CONCORD, N.H. (Reuters) – The road to victory in New Hampshire’s critical Democratic primary on Tuesday may run through the living rooms of people like Gerri and Ron King.
On a recent weekend, the couple baked berry souffles and roasted a ham as they welcomed friends and strangers to their Concord home to hear from Democratic presidential candidate Deval Patrick.
A New Hampshire political tradition known as the house party is an unfiltered and intimate affair that more closely resembles a family gathering than a campaign stop.
The Kings have been hosting parties for more than 15 years. This election, they’ve brought in at least 12 Democratic presidential candidates, including former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who has since dropped out of the race.
New Hampshire’s house party culture represents a nod to a simpler time, running contrary to the huge rallies, million-dollar ad buys and social media blitzes that define modern politics.
It has its roots in the state’s first-in-the-nation primary, where candidates frequent the state’s diners, gymnasiums and bookstores in the months before the vote.
With muddled and incomplete Iowa caucus results showing Buttigieg with a narrow lead over U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, New Hampshire’s primary takes on added importance.
“They have to face tough questions and show their personality. We quickly find out whether a candidate is all hat and no ranch,” said Dick Henry, a 72-year-old energy consultant who routinely attends house parties.
Even though Patrick, a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, has barely registered in opinion polls, roughly 50 people poured into the Kings’ house for his event. The guests found seats on couches and on the stairs, sipping coffee and eating the mounds of food laid out in the dining room.
The crowd had been so big for Buttigieg, Gerri King said, that his staff had to move furniture into the garage and turn away guests.
In their own way, house parties can make or break a candidate.
Marsha Mackey, a 72-year-old retired teacher, said she had been a fan of former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke but changed her mind after seeing him in a small setting.
“He was too wooden, too calculated. I really lost interest in him after that,” Mackey said.
The first presidential house party the Kings hosted was for then-Vermont Governor Howard Dean during the 2004 presidential campaign. Dean was such an unknown that when the candidate showed up at their door, the couple didn’t recognize him.
Momentos of past visits adorn the couple’s walls, with former President Barack Obama occupying the most space. The Kings said Obama represents the perfect example of the power of the house party.
“Before he came, he had a reputation of being cold, but he was so warm and it really showed. He had been to six events that day and had to fly back to Chicago, but he angered aides by making sure he stayed around to say hello to everyone,” said Gerri King, 77.
Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; editing by Diane Craft