Among the roughly two-thirds of New Hampshire Republicans who favor a presidential candidate not named Donald Trump, there is a strange sense of calm.
Yes, they know their preferred candidate is trailing Trump badly and, in many cases, can quote the various polls that prove it. Yet maybe second place isn’t so bad, some muse. A No. 2 finish was enough for Bill Clinton to be branded “the comeback kid” back in 1992. Most, however, hold out hope for an outright win despite a tough challenge in the remaining time before New Hampshire votes on Feb. 9. They remain convinced, polls notwithstanding, that their candidate can grind it out.
In fact, polls showing their candidate losing might prove their point. Candidates who are losers a little more than two weeks out sometimes fare fine. The panic that has gripped national Republicans, quite simply, has not materialized in the Granite State.
In conversations with New Hampshire residents over 14 of the first 20 days of January, it’s clear that these flinty Yankees might know a thing or two the rest of us don’t about the Republican race for the GOP nomination. These voters are royalty in the American political system, the upper tier in a caste system that gives Iowa and New Hampshire outsized sway in picking nominees.
Voters here really do not have to explain to the interlopers why, in the case of one voter, they flirt with democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in the morning and then check out Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in the evening at the Old Salt tavern in Hampton, N.H., bar. Or why a lifelong Democrat in Freedom, N.H., is attending Ted Cruz and Rand Paul rallies because this social worker doesn’t like Hillary Clinton and doubts Sanders could get anything done. Or why another voter is torn between retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a conservative Republican, and Sanders.
These voters certainly have more of a say than any pollster or pundit. New Hampshire voters make their own decisions and often relish at their role in rejecting what outsiders say ought to happen. In an election year dominated by disrupters, New Hampshire voters understand the casting better than most. And, yet, real estate mogul Donald J. Trump is not a beloved figure, polls be damned.
In a campaign dominated by Trump, New Hampshire voters realize they have just as important role in bucking the conventional wisdom. They are the brakes on the GOP runaway's primary. Sure, Trump is winning in the polls. But can that last? In many ways, we are watching an entire electorate troll the national media in towns founded before the Declaration of Independence was sent across the pond.
New Hampshire voters routinely take as much enjoyment in disrupting the national political narrative as they do in cheering the Patriots. (Who cares if the home-state team is actually in Massachusetts?) It’s why, time and time again, these voters want to profess indifference to what happens a week earlier in Iowa. Unless, of course, Iowa rejects Trump. Then, it’s game-on.
“If you want to see nastiness, just wait until Donald Trump doesn’t win Iowa,” said Jim Mittica, a 56-year-old Ted Cruz supporter from Atkinson, N.H. “He’s going to go nuts. People will figure out that Donald Trump is going to look silly in a debate against Hillary Clinton,” Mittica said as he sat with his in-laws at a pizza parlor in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region. “If you want to make Hillary Clinton look good, then go ahead, vote for Donald Trump.”
Trump has led the polls in New Hampshire since July and has proved durable for months despite having spent little time in the state. Trump has made a scant 31 stops in the state. Chris Christie leads among the remaining candidates; he has done 156. Cruz planned 17 stops over five days.
Trump trumpets his lead in the polls as a reason he doesn’t have to campaign as hard as his also-ran rivals.
Voters think otherwise. Voters demand to see the candidates, often multiple times. One voter told Jeb Bush that he had seen him “five or six times” now and said Bush was improving as a campaigner. “I've seen you grow pretty significantly as a candidate, and I'm very happy to see that," said Bob Beckett, a Hollis, N.H., resident who proudly hands reporters his business card. His profession? "Registered New Hampshire Voter."
That approach is hardly uncommon. “I’ve seen them all because I live in New Hampshire,” said Jodi Nelson, a 46-year-old Derry resident who likes Rubio. “You need to see them all if you’re going to vote. We treat this like a job interview, or picking a boyfriend.”
Even those voters who aren’t yet sold still want to shop. Shari Vietry, a 46-year-old technology wonk from Merrimack, took her kids to see Bush on a snowy weekend morning. “I liked him more than I thought I would.” She was still considering former HP exec Carly Fiorina.
Voters still aren’t sold, and—if history holds true—half are still going to move their loyalties. “I figured I’d see the American experience in action,” said Alan Craft, a 54-year-old Derry resident who was waiting to hear from Rubio in a community center one day before he went to his job in sales. “He’s got to have better ideas than Donald Trump.”
Again and again, the conversation comes back to Trump. In New Hampshire’s small towns and small businesses, talk inevitably turns to Trump, the brash billionaire whose larger-than-life personality is the opposite of what these cranky Yankees see in themselves. Where he arrives by private jet, many voters have snowplows on their trucks to pick up some extra cash from neighbors. When Trump arrives in his tailored suits, his audiences stand in their L.L. Bean boots, usually bought at the outlet a few exits down the highway. And when he boasts of his elite education, New Hampshire shrugs; the state beats national averages on standardized tests.
Historically, polls have proved a poor predictor in New Hampshire. Time on the ground, meeting voters in their neighborhood cafes and town halls is how campaigns traditionally build wins. On that front, Trump is outgunned by almost everyone except Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who are Iowa-centric in their campaigns. Even Ben Carson has campaigned more in New Hampshire than Trump.
Voters have noticed Trump’s preference for Twitter screeds over town halls, for talk shows over stops at the touristy Tilt’n Diner. They might punish Trump for it. “He’s a loose cannon and cannot represent our country,” said 69-year-old Marilyn Ewing of Hanover, N.H. Says Dan DeCosta, a 79-year-old Henniker, N.H., resident: “Trump is just too radical.” DeCosta still thinks 2012 nominee Mitt Romney is a model the GOP should be promoting in a way only possible in New England: “He was an honest church-going guy—whatever the hell that means.” As for Henry Duhamel, a 72-year-old retiree in Warner, N.H., he could not imagine who is left in Trump’s camp. “Donald Trump has been a jerk to so many people. Who hasn’t he offended?”
Yet Trump remains atop the polls here. A CNN-WMUR poll released Thursday shows Trump up at 34% support. His next closest comer is Cruz at 14%, and Bush and Rubio tied at 10%.
Forget it, a lot of New Hampshire voters say. All of the surveys are garbage and a waste of money. “Polls don’t decide an election and I refuse to participate in them,” said Richard Tripp, who sits on the Derry Town Council and has seen Rubio, Kasich, Walker, Christie and even took a picture with Hillary Clinton. (In typical New Hampshire grousing, he notes he still hasn’t received the photo from her campaign.)
It's also good to remember that these voters are famously finicky. Exit polls in 2012 found one-in-five primary voters decided on Election Day, and half decided in the last week before the primary. These New Hampshire voters seldom ratify what happens in Iowa. They decide in the last month who is not an option, and then they decide who is. They buy their Dunkin and pick their President.
Trump’s support in New Hampshire is vocal but rival campaigns look at it with a mix of pity and bewilderment. “I’m not convinced Trump is a conservative,” said Steve Kenda, a 58-year-old North Hampton resident who once introduced Trump at a rally.
Kenda describes himself as “an anti-Establishment business guy.” So he’s the exact profile of someone who should be a Trump supporter, right? Not so fast.
“I like what he’s done in tearing apart the whole politically correct thing. But I don’t trust him on the Second Amendment or abortion,” he said, standing inside a freezing barn for a meet-the-candidate session hosted by former Sen. Scott Brown. “I wouldn’t put my kids’ futures in his hands.”
Others are more skeptical about Trump’s fade. “It will be hard for Trump to lose,” said Randy Fesh, a 38-year-old consultant from Londonderry who is still trying to make up his mind. “But then who wins?”