The quadrennial "Lesser Known Candidates Forum" is the ultimate expression of that tradition. Anyone who's at least 35 years of age, and has no problem blowing $1,000 on a ballot filing, can walk into Secretary of State Bill Gardner's office and become a presidential hopeful.* This year, 58 people will appear on the primary ballot. Twenty-nine of them, who met the condition of not meeting network debate conditions, were invited last week to the New Hampshire Institute of Politics for their one shot at national exposure. At best, they could hope to be America's next Emperor Norton, but that was still something.
"It's part of our tradition," said Gardner, the perpetually game elections czar, who spent more than three hours of a cold Tuesday night standing in the back of a room listening to fringe candidates discuss their future administrations. "It's the only time during the course of the primary and caucus months that something like this takes place."
Gardner was not wrong. The idea of letting fringe candidates duke it out at a New Hampshire forum has been in place since 1972, the second year that Pat Paulsen "ran" for president. But you have to look to Philadelphia's annual Mummers parade to find a comparably respectful showcase for people who are making truly bad decisions. If a senator tells you he is running for president, you get it. If a normal-seeming person tells you he is running for president, you suddenly check to see whether he is protecting his brainwaves from the NSA with tinfoil.
The 2016 forum was the most normal-looking in years. There was a reason for that. Vermin Supreme, the performance art candidate whose costume of garish blazers, multiple neckties, and a boot worn like a hat has made him a sort of political celebrity, had been disinvited. In 2012, Vermin had used the forum to introduce his "friendly fascism" and "pony-powered economy" platform to C-Span viewers, then sang his theme song, then informed the audience that "Jesus told me to turn Randall Terry gay."
As the cameras rolled, Supreme grabbed glitter from his pockets and sprinkled it over Terry, the arch-conservative Operation Rescue founder who was running a protest primary campaign against President Obama. The brief "glitterbombing" trend of 2011-2012, where pro-gay activists would sprinkle shimmering paper on their foes, reached either its apex or nadir.
Supreme had no plans to glitterbomb anyone ever again, but the college had simmered about the incident. On short notice, Supreme was told he could not attend, not even if he paid $250 to clean the carpet. He gave his "opening statement" to a CNN camera as he stood in freezing cold, steps away from the Institute of Politics, a long line of police tape reminding him what might happen if he made a break for it.
His absence meant that the forum would be dominated by men who looked like presidential candidates, or at least like a gathering of broom salesmen stuck in an airport bar -- all male, almost entirely white, most but not all of them in dark suits. The five Republicans who'd showed up set the tone quickly. Stephen Comley, an investigator with a thick Boston accent, used his opening statement to warn that no candidate was discussing the safety threat of the Seabrook nuclear power plant. "I got involved because my family had nursing home connections," he said. "The nuclear regulatory commission, the director, told me to leave a resident behind and give her iodine to drink in case of an accident." Asked twice to wrap up, Comley kept going.
This was sort of what Comley did, at all times. His style was not that of a candidate, so much as of the man who spends the first act of a disaster movie warning that the volcano's going to blow or that the body-snatchers are already here. His campaign website, illustrated by a photo of the candidate reaching out of a crowd to hand documents to Ronald Reagan, also featured videos of him asking the Better Known presidential candidates about nuclear safety. "You probably remember that we talked in Washington last week," Comley told Ben Carson, in a grainy video that manages to record Carson's confusion about what he's being asked.
Comley's rivals were more recognizable as politicians. Tim Cook, a frequent candidate for office in his North Carolina districts, ably advanced a Trump-like national greatness message. "You have to wonder, is Islam really a religion?" he asked. "The Nazis thought Nazism was a religion, and we did not let Nazis into the country." Joe Robinson, a candidate with no website, suggested that the file-sharing site Pirate Bay be legalized; Walter Iwachiw, a frequent candidate for mayor of New York City, seemed mostly concerned with "making smart weaponry more available to enhance opportunities for legal weapon ownership." (His campaign website, under "endorsements," featured only a sequence of photos of his face.)
By far the candidate with the strongest idea of how a president should sound was Andy Martin, introduced as an attorney and resident of Manchester. "Today, just as I was coming over here, they took thousands of candidates off the ballots in Iran," he said, by way of explaining what he knew about the world. "That's not a democracy."
The wrinkle, which moderator and Tribune Publishing reporter Mike Memoli brought up in the question round, was that Martin had a special cause. This was his 18th run for office, and in Illinois, one of the four states he'd tried to get elected in, he became a dogged legal foe of Obama. Martin took credit for the rumor that Obama was a secret Muslim, and for some of the theories -- all of which resulted in lawsuits -- that the president was not legally eligible for office. Asked about that, and about his skepticism that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was eligible, Martin didn't miss a step, describing how he'd "called a meeting so that people can sit down and talk" about the legal theory.
In 2006, during Martin's 12th run for office, the Chicago Tribune dug up his Selective Service record -- the one that had kept him from practicing law in Illinois. Martin, it read, had a "moderately-severe character defect manifested by well documented ideation with a paranoid flavor and a grandiose character." This was no hindrance at all when Martin wanted to talk like a presidential candidate.
The Republican forum ended late, giving organizers just minutes to set up 18 name tags for the Democrats. One by one, they revealed themselves as members in one of two categories. The first, like Jon Adams -- whose slogan was "the fire of Bernie Sanders, the mind of Barack Obama" -- saw easy solutions to the problems of the country and the planet.
For Adams, it was "ending disease in 10 years" and the colonization of Mars and the Moon.
For Edward Sonnino, it was a new Federal Reserve policy to print currency and deposit it directly with the poor.
For Eric Elbot, it was in remaking the Middle East into new states based on the Sunni/Shiite divide, something that had occurred to him after "a focus group I convened in Indonesia."
And for Edward O'Donnell, who was running his fourth race, the answer was in summoning some great spirit of togetherness. "Look at a small child on Christmas morning," said O'Donnell, wearing a Christmas-patterned shirt to drive home the point. "All people who have ever lived want two things. Happiness and healing. "
The rest of the field, broadly speaking, was irritated that the Democratic Party had veered left. Mark Greenstein introduced himself as "a liberty Democrat, a term you don't hear too much," and accused his party's leading candidates of treating voters like "5-year-olds who want free stuff." Rocky De La Fuente, who had arrived at the debate in a small car plastered with his face and logo, informed the audience that he was on "30 state ballots, including American Samoa," and that he could restore the party's image. Henry Hewes, who eschewed a blazer for an extremely loud brown sweater, was running on the single issue of ending abortion.
It was all in good fun, until the moderators got to William McGaughey. The Minnesotan with a military haircut started off haltingly, reciting the percentages of the white vote that Mitt Romney and Obama had won.
"I decided to run as a Democrat, partly on the issue of dignity for white people," said McGaughey. "I want to change the way we talk about race."
Adams leapt out of his chair, an act of protest by a man who had thought until a few hours earlier that he might be seated next to a man wearing a boot. McGaughey, who spoke as if the time-keeper could not interrupt soon enough, tried to salvage his point.
"I am married to an African-American woman," he said. "I don't... uh... this racial division, without being discussed, is not going to help this country at all."
The buzzer finally went off. "Okay," said the candidate. "I'm also for a shorter work week."
The debate that followed did not circle back to McGaughey's race theories, whatever they were. Despite theoretically grasping for the same prize, all of the candidates were polite, even standoffish. "Any two of us here could break into the first tier," insisted Adams. Sam Sloan, whose campaign website began with a rambling declaration of principles and ended with a series of links about his legal battles, suggested that the best of them could out-debate Hillary Clinton, but would never get the chance.
"Let's be realistic," he said. "She'll be the next president."
Yet as the hour went on, the candidates seemed more comfortable discussing how their programs would be enacted. "I do support Black Lives Matter," said candidate Graham Schwass. "I also support a global police." The solution to most problems was leadership, and they had convinced themselves that true leadership could be found in their mirrors.
It would only briefly be found on C-SPAN. The debate ended with crisp closing statements and, at Adams's request, a moment of silence for the late Eagles singer/songwriter Glenn Frey. Then the candidates left the stage to mill about and find reporters. This might be the last time all year that the media would treat them with the gravity they were asking for.
They were grateful. Martin sidled up to Secretary of State Gardner, promising his loyalty and legal services if anyone tried to challenge New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
"Okay, thanks," said Gardner.
In the lobby, a few candidates signed commemorative posters that depicted the state's oldest ballot boxes. Stephen Comley, who had brought framed reproductions of the images on his website, was less interested in that than in finding at least one more person who could tell the world about his research. Two reporters, unconvinced, tried to duck out. Comley gave chase, catching them as they were halfway to their cars, and handed over a box of documents, his exchanges and findings about nuclear safety. This was bigger than the election. This was an argument.
*Contrast that to a state like Illinois, where a Republican PAC has already sued to take Hillary Clinton off the Democratic ballot because some of the people who signed her ballot petitions had sloppy handwriting.