PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — By the time the president’s son arrived on Sept. 17, about 100 fervent Trump supporters had piled into the small, newly opened campaign office tucked into a Portsmouth strip mall.
Calling the Democrats “cheaters” and “crazy as hell," President Trump’s maskless son Eric stressed the central role New Hampshire plays in the campaign’s victory plans. “We absolutely have to win this state. And guys — we can do it. I mean, listen, in 2016, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.”
The enthusiastic crowd, dotted with red Trump hats and more than a handful of bare faces, cheered its agreement.
Four years after Trump’s chaotic 2016 campaign lost New Hampshire by fewer than 3,000 votes, the president’s political strategists appear to see an opportunity here. Backed by a $350 million national data operation, they contend they’ve deployed a much more sophisticated ground game that will give them the boost they need to win the state and its four electoral votes.
The campaign has showered the state with attention in recent weeks, from President Trump’s Aug. 28 rally in Londonderry, to Eric Trump’s rally-the-troops visit to Portsmouth on Sept. 17 — which coincided with a surprise trip by Melania Trump for an event at Concord Hospital — and a campaign stop in Gilford on Tuesday by Vice President Mike Pence.
Despite the activity, Democrats and other observers are skeptical that the Trump campaign has built the daunting turnout machine it claims, or that there are enough voters willing to back the president to flip the state in November.
“Their campaign is a hot mess,” New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley said at a news conference.
He pointed to reports that the Trump campaign sent a New Hampshire absentee ballot request to a registered Democrat in Pennsylvania who’d never lived in New Hampshire, and said that just the other day a senior Democratic elected official received a Trump-Pence campaign mailer, indicating they’re not targeting their outreach particularly well.
“We know what we’re doing here,” said Buckley.
Trump certainly faces headwinds in New Hampshire, where the few polls done in recent months show Democratic standard-bearer Joe Biden leading.
In the state’s Sept. 8 primary, more voters cast ballots in the noncompetitive Democratic primary for Senate, where incumbent Jeanne Shaheen won with more than 94 percent of the vote, than in the contested Republican Senate primary, despite Trump’s own involvement in the race. That included having the full weight of the Republican National Committee behind Trump’s preferred candidate, Bryant “Corky” Messner, who won but not by an overwhelming margin.
None of this has dented the conviction among Trump supporters that they can prevail in November.
“If they can get the voter fraud under control, I think [Trump] will win,” said Heidi Martin, 54, of Seabrook, following the Eric Trump event. While President Trump frequently raises the specter of widespread voting fraud, and continues to falsely claim he lost New Hampshire thanks to thousands of illegal voters bused in from Massachusetts, actual incidents of voter fraud are extremely rare.
As of the end of last week, the Trump campaign said it had opened nine field offices in the state, deployed close to 40 paid staffers, and knocked on more than 365,000 doors — a type of voter contact the Biden campaign is eschewing given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
In addition, the campaign said it had made more than 885,000 calls for a combined total of more than 1.25 million voter contacts — a number that’s considerably larger than New Hampshire’s voting-age population.
Campaign officials said they’re looking to persuade swing voters as well as seeking to turn out people who support Trump but don’t usually vote.
The high-profile surrogate visits are designed to motivate those who already support Trump to get more involved in the campaign — whether that be phone banking, knocking on doors, or other activities.
In between praise of his father’s record and a discussion about who is the best Fox News personality, Eric Trump made several direct appeals to supporters in Portsmouth to sign up as volunteers. He also urged them to serve as poll observers, warning — without evidence — that Democrats will try to cheat to win the election.
“The best way to give, honestly? The best way to give — you get out there, you vote, you get everybody you know out there to vote, you knock on doors, you get your whole neighborhood," he said after one woman complained she’d given money four times to what she thought was the Trump campaign, but turned out to be scammers.
Mocking Biden for hardly leaving his basement, Eric Trump said he had been in nine states over three days, echoing a common attack from the Trump campaign.
To be sure, Biden hasn’t been in New Hampshire since he fled the state — skipping his own primary night party — hours before the votes were even counted in the Feb. 11 primary. Some Democrats around the country have raised concerns that Biden isn’t holding enough events in key battleground states, including New Hampshire.
The Biden campaign stepped it up a notch this week, launching $470,000 worth of TV ads that will reach New Hampshire viewers, according to data from Advertising Analytics. The campaign has similarly sized weekly buys reserved through Nov. 3. The Biden campaign said the move is part of the “historic” $280 million nationwide buy it is rolling out this fall on television and digital platforms.
The Trump campaign, meanwhile, is not on the air in New Hampshire, having over the past several weeks canceled reserved buys at the last minute, said Ben Taber, an account manager at Advertising Analytics.
And while neither Biden nor his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, have come to New Hampshire in the runup to Nov. 3, the campaign has had its own stream of surrogate activity. Much has been virtual, but Biden’s wife, Jill, and Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, visited the state for several in-person events earlier this month.
As for ground game, the Biden campaign said it has had over 5,200 New Hampshire volunteers participate in virtual events, phone and text banks, trainings, and other events since June. Among other outreach efforts, the campaign is focusing on women — a group Trump is particularly weak with — holding regular engagement events and women-to-women phone bank sessions.
Meanwhile, Trump skeptics point to signs that his operation isn’t the well-oiled “Death Star” it claims to be.
“We could do better, but I don’t see much from Trump. I think it’s talk,” said Billy Shaheen, husband of the senator and one of the state’s Democratic National Committee members. He expressed confidence that the Biden campaign will step up in the coming weeks.
While plenty of Democrats and other political observers doubt the strength of the Trump operation in the state, Mike Dennehy, a longtime GOP consultant in New Hampshire, said he’s been impressed.
He said the Trump campaign is “constantly” recruiting volunteers and working from a voter-targeting plan that is very detailed, down to specific neighborhoods and demographic information about individual voters.
That’s a big change from 2016, when Trump’s campaign strategy relied entirely on big rallies, noted Dennehy, who oversaw the late John McCain’s New Hampshire primary wins in 2000 and 2008 and worked for Rick Perry during the 2016 primary.
"If I hadn’t seen this with my own eyes, I would never have believed it.”
James Pindell of the Globe staff contributed to this report.