US candidates embrace cafe campaigning

US candidates embrace cafe campaigning
A sign is shown inside the Town Hall bar and cafe where Republican presidential candidate and US Senator Marco Rubio speaks at a campaign stop in Cleveland, Ohio, August 5, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

BOONE, United States - Shortly after Hillary Clinton announced her presidential bid in April, her debut campaign stop was a coffee shop in small-town Iowa, an American custom that endures despite mega-events and the growing influence of digital politicking.

Every US presidential hopeful in the last century has likely engaged in the cafe or diner ritual, and nowhere more assiduously than Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that vote first in the drawn-out battles to decide the nominees for the Democratic and Republican parties.

The 20 men and women currently seeking the White House have already repeated the cliched, but necessary, campaign trail protocol dozens of times.

Like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham did Saturday at the Good News Room Coffeehouse in Boone, Iowa, they slide into a booth next to patrons as they sip coffee or enjoy their bacon deluxe breakfast, and take the pulse of an electorate in America's early voting states.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie huddled with locals at the Pink Cadillac Diner in Rochester, New Hampshire two days after launching his 2016 campaign, while rival Mike Huckabee pressed the flesh early this month at Dodici Cafe in Iowa.

The humble tradition bumps up against the digital age, which rivals the space carved out by retail politics.

The race is playing out feverishly online, where candidates retweet supporters, use live-stream apps, post video clips on YouTube, and claim to connect with Facebook followers.

But nothing takes the place of a candidate's face-to-face encounters with everyday voters over a hot cup of joe.

"It's the last real vetting process in America," Graham told AFP after an hour-long Q&A session with about a dozen voters at the wood-panelled Boone cafe.

"The diner is a place to look somebody in the eye. You can't do that on social media."

Graham is trailing badly in the polls, and lacks the financial muscle of major candidates like Clinton, Republican former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and billionaire tycoon Donald Trump, who is leading the wide Republican field.

"The diner experience is the only way forward for a guy like me," Graham said knowingly.

"I don't have $100 million, but if you meet enough people at diners and church socials... you can actually move the needle."

The locales, often family owned, are where community residents have gathered for decades to talk business, sports, the economy and, of course, politics.

Candor, authenticity 

Leave it to places like Harvey's Bakery & Coffee Shop, which opened in 1932 in Dover, New Hampshire, to serve as community gathering point for candidates barnstorming the early states.

"In the past, we've had pretty much all of them drop in," co-owner Pam Simpson, a member of the bakery's founding family, said matter-of-factly in a telephone interview, citing Bush's visit in July.

"They usually start in the coffee shops," she said of the candidates. "As they become more popular, they move to larger venues."

The roadside pit stop remains a must for candidates under pressure to appear authentic, but also to learn how the economy, regulations, or agriculture prices and policies are affecting voters.

"These are real people out here in the hinterland, and they give a more candid opinion of what's going on," a man who gave his name only as Steve said, in Boone.

"If candidates don't go out there and do that, they're going to appear pretty isolated."

The coffee shop stops grow more chaotic deeper into election season, but in early months they can be intimate affairs at ground level, where candidates woo two or three voters at a time.

It's all a dramatic contrast to the bluster and big-events of Trump, the brash billionaire who wrote "The Art of the Deal" but does not practice the art of campaign trail subtlety.

Laurie Vogel, a technology worker eating lunch at Drake Diner, a 1950s-styled eatery in Des Moines, Iowa that has hosted its share of candidates, sees value in the visits that she said lend a sense of nostalgia to the race for the most powerful job on the planet.

"Some of them probably do it for show," she said as a waitress brought Vogel her meal.

"But I would hope that they'd like to find out what Middle America's concerns are."

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