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New Hampshire Voters Pose Harder Questions To Presidential Candidates


Presidential campaigns work hard to keep their events on message. Candidates pivot out of tough questions. Campaign staff keep a tight grip on the audience microphone. Now though, more and more voters are coming to campaign events with their own bags of tricks.

Jason Moon with New Hampshire Public Radio reports on how advocacy groups in that state are training voters in an art known as bird-dogging.

JASON MOON, BYLINE: The bird-dogging metaphor is borrowed from hunting. Voters stock political candidates, hoping to get called on for a question. Then, they strike. They ask a questions so specific and inescapable that the candidate's true position on an issue is flushed out into the open. But first, they need to learn how.

ISAAC GRIM: The more specific your question is, the harder it is for a candidate to wiggle out of answering it.

MOON: Isaac Grim, with the liberal activist group Rights & Democracy, is teaching a handful of would-be bird-doggers on a recent weeknight in Manchester, N.H.


GRIM: Let's just start with intros.

MOON: The trainees sit in a half circle of folding chairs. They include a retired postal worker, a middle-aged state rep and a few millennials.

What they all have in common is a frustration with canned political responses and a desire to, as one of them told me, out-manipulate the manipulators.


GRIM: You know, engage with them - like, make eye contact.


GRIM: Even if you don't really - even if you're not this candidate's number-one fan, like, yeah (clapping) - yeah, totally...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Woo. (Unintelligible).

GRIM: Like, make eye contact - right? - because then they're going to be like yeah, I'm going to call on this place and...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's what I'm talking about (laughter).

GRIM: ...They're on my side, right? And then you nail them to the wall.

MOON: Good bird-doggers arrive early and get in the front row. They don't wear shirts with political logos. They know how to make the most of a handshake with a candidate. But the most important tool of any bird-dogger is their question. The trainees learn to use personal anecdotes, to be succinct and, above all else, to be specific.


GRIM: Don't ask how they feel. We don't care about how they feel. We want to know, like, where they stand and what they'll do.

MOON: Almost as important is to make sure the encounter gets recorded, so that it can go out on social media. A practice is one thing. But bird-dogging in the real world with someone who could be the next president of the United States, that's another.

Inside a coffee shop in Dover, Allison Frisella is hoping to bird-dog for the very first time with presidential candidate Julian Castro. She seems ready. She has her question memorized, and she has a strategy for getting Castro's attention.

ALLISON FRISELLA: When I raise my hand, not looking, like, too determined, looking curious rather than looking like I'm going to ask some question that's really going to make him think.

MOON: When Castro finishes his speech, Frisella throws up her hand.


JULIAN CASTRO: There, and then at the back. Yeah, go ahead.

FRISELLA: Hi. I'm Allison. I'm with Rights & Democracy New Hampshire. And as a young voter, one of my major concerns is climate change...

MOON: And just like that, Frisella is bird-dogging. She starts her question with what's at stake for her personally. She adds in a little praise of the candidate to not seem too aggressive. And then she finishes with a specific, concise policy question - as president, would you ban fracking?


CASTRO: You know, I haven't supported an all-out ban so far on fracking. Obviously, I'm familiar with it from down in Texas.

MOON: When I caught up with Frisella afterwards, she said Castro's answer - no to an all-out ban, yes to more community oversight of fracking - it wasn't good enough for her. But she didn't sound disappointed. After all, she got a straight answer on a specific policy question.

FRISELLA: I absolutely want to do more. I'm very excited about this. I'm happy that he called on me.

MOON: Frisella will have plenty of chances to do it again. With more than 20 presidential candidates descending on New Hampshire this primary, there's a long bird-dogging season ahead.

For NPR News, I'm Jason Moon in Concord.

(SOUNDBITE OF HURLEE'S "TROPICANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jason Moon