In one of the many jokes about New Hampshire that U.S. Senator John McCain likes to tell, one voter asks another for thoughts about a presidential candidate. “I don’t know,” the second voter says. “I’ve only met him twice.”
“That's been the reality of winning a primary in New Hampshire,” McCain said about the joke in an interview. “Up until this campaign, they want to have contact with the candidate.”
What's new this campaign, of course, is Donald Trump, who has eschewed the state's traditional political customs, which often require a candidate to grind through months of meeting voters one-on-one at house parties and town hall meetings. Instead, the billionaire remains perched atop state polls with a campaign strategy that has relied on cable news coverage and the candidate's entertaining monologues at well-attended rallies.
“New Hampshire folks have to be concerned about that,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, said in an interview after a campaign event on Thursday in Boscawen, New Hampshire. “If they reward a candidate who flies in here, does a rally, and signs some hats and leaves—you can do that in any state. It doesn’t have to be here.”
Christie, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush have spent so much time in New Hampshire, they might be considered honorary residents. Yet none were among the top three two choices in a pair of New Hampshire polls released Sunday by Fox News and CBS.
The top spots belonged to Trump, who has led every New Hampshire poll since July; Senator Ted Cruz, who has spent more time campaigning in Iowa; and Senator Marco Rubio, whose infrequent visits last year cost him potential endorsements.
In an e-mail exchange with Bloomberg Politics on Friday, Bush said he was confident that Granite State voters wouldn't reward Trump, who Bush said “helicopters in” for New Hampshire events.
“I have too much faith in the people I’ve met the last six months, who have put me through the ringer, to believe they would support someone who helicopters in and tears down POWs, the disabled, and doesn’t have respect for their vote,” Bush wrote.
Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, is a New Hampshire resident who has worked as a state director for Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party group founded by Republican financiers Charles and David Koch. He also managed U.S. Senator Bob Smith's unsuccessful re-election bid in the state in 2002.
Trump regularly meets privately with small groups of Republicans and influential activists before rallies, Lewandowski said in an interview. But the strategy to win the Feb. 9 primary has been to get his boss in front of as many people as possible; Trump's campaign rallies often draw thousands of people, which Lewandowski said is a signal that Trump's “Make America Great Again” slogan is resonating.
“Should I go to the Dunkin' Donuts and see three people, when I have to opportunity to see 6,000?” Lewandowski said in an interview. “Chris Christie has done, whatever, 152 town halls? He’s seen less people in 152 town halls than Donald Trump sees in one.”
Still, Trump has had seven events in the state in the past two months, plus another rally during that time in nearby Lowell, Massachusetts. Bush had seven events on Friday and Saturday. Christie, who has spent more than 60 days in the past year, scheduled his wife, Mary Pat, for six campaign events this past weekend when he returned to New Jersey.
Trump has a rally scheduled for Monday in Farmington, New Hampshire, and town hall on Friday—just days before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses—in Nashua, New Hampshire.
“I would never have won New Hampshire if I hadn’t done 144 town hall meetings,” said McCain, who beat George W. Bush there in 2000 and resuscitated his floundering campaign with a primary victory in the state in 2008.
“The people of New Hampshire are the most sophisticated voters I’ve ever encountered,” McCain said. “They pride themselves on viewing all the candidates before making up their minds. And, frankly, that could only be true of a state with its size and its position in the primary calendar.”
New Hampshire’s role in the presidential process long has been targeted by critics who complain the state plays an outsized role in the selecting the parties' nominees. And it's a critical time for the state's reputation to be demystified.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has repeatedly indicated his willingness to reshuffle the order of nominating contests, telling National Journal in September there are no “sacred cows” in the primary calendar. And other states regularly jockey to compete with New Hampshire's early status.
The state has just 1.3 million people—among the smallest in the nation, and about half the size of Miami-Dade County, home to Bush and fellow presidential contender U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. New Hampshire's population is 95 percent white, compared to the rest of the country which is about 12 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic.
“Currently, a small, non-diverse group of citizens (the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire) have a disproportionate impact on the nomination of presidential candidates,” Rubio wrote in his 2006 book, 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future, which advocated for pushing Florida—and its more diverse population—closer to the top of the primary calendar.
Andy Smith, a University of New Hampshire political science professor and director of the college's Survey Center, said it's too early to fret about New Hampshire's standing. Part of the reason is that winning the first primary doesn't necessarily mean becoming the next president.
None of past three presidents—Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton—won the state's primary before being elected president, Smith pointed out. And candidates who spend the most time New Hampshire regularly lose, including Lindsey Graham and George Pataki, who have dropped out of the current race; Jon Huntsman in 2012; and Joe Lieberman in 2004.
“One reason candidates spend a lot of time here is because they don’t have broad coalitions in the party, and they really don’t have much money to campaign in other states,” Smith said in an interview. “So it's not like you campaign here because you want to. You campaign here exclusively because you have to.”
Tom Rath, a veteran Republican strategist in New Hampshire who is advising Kasich's campaign, said Trump and his celebrity present a “rather unique case” for the state. He said the results in New Hampshire, which makes it easy to participate in its primary, will give a better idea of a candidate's viability.
“The kind of campaigning we’re doing and Bush and Christie are doing—and Rubio less so, but still a fair amount—is still very potent,” Rath said. “And if you don’t do it here, you’re never going to do it.”