On horse races, ground games, and voter surprises

I was a political reporter in the early 1980s when I worked at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, MA.. My beat consisted of covering the elected officials in the paper’s circulation area which consisted of the 5th Congressional District along the northern border of the state with New Hampshire, along the Merrimack River valley to the seacoast and encompassing the mill towns of Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill. It was a solidly Democratic district with lots of old school Irish-machine Democrats,tons of Hispanic immigrants in the cities from Puerto Rico and the Dominican  Republic, and some white-wine and brie liberals down around Thoreau country in Concord and Lincoln.

This was the district where John Kerry got his start after returning from the Vietnam War (I met him as a sixth grader at the Pike School in Andover when he was running against Paul Cronin for the first time, losing a contentious race that included his campaign headquarters getting burglarized. This was the district where the late Paul Tsongas (still my personal favorite among all politicians I’ve covered — for personal, not political reasons) rose out of Lowell and the Greek base there to be the Commonwealth’s second US Senator beside Teddy Kennedy. This was the district that butted up against the southern commuter tier of New Hampshire.


So in the winter of 1984, shortly after getting promoted at the callow age of 24 to State House Bureau Chief, I was assigned to the New Hampshire Presidential Primary and told to develop full feature-length profiles of each and every one of the candidates. This was Reagan’s re-election, this was the campaign where Walter Mondale, the eventual Democratic nominee would tap Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate. This was the campaign where Gary Hart came out of Colorado to shake things up and eventually crash and burn for his indiscretions and unwise taunting of the press to look into his background.

That winter I had the chance to meet and interview every candidate, Republican and Democrat. I rode in the back of a car with George McGovern, the South Dakota legend who lost badly to Nixon in ’72. I interviewed Jesse Jackson. Hart. Mondale. Reagan, Ernest Hollings……Very heady stuff for a recent college grad who had first voted in 1976 but never had been particularly political. I was rubbing elbows with person heroes from the Boys on the Bus era: David Broder, Curtis Wilkie, Walter Robinson, Jules Germond, Ted Koppel, Brit Hume and of course, Hunter S. Thompson.

Election night at a newspaper is an amazing thing, especially back in the pre-CNN days of 24-hour news coverage when newspapers were still pretty influential (hence the reason the candidates took the time to talk to me because the Eagle-Tribune’s impact on the voter-dense southern counties of New Hampshire was pretty significant).  I worked the polls in Salem, NH because  I got my start covering that town and it was a very politicized place because NH Governor John Sununu lived there.

Going into election night it looked pretty much like a lock for Reagan.  New Hampshire was still rock-rib Republican so the press was chasing the Democrats around the state to see who would go against the Gipper. Iowa caucuses weren’t a thing in 1984 — not to the extent they are today, so New Hampshire was still emphatically First in the nation and the media circus was amazing. I was excited. I was in the middle of the news. I was writing good stuff and finding myself drawn into the sports-like atmosphere of election reporting. The pollsters, the debates, the grassroots door-to-door ground game stuff. People were actually asking me my opinion and I realized I was expected to pick some winners.

Alan White, now the editor in chief of the Eagle Tribune, and the New Hampshire editor in those days, was my mentor and he organized a newsroom election pool, advising me I better win or my credibility would suffer post-election. Everyone was assuming Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s VP, would win the primary. The polls had him leading. He was well funded, he was getting most of the attention, but ….

But something about Gary Hart was interesting to me. Something about his past experience working on the McGovern campaign in 1972. Something about his progressive Colorado, John Denver Rocky Mountain High attitude. He had charisma, he had sex appeal, and he had a raucous young campaign team that seemed willing to take chances.

So I picked him to win.

Al White told me I was crazy. I stuck to my guns. And sure enough, Hart upset Mondale in a big way, disproving all the polls and pundits the way a certain someone did last Tuesday night.


What did I learn? That the polling booth is an incredible sanctuary for all of us. A place where we can take all the time we want, ponder our choices, check off boxes and come out and flat out lie to the exit pollsters or even our friends and family about what we did behind the curtain. I learned that big data and statistics are samples, not measurements, and that the more “conventional” the wisdom, the more likely it is to fail. I learned that front-runners take things for granted, fall prey to hubris, and commit the most mortal sin any politician can make — assume support from their base without working for it.

I wondered why there was some discussion this past election year over ballot selfies — people snapping pictures of their ballot to post on social media — freedom of speech, right? Then a wise friend said, “It prevents coercion by organizations like unions who may ask for proof in the polls by their members. It keeps the secret ballot, secret.”

That secrecy in the polls, reminds me of my father’s answer whenever I asked him how much money he made (“A dollar ninety-eight”) or who he voted for (“Gus Hall)* — somethings are our business and ours alone. Yes, there are a lot of incredulous people in my social streams wondering who created such a surprise last Tuesday. There are people outraged the popular vote is (ahem) Trumped by the Electoral College**

But elections are about the expression of choice, in private, between you and me and our single ballot. Not about movements or coalitions, demographics or samples.

So did I call Trump like I called Hart? Yes I did, back when he announced his candidacy. I told a friend that America always gets the President it deserves, and it felt appropriate that the country would elect a reality TV star, just as it felt appropriate that Jimmy Carter was defeated by an actor who played opposite a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo.

How did I vote? Well, I am Tony Churbuck’s son, so I’m not telling. When I was a political reporter I was tempted not to vote in the belief a political reporter should be utterly objective. I am a registered Independent — always have been — and since my first time in the polls in 1976, when I was an 18-year old freshman and the Vietnam was had just ended, to last Tuesday, I have applied the same personal test to every ballot: “Who is the smartest person here?” Some people apply the “who would I want to have a beer with?”  Me, I perform my own intuitive IQ test and cross my fingers. Looking back over the 11 presidential elections I can proudly say I voted in each and every one, and picked a nice balance of Democrats and Republicans in the general election.  I haven’t picked the winner every time, oh far from it.

I only regret one bad vote, and that was 2000 when I denied Al Gore my vote because of the sexual shenanigans of Bill Clinton — but that election was a total shit-show of hanging chads, so I get a mulligan.

And finally, a last word from an ex-bartender, inflicting one’s personal politics or religious beliefs on other people is a sure fire way not get a tip. I get the surprise and shock, but keep your counsel to yourself, defend your right to a secret ballot, and if you want to change things, go volunteer. But please, don’t expect me to commiserate. How I voted is my business, not a loyalty-test.


*:perennial candidate for the American Communist Party

**: I support the Electoral College on the basis that it fairly distributes elective impact to the rural, sparsely populated counties and doesn’t over-emphasize metro voting blocs



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