MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE —
In New Hampshire, a handshake at a diner can turn into a vote in the ballot box.
For decades, presidential candidates have sought out small-town campaign stops to make a personal connection with the voters in this first-in-the-nation primary state.
At Robie’s general store in Hooksett, New Hampshire, decades of signed political photographs line the walls, a testament to the generations of candidates who have stopped by to meet voters.
Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson shakes the hand of a local resident at the Airport Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire, Feb 7, 2016. (K. Gypson/VOA)
“They really want to say 'I’m a normal person, look at me. I can be in this normal place,' ” said Amber Enright, the newest proprietor of the 192-year-old store. “I think it’s a really good bonding experience – you get to touch him or her or get a hug."
Enright said many local residents just want to know that the candidate cares about their town.
Jane Beaulieu, a lifelong New Hampshire resident agrees. She said she thinks the simple lifestyle in New Hampshire increases the importance of bonding with locals at campaign stops.
“If someone spends time with them – especially a presidential candidate – then they’ll think more about voting for them to be their president – not because of what they can do for them but because they have a connection," Beaulieu said.
WATCH: Ben Carson meets with residents at a diner
In other primary states, rallies are an effective way to reach large amounts of voters at the same time but that’s not always the case here.
“New Hampshire voters take retail politics very seriously,” said Chris Galdieri, assistant professor of political science at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.
Galdieri said voters look for face-to-face interaction with candidates; they want the opportunity to ask questions and look candidates in the eye when they hear the answers.
“A lot of times candidates will answer questions until there are no more questions left to be asked. They’re really worried about that one voter who might put them over the top,” he said.
Those interactions more often than not involve a common connection point: food.
On a busy morning just days before the primary, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson makes his way around the Airport Diner in Manchester, interrupting meals of pancakes and eggs to chat with voters.
“I like seeing people face to face. Obviously you’re only going to touch a tiny percentage of people in doing that, but it’s still fun to do,” Carson told VOA.
Tim Sheedy of Concord, New Hampshire, brought his wife and young son to the diner to meet the retired neurosurgeon.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson takes a photo with a diner at the Airport Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire, Feb. 7, 2016.
“What I like about New Hampshire is that you really do get the opportunity to meet the candidates and have the opportunity to talk to them for 20, 30 minutes at the town halls and get the idea of what they’re really about,” Sheedy said.
Days earlier, undecided voter Debbie Powers sat at one of the few chairs in crowded Bruschetti’s Pizzeria in Sandown, New Hampshire, waiting with her neighbors to meet New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Powers casually listed the names of all the candidates she has met in the past few months – Jeb Bush, Donald Trump and the entire Clinton family.
“That’s why I think we come out,” Powers said, “To see them, because it makes you change your mind.”
Powers said she would wait to hear Christie speak at the pizzeria before making up her mind.
In the days before the New Hampshire primary, polls show that about 50 percent of voters have not yet made a final decision. Many of them may be waiting for that one last chance to meet a candidate at the store or over a meal.