Donald Trump upended the traditions of New Hampshire campaigning when he opted for mega-rallies over living room conversations and diner stops, spending less time in the first primary state than any of his rivals. Yet the businessman goes into the state’s Tuesday primary with the hope of clinching his first win.
The trio of governors vying for second place — Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — campaigned with a more personal touch. They’re betting that a near-constant presence and a one-handshake-at-a-time approach is what really matters in 2016, as it has in this state many times before.
In between are Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, two candidates running a multi-state strategy that’s meant fewer and briefer stops through the first primary state, albeit trips that include a traditional grassroots flavor.
The results on Tuesday night will be a test of sorts over which approach works in today’s political landscape, with some candidates offering dire warnings that a strong showing for those who have rejected New Hampshire’s tradition of campaign trail intimacy could harm the state’s first-in-the-nation status.
“If you reward those folks who don’t show up here, there is no reason for New Hampshire to be first,” Christie told voters Friday morning in Durham, urging them to cast aside Trump, Cruz and Rubio.
Others say such hand-wringing is overblown.
“I’ve been at it too long to believe (the primary) is transitory,” said Tom Rath, a longtime New Hampshire GOP adviser who is backing Kasich. “It’ll survive. Trust me.”
Polling leading up to Tuesday’s contest shows Trump maintaining his wide lead in the GOP field while the remaining candidates are clustered together for second or third place. For Kasich, Christie and Bush, a strong showing in New Hampshire is essential for keeping their White House hopes alive after weak showings in Iowa.
The three have campaigned intensely here; Kasich and Christie have spent more than 70 days in the state since early 2015, with Kasich holding more than 100 town hall events. Bush, likewise, has spent more than 50 days in the state, as has Carly Fiorina, who has all but fallen out of the political conversation.
Cruz and Rubio, meanwhile, aren’t focusing solely on New Hampshire, a strategy that paid off for both in Iowa and could pay dividends in South Carolina’s Feb. 20 primary.
At various points, Cruz was absent from New Hampshire for as long as two months at a time, although he’s packed his schedule this week with tours of local business and visits to VFW halls, taking questions from voters at each appearance.
Trump, by contrast, embraced the style of campaigning his rivals have been practicing for months for the first time just 24 hours before voting began.
The billionaire kept things small and personal throughout the day, as he supplemented his usually large and raucous rallies with intimate town hall events and a lunch with Rotary Club members. While Trump clearly thrives off the intensity of larger crowds, he appeared relaxed and at home in the more intimate, in-the-round settings of an Elks Lodge in Salem and the Londonderry Lions Club, pacing gently, kibitzing and interacting with audience members as he led question-and-answer sessions.
Voters seemed to appreciate his more up-close style.
Salem resident Kyle Harris, 54, who works in telecommunications, walked into Trump’s first event torn between the businessman and Rubio, and with questions about whether Trump was approachable enough.
“Seeing him in an arena makes me feel like I’m going to a Bruins game. This is how you get to know the people,” he said. Indeed, the close-up interaction convinced Harris to vote for Trump.
Trump may have come late to the game, but it’s this type of up-close interaction that New Hampshire’s fierce primary defenders say is valuable regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.
“We make the president a better president because at some point in time, this process forces them to look real people in the eye, not through a television screen,” Rath said.
If Kasich, Christie and Bush don’t have strong showings, it’s not necessarily a reflection that the value of retail is dead, said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire and a longtime primary observer. All three are competing for a similar slice of the electorate, leaving potential for voters to split evenly among them.
“In some ways, it’s too much grassroots politicking spread among too many candidates,” Scala said.
Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committeeman from New Hampshire, says it’s too early to write off the value of grassroots New Hampshire campaigning.
“This is an unusual cycle, it is an unusual time, we have a candidate who’s campaigning in an unusual way,” Duprey said of Trump. “That doesn’t mean the old model doesn’t work. Let’s see how the results come in.”