NEW HAMPSHIRE—It’s 22 degrees at the Merrimack town dump, and the Swonger family, wearing “Pete 2020” buttons on their winter coats, waves at a line of cars and trucks whose drivers are waiting to toss their trash. On this Saturday morning before the New Hampshire primary, in rural towns without curbside trash pickup, the dump is the place for campaigns to find a crowd.
“It’s a tradition, a place for visibility and meeting people,” said Roy Swonger, 55, of Merrimack, who’s standing in front of a large “Pete 2020” sign with his wife, Trisha, and his daughter, Jennifer.
“Where are you going to get a line like this in New Hampshire?” asked Trisha, 60. “This is the biggest traffic jam you’re going to have in Merrimack unless the turkeys get in the road.”
For decades, political campaigns have come to New Hampshire dumps on Saturdays before elections. A 2005 episode of The West Wing depicted a candidate chatting up voters at the town dump in Litchfield, about 20 minutes from Merrimack’s.
“On Saturday, going to the dump is as normal as going to the post office,” said Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “Good campaigns will have people at the dump.”
This is the Swongers’ second campaign at their town’s transfer station. They also reserved the same spot to show support for Barack Obama in 2008.
The Swongers got behind Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Indiana mayor, after they saw him twice in August—at a house party in Concord, and later the same day at Concord’s farmers’ market. Trisha said he did something most candidates don’t: “He answered the questions he was asked.” The Swongers liked his direct answers to questions about campaign finance, restructuring the Supreme Court, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
So in September, the Swongers reserved the “activity lane” at the Merrimack Transfer Station and Recycling Facility for the Saturday before the primary. “This is prime real estate,” Trisha said. In Merrimack, a rural exurb of Manchester with 25,000 residents spread across 33 square miles, there’s no real town center and no municipal trash pickup. Everyone who doesn’t hire a private trash hauler heads to the dump, most often on Saturday morning.
The “activity lane” is a wide spot in the driveway between Merrimack’s single-stream recycling shed and the trash pit. It’s the place where the Rotary Club or cookie-selling Girl Scouts might set up on other weekends. As trucks and cars roll by, Jennifer and Roy wave, and Trisha holds up her blue “Pete 2020” sign. The driver of a gray Toyota Tacoma gives them a quick bip-bip of the horn. A minute later, a passenger waves from another Tacoma.
“We’re getting a lot of positive responses,” Trisha said.
“Not necessarily people coming up and talking, but a lot of people waving hello,” added Jennifer.
Other drivers flash a thumbs-up, the Swongers say, or roll down the window for a brief chat. “One couple stopped by to say they really liked Pete—he was really getting attacked last night, but they thought he handled himself well,” Roy said. But Merrimack is a Republican town—Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton here, 7,397 to 6,405—so there’s opposition too. The Swongers can tell who doesn’t like their candidate: they don’t make eye contact, or they flash a thumbs-down.
“This isn’t really about convincing people at this point,” Roy added. “It’s more about the visibility, and showing that, yes, there’s support. There’s always this idea that you don’t want to throw your vote away at someone you like if no one else does.”
At the driveway’s edge, the Swongers set up a small table covered with Buttigieg postcards, coffee, Munchkins from Dunkin’ Donuts, and two trays of cookies, baked by Trisha. Each cookie had a blue-frosting letter or number on it; together, the treats spelled out P-E-T-E 2-0-2-0 and B-O-O-T E-D-G-E E-D-G-E. Whatever cookies they don’t give away, they said, they planned on handing out to fellow volunteers at a campaign meeting later in the day.
A woman walked down from the nearby swap shop building, where residents can take and leave used stuff, to talk with the Swongers.
“I love Mayor Pete,” said Hollis McGuire, 66, of Merrimack, but “I don’t want the [Mike] Pence backlash against gay people.” She fears that Christian-right voters who don’t want a gay president might turn out to defeat Buttigieg in November, and that the Trump administration might retaliate against gays for supporting him.
“I look at who can beat Trump,” she said. She’s narrowed her choices down to Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar.
The Swongers made the case for their candidate.
“He’s the all-American guy,” said Jennifer, 24, mentioning Buttigieg’s marriage and military service. If he were elected, she added, “I think it would alter everybody’s view.”
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Manchester Divided coverage of political activity around New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Follow our coverage @BINJreports on Twitter and at binjonline.org/manchesterdivided, and if you want to see more citizens agenda-driven reporting you can contribute at givetobinj.org.