The New Hampshire presidential campaign legend goes something like this: a candidate wins by devoting time, showing grit and building relationships with voters, one at a time.
But if Donald Trump wins the state’s first-in-the-nation primary next week, as most polls suggest he is well positioned to do, he threatens to upend these campaign traditions.
In New Hampshire, Trump has not run a retail campaign, and he has spent only a fraction of the time on the ground that his challengers have. It might not matter to Granite Staters after all.
In the final week before the primary, Trump is seemingly tweaking his campaign routine in a nod to New Hampshire and its campaign traditions, even as he continues to lead the rest of the Republican field by a wide margin. On Thursday, Trump’s campaign added a few retail events to his schedule, including a meeting with local business owners and another with Manchester police.
Trump also scheduled a town hall for Friday, a departure from his large rallies, where he does not take questions.
The changes put Trump more in line with New Hampshire’s vaunted political traditions, including presidential campaigns rooted in retail politicking and a willingness by candidates to submit themselves to relentless grilling by even the flintiest Granite Staters.
“You make us walk on the hot coals,” Jeb Bush often tells his New Hampshire town hall audiences, describing the process they demand of their presidential candidates.
But Trump, so far, has not walked over many hot coals at all. Indeed, the vast majority of his 42 stops in the state, far fewer than most candidates who have sought to be in contention in New Hampshire, have been his signature rallies with minimal voter contact.
The few times Trump has stepped down from behind his lectern, the results have been mixed. When he sat down at the famous Red Arrow Diner in Manchester last month for a burger, a woman called him a “racist.”
At a recent town hall hosted by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Nashua Republican Committee Chairman Mark Biggie told Real Clear Politics: “New Hampshire is traditionally a small town hall like this, or [candidates] even go down to the local diner and just sit and shake hands. Donald Trump can’t have that kind of a thing. He draws too big a crowd.”
Indeed, other candidates hoping to make a stand in New Hampshire, including Bush, Kasich and Chris Christie, have all but moved to the Granite State. Each has made more than 100 campaign stops, typically hosting small, town hall-style events where they take questions for an hour or longer.
That follows a well-worn playbook White House hopefuls have followed for decades in New Hampshire. John McCain famously sparked a comeback in 2008 after he grinded out town hall after town hall there, ultimately winning the primary. In 2004, Joe Lieberman literally moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Manchester, although that level of commitment ultimately did not pay dividends for the Connecticut senator.
Retail politicking has also become standard in New Hampshire because presidential candidates who have sought to cut corners haven’t often succeeded.
Media magnate Steve Forbes spent $69 million of his money during two campaigns for the White House in 1996 and 2000, but no amount of money could buy him a connection with voters on the ground. He came up short in New Hampshire on both tries.
But a populist candidate in the vein of Trump has won over New Hampshire. Pat Buchanan gave sitting President George H.W. Bush a scare in the primary in 1992 when Buchanan won roughly 40 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. In 1996, he upset more mainstream candidates to win the state’s primary, rattling the GOP.
After that, Republicans began to actively call into question New Hampshire’s place on the primary calendar.
“A lot of people felt about the New Hampshire primary in the late 1990s like people feel about the Iowa caucus today,” said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. Cullen recently published a book about the history of the New Hampshire primary, “Granite Steps: Stumbles, Surprises, and Successes on the New Hampshire Primary Trail.”
The state won back its credibility in 2000, when McCain emerged victorious over George W. Bush. In 2008, the parties agreed that Iowa and New Hampshire should continue to go first in the primary process.
“If the institution can survive Pat Buchanan,” said Cullen, “it can survive Trump.”
Trump stands ready to test the theory. His Manchester campaign headquarters was buzzing on a recent morning. On a whiteboard calendar, the date of Feb. 9 had one word scrawled on it: “WIN.”