On the wall across from the counter inside the post office where Phyllis Lynbourg works, a list of registered voters has been posted.
"You look at our checklist there that was printed up just for this election," she says, "and then look down at the bottom at all the additions we've had to add just for this primary. I had 419 Republicans and 191 Democrats until we started adding all those on. I'm still getting calls even though last Saturday was the final day for registration. I've already sent out double the number of absentee ballots of last time, and I'm still getting calls for more. We had a little less than 400 who voted in the last primary. We are going to get way over that. I bet we hit over 600 this time."
She was giving evidence that the most important news of this presidential year has much more to do with the people than the candidates. After more than a decade of public disfavor, if not disgust, with presidential politics, life appears to be returning to the political process.
Perhaps people aren't turning onto politics, that object of nearly everyone's scorn, but so far they are turning out.
Center Strafford is not an isolated example of this fact; the same message came from Iowa a month ago, and today talk of national politics continues to be strongly expressed there. Go into the Colonial House in Boone, Iowa, any morning this week or attend the late afternoon coffee klatches there at the back of McCaskey's Restaurant on Main Street, and you'll hear animated discussions about how the candidates are doing and how the issues are being perceived. The conversations in Iowa and the political attitudes they expose are remarkably similar to those in New Hampshire.
For these reasons alone this reportorial tale of two communities is worth pondering politically. Other strains emerging from them are even more intriguing. Center Strafford is no metropolis, and the post office where Phyllis Lynbourg takes care of town business as town clerk stands as no monument to federal largess. She and her husband, "Lindy" Lynbourg, the postmaster, live there in a white-frame house familiar throughout New England.
Their county always has intrigued political pulsetakers. For a century, it was one of only five in the United States that voted the way the nation did in every presidential election. And Center Strafford, a hamlet tucked away in the New Hampshire hills and woods northwest of the industrial city of Portsmouth on the coast, holds special political relevance in the county. As Phyllis Lynbourg says: "They always say, if a Democrat can get a lot of votes in the town of Strafford, the country's going Democrat."
Recent history backs up that old chestnut. In the 1976 primary, Jimmy Carter edged out Morris Udall here by almost exactly his statewide margins -- and so did Gerald R. Ford over Ronald Reagan. That November, Ford carried Center Strafford, but Carter did much better among Republican voters than the party registration figures.
Boone, Iowa, on the prairie an hour's drive north of Des Moines and west of Ames, while not the bellwether of Center Strafford, nonetheless votes much like the state -- and often even closer to the nation. Four years ago, while Ford narrowly carried Iowa, Boone went slightly for Carter. Last month Boone's 2-to-1 support for Carter over Edward Kennedy matched the statewide numbers. And George Bush defeated Ronald Reagan there by about the same margins as he did throughout Iowa.
Most impressive about Boone's vote, though, was its size People turned out in such massive numbers that precinct captains were overwhelmed. Precincts that previously saw four or five voters were inundated by 65 to 145 citizens. Today, people in Boone still talk of that turnout in tones of awe. No one expected it.
The most striking aspect of voter attitudes in both communities today concerns the Soviet move into Afghanistan. Despite the president's words about America facing the greatest threat to peace since World War II, and despite the strong support Carter gets from the hostage issue in Iran, there simply seems no interest in Afghanistan. People not only aren't talking about it, but they also aren't buying the president's premise.Invariably, they will say they think the president's statements are political rhetoric. "Overreaction," is a word that keeps being repeated. "Out here, it's almost like it never happened," a businessman in Boone remarks. "It's just more Washington talk." You also hear the belief, nearly always stated as a hope, that the Russians will become trapped in their own Vietnam type of quagmire.
Three other dominant impressions: The increasing contempt for Congress, the rising concerns about inflation, the harsher criticisms about oil company profits.
In neither community are voters talking about the Abscam bribery scandal in Congress. The news served only to confirm what people already believe -- Congress is for sale. "They're all crooks" it's said in the old, cynical way. Yet despite that jaundiced view, people this time are clearly paying far closer attention to politics and politicians. Not because of a sudden rekindling of faith in them, but out of pure self-interest.
They are fully aware of how directly international and domestic issues are tied together and how their lives are being affected by them. That's where the economic questions particularly intrude.
In Iowa, the president benefited from generally favorable economic conditions. Compared to the national level, unemployment was slight. (In Boone, it was running under 3 percent during the caucus votes last month.) And Iowans never had to endure the shortages of gasoline experienced by many Americans last summer.
Now, however, the economic pinch grows more severe there. In the last month, gasoline prices have risen 7 cents a gallon, the sharpest increase ever, and unemployment moves slowly upward. "Our customers are paying rates on loans that anyone would have thought crazy just two years ago," says Dale Walkenhorst, president of the Boone State Bank.
"Absolutely crazy. We can notice in our savings deposits and in our demand deposits, no growth. Now we're getting a little higher delinquency in our installment loans partly because now we're getting a few more people laid off around here. Today, people walk into the bank and say, 'I'm just struggling. Either you're going to be a little late in getting my payments or you're going to have to rewrite them, because it's just costing me too much to live.'"
In New Hampshire economic distress is more intense -- and political expressions about it more pronounced. Kennedy voices here express their support almost entirely in economic terms. "My impression of Carter is that he's had plenty of time to do something about the energy situation and the price of gas," says Lindy Lynbourg. "I don't think windfall profits are the answer to our economic situation. I think Kennedy's forceful enough to get things through Congress."
Home heating bills just arrived in mailboxes here and everyone's talking about them. "My last load of heating oil cost 97.8," says Burnham Varney, 60, "and the man says it will be a dollar or more by the end of the month. It was around 70 a year ago."
Comments about the candidates in both communities are alike.
Carter is seen as very sincere, but naive. "He's a good Christian man," observes D. T. Miller, a railroad engineer, over coffee in Boone, "which unfortunately hurts him. He looks weak. He can't beat his fist on the table. We can only survive through strength."
Reagan is not only perceived as too old, but as a less effective candidate Roger Leighton, the leading Republican in Center Strafford: "I don't think Reagan's done as good a job at presenting the facts as Baker or even Dole for that matter." He'll vote for Bush. "He's done a better job of presenting himself than the others." Bush clearly is beating Reagan here in Center Strafford.
John Anderson is admired. People like him for taking strong, unequivocal, unpopular stands. But in both places the same things are said: "Too bad he can't make it. I think he's a great guy."
The strongest feelings are about Kennedy. It's clear after talking with citizens in Boone that Iowa was going to be difficult at best for Kennedy. Questions about Chappaquiddick and his personal life were never resolved, and were highly damaging. The emotions over the hostages are obviously worked against him there. But Kennedy also lost support by his own performance.
Fred Doxsee, for instance. Doxsee, a World War II veteran who fought at the Battle of the Bulge and now sells insurance, voted for Carter four years ago after anguishing over his choice. By last spring and summer, he, like many citizens in Boone, had turned against the president. When Kennedy campaigned in Boone, Doxsee went to hear him.
"I wanted to see the man personally," he recalls. "I stood on line for about an hour and half to get in. 1i was expecting to be -- I don't know, be mesmerized or something, to feel something was going to come across . . . was going to go out and say, "There's the guy.' But he just didn't come across to me. I was terribly disappointed. He gave me the feeling his heart wasn't in it, that he didn't want to be president and that he was talking down to people. Why I got that feeling I don't know. But now I'm probably as dyed-in-the-wool a Carter man as you can find. I don't see anything changing my mind. If I catch Kennedy on the TV now I switch him over."
Here in Center Strafford, Burnham Varney's also been anguishing. He's a lifelong Republican who's always voted for his party's nominee. Like Doxsee, he's a World War II veteran who was severely wounded on Okinawa. Four years ago he was for Ford.
"I think we're worse off than we was four years ago," he says. "I think Carter's tried to be honest. I don't think he tried to hide anything. I just don't think he's a leader. I hope he won't get it, but I think he will. jI think he did a terrible thing to decontrol oil prices. Terrible.
"Yes, I think Kennedy's my man. This Chappaquiddick situation's going to hurt him a lot. But I don't care what he's done in the past. As I said the other day, when you hire a man, you're interested in what he's going to do for you today and tomorrow. I really don't think there's anybody more capable in this period of time than Kennedy. I'm in favor of putting wage and price controls. I'm in favor of rationing gasoline. Why wait until it gets to $2.50, then ration it? As far as the Iranian situation goes, I never felt that was handled right from the beginning. I'm not in sympathy with the people holding the hostages by any means. But now Jimmy Carter is all for human rights, and when they had the shah on TV David Frost asked him:
"'They say you killed 100,000 people.' He says '100,000? Does anybody realize how many 100,000 is. He wouldn't say no. He just said you realize how many people 100,000 is. And we know that he's a crook. If I got him by the hair of the head, I'd haul him back to Iran myself. I don't know who was responsible for that, but the trouble is that sometimes we don't know what side our bread is buttered on."
So, at the age of 60, Burnham Varney intends to cast his first vote ever for a Democratic presidential candidate here Tuesday.
That doesn't mean we've finally found that mystical voter in whom all wisdom resides and through whose actions all political questions are answered. People here in this vaunted political test area are saying they've never seen so many undecided voters at this stage in the primary. "Usually at this time we're wide open at town meetings and all about the primary," says Lindy Lynbourg. "This time people don't seem to want to commit themselves. Either they're undecided or they want to keep it to themselves."
The latter probably is true. Similarly large numbers of voters were reported as undecided before the Iowa caucuses. They voted overwhelmingly for Carter and they knew exactly how they'd vote long before the caucuses.
So far the evidence from both Iowa and New Hampshire is that citizens intend to be heard this year but how they'll vote is less significant than the simple fact that they are reversing the trends of a decade and voting at all.