The biggest newsmaker in New Hampshire politics right now isn’t any elected official or candidate. It’s a guy in a chicken suit.
Last week, New Hampshire’s only network news affiliate, WMUR, showed up in Loudon, N.H., to cover Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announcing millions of dollars in new grants for farmers, which could help some New Hampshire businesses.
Shaheen, who is locked in a tight race with Republican Scott Brown, surely hoped the photo-op with Vilsack would be a newsmaking event to help her re-election campaign.
But a chicken mascot, which belongs to the New Hampshire Republican Party, was also making its return to the campaign trail, a few days after a junior staffer wearing the suit at an event with Shaheen was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
In Loudon, the chicken led the story.
“This chicken continues to stalk Sen. Jeanne Shaheen,” Reid Lamberty, WMUR’s reporter on the ground, said. “And its message remains the same.”
The mascot, as the reporter noted, has toted signs critical of Shaheen’s choice to forego town halls. But the chicken’s real effect has been to drive attention away from Shaheen and other Democrats, even as the New Hampshire Democratic Party has attacked its “juvenile antics.”
“The chicken is destroying [Shaheen’s] press coverage,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican consultant who has advised Brown’s campaign. “Every time she goes somewhere, the chicken is there.”
If politics is often something of a circus, campaigns are taking the dynamic to a new level in this election cycle, sending mascots, some with only a loose theme, to follow and harangue opposing candidates on the trail. Similar gimmicks have been used before — but with social media as an incentive and accelerant, the tactic seems to have peaked.
Earlier this month at the Iowa State Fair, an annual event steeped in politics, a man dressed as a chicken invoked a Republican attack on Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democratic candidate for Senate, for a dispute he had with neighbors over their chickens. Meanwhile, Democrats sent two walking, talking ears of corn to criticize Republican Joni Ernst for her position on ethanol subsidies.
And in Louisiana, after ethical questions arose about Sen. Mary Landrieu’s payments for campaign travel, Republicans made headlines when they wore airline-themed “Air Mary” costumes to confront Landrieu as she arrived at an event.
“My wife embroidered the logos on the costumes, we found some willing interns and we went from there,” said Jason Doré, executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party. “We wanted to bring attention to an important issue through humor, and I think we succeeded.”
The theatrical ambush was captured on tape by a tracker for the pro-Republican opposition research group America Rising, which subsequently posted the video to YouTube.
“There's an element of throwing the other campaign off its game,” said Tim Miller, executive director for the group’s PAC, of the Louisiana GOP’s costumed-ambush strategy. “Campaigns that are obsessed with and distracted by their costumed followers sometimes make decisions that are more out of annoyance than an attempt to win an election.”
Gimmicks can also be catnip for the media, creating frenzied press coverage for a campaign or party out of nothing.
In advance of Hillary Clinton’s book tour this summer, to promote her memoir Hard Choices, staffers at the Republican National Committee brainstormed how they might break through the coming wall of news coverage about Clinton.
“And we realized, we've got a squirrel costume,” said Sean Spicer, RNC communications director — himself a two-time mascot, as the Easter Bunny at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
The squirrel was left over from an anti-ACORN push in 2008 and didn’t relate to Clinton or her book tour in any way, but that didn’t matter. The RNC decked out the squirrel in a shirt emblazoned with the tagline, “Another Clinton in the White House is Nuts,” and sent an intern to Clinton’s events wearing the costume.
“It cost us the price of a T-shirt and bumper stickers and got us hundreds of thousands of dollars in paid media,” Spicer said. One news outlet even interviewed the squirrel.
The squirrel’s great triumph came when Clinton — perhaps eager to showcase the diplomacy she learned as secretary of state — hand-delivered a signed copy of her book to the squirrel prior to a televised town hall with CNN.
The squirrel and other mascots this election cycle are no trailblazers, however. New Hampshire even has a precedent for law-breaking fowl: A man dressed as a duck in support of then-Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., was arrested in 2008 outside of a debate and charged with disorderly conduct.
But Nevada might be the state with the most impressive recent history of mascots in politics. There, Democrats have at various times deployed “Yucca Man,” a duck and an oil barrel named “Slick” to score political points and press coverage.
The idea for the state party’s most enduring and influential mascot, a chicken, was hatched in 2010 when a Republican candidate for Senate, Sue Lowden, suggested bartering for health care with chickens. Hoping to capitalize on the line, Democrats bought a chicken suit and began sending staffers to Lowden’s events in costume.
“That became a month-long story that she never recovered from,” said Justin Barasky, now a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who was the first person to wear the chicken suit as a staffer for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election campaign.
The chicken received so much press and became so popular among Nevada Democrats that they have used it in at least five races and messaging campaigns since, most recently dressing it as a millionaire in the contest for lieutenant governor.
But the Nevada Democratic chicken, unlike its distant Republican cousin in New Hampshire, never ran into any legal trouble.
“That's another difference between Democrats and Republicans,” Barasky said. “Our chicken was always very respectful.”