As the campaign to win the nation's first presidential primary heads into its final weeks, New Hampshire supporters of Donald Trump say they've been quietly building a voter database that is nearing 100,000 people—many of whom have never voted in a Republican primary or haven't voted in several cycles.
“It's huge,” said Stephen Stepanek, a state representative and co-chairman of the Republican presidential front-runner's New Hampshire campaign.
Word of the effort comes as Trump himself is moving to address one of the biggest questions skeptics raise about his campaign: Can the billionaire reality TV star turn the huge audiences he's drawn to rallies around the country to votes at the ballot box?
“Of course diehard supporters show up at his rallies, but the events have become spectacles, too, where people are going just to say they were there,” said Dante Scala, associate political science director at the University of New Hampshire. “Nobody knows the percentage of Trump's rally-goers who are seriously intending to vote.”
The usually uber-confident Trump may be wondering the same thing. In recent days, he's added a new riff to his stump speeches that suggests he's taking nothing for granted. “On the ninth, you've got to get out there and you've got to vote,” Trump told supporters in Nashua, referring to the Feb. 9 date of the New Hampshire primary.
Trump's supporters insist their campaign is about more than just the show Trump puts on at this rallies. They say they've been making voter lists in each of the early-voting states for months.
But New Hampshire's importance to Trump has escalated in recent weeks as he has lost his lead in Iowa, where the first presidential caucuses will be held Feb. 1, to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Moreover, Trump's supporters think New Hampshire's same-day voter registration laws represent an advantage to their candidate, because they make it easy for disaffected voters (those who aren't currently registered), independents, and Democrats to cast a Republican primary vote for Trump.
“We've been building a very significant database since the summer and we have an on-going voter identification system,” said Stepanek. He said Trump staffers are busy using the data to help educate potential supporters.
And while the Republican National Committee has given Trump and other candidates access to their database, Trump's other New Hampshire campaign co-chairman, Fred Doucette, said their database is filled with names the RNC doesn't have.
“Most of the people at Mr. Trump's events who are in our database had a sour taste in their mouth and they haven't voted in 10 years,” said Doucette, who is also a state representative. “But this is a movement,” he added. “They'll show up in numbers the establishment won't believe.”
Stepanek said that while other campaigns have their own databases, the Trump database is unique because “most our our people aren't in anyone else's database but we got 'em because they showed up to our rallies.”
Scala remains dubious. He said it doesn't help a campaign much to identify thousands of people who aren't going to vote. “Who cares if they're in the database?” Scala said. “Trump has to figure out how to convert their energy into the political system—a system they don't believe in.”
Rival candidates with high hopes for New Hampshire—such as U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Ohio Governor John Kasich, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush—might also each have voter databases “but they could all be seen as interchangeable votes for one another,” said Scala.
“There's no way for either of those campaigns to know which votes they'll even be able to turn out until the last minute,” the New Hampshire political scientist added. “This thing is just way too fluid right now.”