Nikki Haley meets with patrons during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner in Derry, N.H.
Youth play a unique role in the New Hampshire primaries. But is that soon to change? Matt Rourke/AP

The Media Frenzy Surrounding New Hampshire’s GOP Teens: ‘Politics Is My Sport’

The obsessive national focus on New Hampshire’s primaries has given the state’s hyper-engaged teens fame and power. This could be the end of it.

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — After months of speculation in the press, James Thibault, 18, finally made his 2024 presidential primary endorsement in a live interview with CNN broadcast from an Amherst diner Monday morning.

It was his third national news interview focused on which Republican candidate for president this teenager would cast his first-ever, first-in-the-nation primary vote for.

Initially, he told The Wall Street Journal in September he had been backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but was leaning toward Vivek Ramaswamy because the businessman was doing a better job energizing young voters. In a Boston Globe interview published Jan. 11, Thibault then said he was still “really torn” between DeSantis and Ramaswamy…

Actually, no. “That was the first piece” in the Globe, Thibault interjected in a conversation with NOTUS about his fame Monday afternoon, as he sat in the Saint Anselm College dining hall, where he was continuing his endorsement tour. “There was a second piece. Yeah, I was on the front page, I think, yesterday.”

Oh, right. Whoops! The Globe interviewed him again, putting Thibault’s picture on the front page Sunday in a story where he said he was prepared to vote for former President Donald Trump, with reservations.

So the CNN interview Monday morning was actually his fourth national news interview about his vote. Thibault was slightly firmer in his support for Trump on CNN, his fourth — just double-checking, yes, fourth — chance to explain his decision-making process.

“I’m getting used to it,” he said.

Four hours after he said that sentence, he sent this text: “NBC just interviewed me lmao.”

Here are the facts about Thibault’s vote readers will only see in this national news outlet: He made his decision to back Trump after DeSantis underperformed in Iowa. He was once skeptical of the former president, but he is all in now. What’s more, he is “80 percent-plus” sure Trump will win the general election. Close readers of his WSJ interview may be asking, But wait, he said age is a factor for him — and Biden and Trump are essentially the same age, right? Especially when you’re looking at the two of them through 18-year-old eyes?

New Hampshire voter James Thibault
James Thibault shows off the Boston Globe’s profile of New Hampshire primary voters. Evan McMorris-Santoro/NOTUS

“I think to an extent, absolutely, that we need to be looking at younger politicians,” Thibault said. That’s why he liked Desantis and Ramaswamy in the first place. But assuming it’s Trump-Biden in November, “when your choice is two old candidates, I think I’m going to pick the younger one and the one who has the best track record and the one who has the most energy.”

This is what New Hampshire’s primary process is all about. Thibault saw multiple candidates speak, got to meet them, feel them out, and be interviewed repeatedly by national reporters trying to understand the state of the race by talking to the Americans who have been talking to the candidates. And he told them a consistent story of carefully considering his options and taking his vote seriously.

It really is different in New Hampshire. Thibault represents a type of eager, focused and politically minded young person specific to this state and its extremely accessible politics. He is super connected like a certain type of young person can be anywhere. But he’s not a nepo baby. Neither are any of the other politically ambitious teens NOTUS spoke to in the days before Tuesday’s primary. Thibault’s dad is a self-employed landscaper, his mother is a licensed nursing assistant.

Thibault co-chairs the New Hampshire Legislative Youth Advisory Council, a group selected by the state’s top political officials made up of 19 residents aged 15 to 22. Twelve slots are set aside for high school students. LYAC members are asked to review legislation that lawmakers think may affect the state’s youth. They can also suggest legislation. They testify in hearings and generally get to know the workings of New Hampshire’s massive and chaotic legislature, which is unlike any other in the United States. This state makes it easy to get involved in politics. Eager young people step forward and take advantage of that, and LYAC members pop up all over the place.

But this may be the final national media tour for the state’s political super teens. The state’s primary is changing, and the prominent role it has given its young people in both parties’ national nominating contests could be fading. The Democratic Party has abandoned New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status. Trump didn’t campaign like a New Hampshire candidate in either ‘16 or ‘24 — his style is not to talk with voters in small groups but at them in huge rallies. He won the last contested Republican primary here and polls show him cruising to another win. If that sets a precedent for candidates to move away from small-town coffee shops, from needing to actually meet and persuade people one-on-one, the teens may see their place in national politics disappear.


Fifteen-year-old LYAC member Anthony Henry scheduled a meeting at 4 p.m. on Sunday with NOTUS to discuss his feelings on the presidential race. It would not be his first media appearance, either. Henry was quoted by the New Hampshire Bulletin in 2021 for a story that included his feelings on a voucher program for schools. The Bulletin story was published shortly before Henry appeared on “Fox & Friends.” The then-13-year-old Henry had written a letter to DeSantis praising the Florida governor for his handling of COVID-19, which led to Fox News bringing Henry on and surprising him with the man himself.

“I just wanted to say thank you for the letter, I really appreciate it,” DeSantis said on air. With a shocked look on his face, Henry thanked DeSantis for his leadership in Florida.

An hour before his scheduled Sunday meeting to talk with NOTUS about politics in 2024, Henry sent a text.

“So quick update, I’m about to meet with Trump, could I call you when I’m home tonight?” he wrote. “I’m so sorry 😂”

On Monday, Henry made time during his study hall period to meet up for coffee around the corner from Pinkerton Academy, which he attends, in Derry. He had an art midterm earlier that morning and came with a box of ceramics in tow. After, he’d walk back to school to catch the bus home across town.

Henry doesn’t have a driver’s license. He can’t vote. He’s 15. But he’s also in contact with more state representatives than some pros with decades of political experience.

“Give or take, maybe 50,” he said. “Probably more though.”

Surely this is the most politically connected teen in New Hampshire. “I’m one of them,” Henry said.

“I don’t play sports or anything like that. I’m not involved in a lot of other clubs in school,” he said. “Politics is really my thing. It’s my sport.”

And the Florida governor was his favorite player. “DeSantis is one of the reasons I got involved in politics in the first place,” he said. “If he never responded to that letter I would not be where I am now.”

And yet, a month ago, before DeSantis stumbled to second in Iowa and just about three years after he was on TV with the man, Henry had decided to back Trump. He called it his “official endorsement.”

“In the end, I had to put my personal feelings aside and go for the right pick,” he said. And his one-time hero DeSantis? “It’s just not his time yet.”

Henry hears that same line about himself, as he’s just a sophomore in high school. In addition to his membership in LYAC, he’s a student member of the Derry School Board and he has his own political talk show on YouTube, called “America’s Ass with Anthony Henry” on which he regularly hosts state lawmakers. “It’s a great way of networking,” Henry said.

Last year, he was freshman class president at Pinkerton Academy, the state’s largest high school. Henry ran again this year but got beaten by his former vice president. “He talked to some people, tried to sway the vote. But I won’t get into that,” he said.

Henry said he was offered an internship on the Trump campaign last June. “But I said no way, I’m just too busy.”

After high school, he plans to take some time off before college to consider a run for state legislature. “Mark me down as a potential for 2026,” Henry said.

Trump supporters
A crowd waits for Donald Trump Jr. to speak at a campaign stop for his father on Jan. 22 in Hollis, New Hampshire. David Goldman/AP

Trump does not have universal support among LYAC’s conservative members. Rebecca Leak is a 21-year-old member from Andover who voted for Trump when she cast her first-ever ballot in the ‘20 general election. But, for her first-ever primary vote this year, she didn’t even consider him. She voted early for DeSantis so she could go visit family in West Virginia on primary day. She said now, though, that if she were able to vote on Tuesday, she’d vote for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

“I was never amped on Trump. I always had reservations, even in 2016 when I couldn’t vote but was just paying attention to the primary and all that,” she said. “I was very reserved as to his character and whether or not the policies he would implement would actually be good.”

Leak liked Trump in his first term in office. But she said there’s no reason to believe his second term would be the same. And she’s worried that his legal battles will hurt him in the general election, about “the drama that follows him everywhere,” and that he’s “getting on in years.”

Polling has shown that a lot of young Republican voters seem like Leak. Entrance polls out of Iowa showed that more GOP voters under age 30 voted for DeSantis than anyone else. Trump fell to third in the polls for that age group despite decisively winning the state overall. And for New Hampshire voters under 34, a University of New Hampshire poll published Sunday found Haley with a slight lead, despite Trump being way ahead among all likely Republican voters.

The most prominent young Republican in all of New Hampshire, though, is fully in Trump’s corner.

Valerie McDonnell wasn’t as invested in politics when Trump first campaigned in 2016. “I was trying to follow the news the best I could. But I think my priorities were elsewhere in middle school,” she said.

McDonnell, 19, was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 2022. Tuesday will be her first time voting for president.

She started her state representative campaign the week before she started her senior year of high school. In addition to now holding office, she’s also balancing a part-time job at her local grocery store, and taking classes at Southern New Hampshire University. She’s technically a college sophomore but is on track to graduate later this year.

“I always like to say I could learn more by doing political science than I ever could from a textbook,” she said.

McDonnell saw all the Republican presidential candidates, in some cases multiple times, before making her endorsement. That included Trump, DeSantis and Haley of course, but also Ramaswamy, Chris Christie, Larry Elder, Perry Johnson, Tim Scott, Doug Burgum, Asa Hutchinson, Mike Pence, and “a lot of smaller candidates that maybe only register for the ballot in New Hampshire.”

She went with Trump. McDonnell said she sees a similarity between herself and Haley as “prominent female conservatives,” but said she wouldn’t vote for someone based on identity politics. Like Henry, she also said of DeSantis, that “it just wasn’t his time yet.”

Also like Henry, she said that’s a line that she’s heard about herself. But in her case, it’s as the third-youngest state legislator elected in U.S. history.

“I value fresh faces and new voices in politics, especially since my journey began as kind of the underdog and a younger, new face,” she said. “But when it comes to the highest office in the country, I’d like someone with the experience.”

McDonnell did say it would be “refreshing” to see presidential candidates younger than Trump and Biden, but she wants to change the narrative around age. Instead of simply electing a younger president, she believes in a “bottom-down approach.” Start by electing younger state representatives, like herself, and then people get used to the idea of electing younger people in the federal government.

“Not for me personally though,” she was quick to clarify. “I’m tied down to New Hampshire.”


A question now, though, is how much longer will everyone else be tied down to New Hampshire after this primary? Democrats have decided not to play the game here anymore, saying the state is just not enough like the rest of the country to merit its past prominence. And Trump has upended the game for Republicans, showing that voters will not punish a candidate who refuses to do the hundreds of stop-and-chats with strangers the state is known for.

What impact might a change in the primary focus have on the youth political culture in New Hampshire? Yale political science Ph.D. candidate and New London native Eric Scheuch was a member of LYAC in 2016, the election cycle when the youth vote really, really mattered, especially for Democrats like Scheuch. He said he certainly understands the obituaries being written for the kind of New Hampshire campaigning he grew up with and was fascinated by as early as age 5. But he thinks other things unique to New Hampshire politics — the direct democracy of the town meeting, the accessibility of elected officials due to the size of the legislature — will keep the pathway for youth engagement open.

“My hope is that even if the New Hampshire primary fades a little bit in importance that this youth involvement will not go away,” Scheuch said.

The opportunity for people like James Thibault to have their picture in both the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe, in addition to appearances on CNN and NBC News all in the span of one small state’s primary campaign, might go away, however. There just might not be any national interest in the thoughts of these teens if there’s no high-stakes presidential race to ask them about.

“It’s kind of cool,” Thibault said of his many press appearances. “But my issue with all of these things is that everything’s locked behind a paywall, so I can’t brag about it.”

Correction: This story originally misstated the LYAC appointment process. The members are selected by the state’s top political officials.

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS. Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.