WASHINGTON: As the Presidential primary season begins to heat up with the two potentially most pivotal contests - the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary - scheduled for later this month, Presidential hopefuls are scrambling for face time with voters in those states. This finds the candidates fielding questions in town-hall meetings, diners, and truck stops. Yet what neither they nor those watching the primary coverage on TV might realize is that a significant number of those people asking the questions aren't just curious voters. They're staff, often paid and dispatched by any number of Washington-based advocacy groups on a mission to keep their pet issues atop the minds of candidates and reporters.
"We have a group of volunteers across Iowa," said Nancy George, national coordinator of grassroots campaigns for AARP. "Wherever a candidate goes, they go and ask questions, whether it's a restaurant or wherever. We developed a little palm card with suggested questions to ask."
Those questions focus mostly on issues of aging, but the over-50 crowd hardly has a monopoly on the practice.
"We've got a large network of New Hampshire residents that are trained on how to get your question into a town-hall meeting. They're out there every day asking candidates, 'How would you stop raids on medical marijuana patients?'" explained Krissy Oechslin of the Marijuana Policy Project.
The list of groups sending professionals to recruit volunteers across both states is long and varied, and for many, it is a significant expense taken from a tiny annual budget. But according to those who do it, the opportunity for exposure makes it cost-efficient.
"This is probably the biggest opportunity we get, simply because it's the Presidential candidates and there's a lot of media running around these states. International media, even," said George.
"Our efforts have really yielded dividends where we have people working on the ground," said director of public affairs for the American Association of Health Plans (AAHP), Mohit Ghose. His group has been active in both states since February, culminating in New Hampshire Governor Craig Benson's (R) attendance at an AAHP event late last year.
The practice won't end with New Hampshire, either. Ghose says his group is already executing plans to target later primary states.
"Our next step, in March, will be to really peg candidates down on the issue," he said.