on the spot.

“I was nervous,” one person says.

Another speaks up. “I could think of one issue to talk about, but then my mind went blank.”

Talk turns to what makes a good interview and the importance of preparation — researching candidates’ positions, having a question or two at the ready, and so on.

“You never know when you’re going to run into a state rep and have a chance to tell him or her what’s on your mind,” Alpert says.

For the town hall exercise, Alpert dons a tie and transforms into candidate Jefferson Lincoln, a potato chip mogul turned politician. He takes questions from the group. Someone asks “When is slavery really going to end in this country?” Another person asks the faux-candidate what he’ll do about “inner-city food deserts” in light of his background in the snack food business. As Lincoln, Alpert ducks, dodges, and avoids questions with aplomb. He’s been watching candidates closely for years and his impression of a slippery politician is dead-on. Later, Alpert says he’s seen stump speeches and town halls at which candidates act exactly like Jefferson Lincoln. “I’ll see them and think, ‘They came to our workshop and learned all the wrong lessons!’ … It’s up to us to shake them out of it.”

NEWS_birddog_2Arnie Alpert speaks with Frank Heffron, who is posing as a reporter.

The exercise prompts some good advice. “The issues that are important to you, you need to raise them at these events. Don’t get distracted by what the candidates say,” Zink says. Other town hall tips: bring a friend or two (there’s a greater chance one of you will be called on for a question), be calm and reasonable (being hostile distracts from the issues), ask questions early (the first few people to raise their hand are usually called on), and be ready to speak with the media.

The results of bird-dogging aren’t always immediate. A good bird-dogger won’t always get a straight answer, but if she’s tenacious enough, her efforts can change the course of the political conversation.

“We do have the ability to shift the discourse in this country,” Alpert says.

Zink and Alpert share their own bird-dogging stories. Zink and a friend bird-dogged Mitt Romney at a campaign stop. The friend managed to shake Romney’s hand — and kept the handshake going all the way outside to the parking lot, all while having a conversation about nuclear weapons policies. Alpert recalled the time he went to a town hall meeting for former senator Phil Gramm dressed in a “fat cat” costume, complete with a tail. The costume worked, according to Alpert — Gramm called on him during a Q&A session.

“You have to figure out how to have fun with it, because it is fun,” Zink says.

As the training wraps up, the participants talk about their future bird-dogging plans.

Renay Allen runs a Facebook group called Exeter NH Transition Town, a group dedicated to local environmental issues.

She’s not sure if she’ll bird-dog any candidates during the 2016 campaign. “I’ll give it a try, but I’m a little shy,” she says. “But being able to have questions in hand … will be extremely helpful.”

“I feel a little more energized to show up at events,” says Don Nolte of Exeter. Bird-dogging can “help frame issues for the nation and the world. If it can happen anywhere, New Hampshire is the place.”

Follow along: You can find information about local candidate appearances and event details at the AFSC’s Governing Under the Influence site.

Top of page: Arnie Alpert poses as fictional candidate Jefferson Lincoln at a   bird-dogging training in Exeter.