Where did all the good presidents go?

An ad pipes up on the radio in Manchester, New Hampshire: ‘Celebrate Presidents’ Day with us – we’re talking about the good presidents, not the current lot screaming for the job’. When a donut chain is decrying the decline of American politics, the world’s last superpower has a problem.

The ever-present American donut is actually not a bad analogy for the shape of the country’s political landscape: Unhealthy, unsubtle, and with a giant hole in the centre. So it was with a donut in one hand and coffee in the other that I rocked up to see the greatest political show on earth: the New Hampshire primary.

For those who have not watched all seven series of the West Wing (twice), the New Hampshire primary is the first state where supporters of the Democratic and Republican parties get to formally vote to choose their candidates for president. As a state with just 1.3 million people, about the same as Merseyside, the (at one stage) 17 Republican presidential candidates and three Democratic campaigns can afford to devote a great deal of time and money to individual voters to persuade them to their cause. At the extreme, Jeb Bush managed to spend $36m to come in fourth, an astonishing $1,150 per vote.

Much ink has been spilled on the extraordinary nature of this year’s contest. For months, expert commentators – including the data junkies at the famous fivethirtyeight.com blog – have predicted that the hyped outsider candidates would ultimately fail when it came to picking up crosses on ballot papers (or touches on screens).

But as Labour members know, the times really are a-changin’. Standing in the gym of Southern New Hampshire University, surrounded by the Clinton hack-ocracy and watching the results roll in on Twitter, it became clear that voters had chosen to stab the mainstream candidates in the front. With 17 governors and senators running on the Republican side, and one governor and former first lady/senator/secretary of state on the other, New Hampshire handed victory to a 74-year-old socialist and the star of a reality television show.

Not that you would have known that from inside the hall. As speakers blared out ‘Fight Song’ and attractive young activists led chants such as ‘I say Madam, you say President – Madam? President! Madam? President!’, you could be mistaken for thinking that Clinton Mark 2 had achieved the comeback her husband managed in 1992. But it was not to be.

One striking feature of presidential rallies is the time that candidates spend ‘working the rope line’ after their speech. This is not unlike the entrance of Ed Miliband to the Association for Better Milk fringe event at conference, except with metal barriers and Secret Service agents pushing through the crowd, giving evil eyes to anyone whose handshake lingers a little longer than it ought.

But then it was over. Once Hillary, Bill and Chelsea had taken their final selfies and the Sun, Earth, and Moon had left the room, the New Hampshire primary was tossed into history. No post-election drinks; no after-party. Just a bunch of activists heading out on snowy roads to their next stop: Brooklyn, New York for team HQ; South Carolina and Nevada for the field staff. And the race moves on.

This Saturday, the circus turns to Charleston and Savannah in the south, and Reno and Las Vegas out west. These are Hillary’s ‘firewall’ states, where African-American voters and Culinary Workers’ Union members will rally to the Clinton cause. Or will they?

By all accounts, the donut chain may have called it right. This year is not a year for good presidents. The screamers could yet get the last bite.

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Adam Swersky is a councillor in the London borough of Harrow. He tweets @adamswersky

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Photo: Karen Murphy

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