HAMPTON, New Hampshire – When Donald Trump takes his brash brand of conservatism to this summer beach town on Friday night, it won’t be your typical New Hampshire political event.
Trump’s rally at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton is sure to draw at least several hundred attendees – if not more than a thousand – and an international media following. It won’t quite be the small, intimate town hall, restaurant meet-and-greet, or local gun shop stop that Republican voters here are used to in the August before the primary.
“Trump is not really running a political campaign, a traditional campaign. He is running a PR campaign,” said Republican strategist Jamie Burnett, Mitt Romney’s former New Hampshire political director in 2007-2008. “When he does pop into a state, he usually comes into a very controlled, spectacle event.”
New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary state, is famous for putting presidential candidates through a rigorous test. Candidates are repeatedly grilled with detailed policy questions from voters about issues at every stop they make. But Trump – who is leading the GOP field in New Hampshire polls – has focused much of his campaigning lately on national television and media appearances, and has not done as many of the small events that the state is known for as some other Republicans have.
“There is kind of a celebrity component to his candidacy and maybe in New Hampshire he has got to put in some time to do the retail politics,” said Brian Murphy, the chairman of the Rockingham County Republican Committee, where Trump will be Friday. It’s part of Murphy’s job to give his constituents many opportunities to see all of the candidates. “Everyone who is going to vote in the primary is going to have to meet their candidate. The Republican Party in New Hampshire is geared toward that – to get these candidates in front of as many people as possible.”
Trump has made 16 stops in New Hampshire, according to NECN’s candidate tracker – far fewer than candidates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has made 68 stops in the Granite State, businesswoman Carly Fiorina (60), Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (53), South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (43), or even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (25).
When fellow Republican candidates drop his name at New Hampshire town halls, the audience usually reacts with laughter, whether the candidate was intending to make a joke or not. When Bush told a crowd in Barrington the evening after the first presidential debate that, “I had fun last night, I really enjoyed getting to know Donald Trump up close and personal,” the audience started laughing. When Ohio Gov. John Kasich told his Peterborough town hall on Tuesday, “you know, thank God for Donald Trump – 24 million people tuned in,” the entire audience laughed. And the room chuckled when Paul did his Donald Trump impression in Nashua on Wednesday night, complete with the voice: “You know I must be smart. I’m rich. I’m rich, I’ve gotta be smart, right?”
Trump has a commanding lead in the New Hampshire polls. The latest RealClearPolitics average has him at 24.5%, Bush at 11% and Kasich at 10%. And while the latest poll from The Boston Herald/Franklin Pierce University suggests that Trump’s lead could be slipping – putting him at 18%, Bush at 13%, and Kasich at 12% – he’s still the front-runner.
“I think that people know the name, they might identify a little bit with some of what he’s saying, so when you’re early on in the election and they say who do you like, then they might know Bush and like him, and they say, ‘yeah you know I like that Trump guy,’” said Burnett, who also noted that “the percentage is in high teens, so 80% of the people are not supporting him and are supporting somebody else.”
Trump’s team in New Hampshire says the response they’ve heard from people around the Granite State so far has been “phenomenal.”
“I must have heard at least 15 times today that the thing people like about Trump is he says what we are all thinking but can’t bear to say,” said State Rep. Fred Doucette, the co-chairman of Trump’s New Hampshire campaign. “He’s a straight talker. He says what he thinks and thinks what he says and sticks to it and tells the truth. People are sick of the same old same old. They are sick of the politicians. We are ready for a businessman to run this country.”
Doucette believes New Hampshire’s famously independent spirit and independent voting track record fit well with what Trump is selling. “I think New Hampshire people are straight talkers and they like the truth and they like to hear straight talk,” he said.
He’s not alone. Last week, the Trump campaign’s New Hampshire headquarters in Manchester was packed with people, filling two separate large rooms, who came to root for their guy during the first primary debate.
“I like the fact that he speaks the truth,” Brittany Gaston, 25, a server from Manchester, told NBC News that night. “I like that he doesn’t back down. It’s kind of refreshing. I think he speaks to a lot of people in this country who are sick of politicians who are for lack of a better word, they are wishy washy in the things that they say and do and the positions that they take.”
Sid Bowdidge, 59, a massage therapist from Bedford, was also at the debate watch party to join in cheering for Trump. “He’s a guy who gets it done. He’s all about getting it done. He’s been successful. This country needs to be run more like a business and he absolutely knows how to run a business.”