At this point in the 2016 presidential primary cycle, Chris Christie had made more than 100 campaign stops in New Hampshire — visiting college campuses, flower markets, voters’ homes, high schools, and a half-dozen diners across the state.
But this year, as the New England foliage passes its peak, the former New Jersey governor has attended fewer than 40 events, even as he has made the first-in-the-nation primary state central to his strategy in his second and decidedly long shot bid for the Republican nomination.
That decreased facetime, experts and political operatives say, is part of a broader trend away from the traditional glad-handing presidential politics of prior election cycles, and toward a more nationalized type of campaign that takes place on television and social media more than in the town square. It marks a new landscape for New Hampshire’s proudly persnickety voters, who, the joke goes, won’t decide on candidates until they’ve met face-to-face three times.
And as national politicians debate whether New Hampshire should maintain its prominent place in the primary calendar, the trend away from retail politics threatens to undermine its best argument for going first: that in this small state, candidates are forced to shake hands and answer tough questions.
“I want to see the candidates more,” said Andrew Georgevits, chair of the Concord City Republican Committee.
“Sit down, answer some hard questions, because we see it as a responsibility and a real privilege to get these one-on-ones with these candidates,” he added. “We want to make sure these candidates respect and appreciate that we want to keep the first-in-the-nation primary.”
As a cadre of Republican presidential hopefuls elbow for position in a primary contest still dominated by former president Donald J. Trump, some major GOP contenders don’t even yet have offices in New Hampshire or only recently hired New Hampshire state directors. And a presidential candidate tracker maintained by NBC Boston shows a striking drop-off in the number of campaign events this cycle as opposed to past years. (Activity on the Democratic side has been limited both by the expectation that President Biden will again be the party’s nominee and by national Democrats’ efforts to push the New Hampshire primary later in the nominating calendar.)
Once essential to a New Hampshire campaign, attendance at local fairs and festivals is looking increasingly optional, analysts said. Many front-runners this year skipped the formerly obligatory slogs through town fairs and holiday parades. This September, NBC Boston’s candidate tracker recorded under 50 candidate events; in September 2019, there were nearly that many events in the first week of September alone.
“There’s no lawn signs out there… there’s not a bunch of kids knocking on our doors,” said Pete Silva, chair of the Nashua Republican City Committee. “I had Rick Perry at my house two to three times,” during the 2012 and 2016 cycles, he added.
“It just isn’t like that anymore,” Silva said.
It’s the result, analysts said, of a growing political trend away from the local and toward the national. To make the next debate, Republican candidates need to register a minimum of 4 percent support in at least one national poll and secure contributions from 70,000 unique donors across at least 20 states — criteria that require them to scale up a national, not just early-state, strategy.
And of course, there’s the role of Trump, whose position as a quasi-incumbent in the race naturally dampens activity in the primary cycle. Trump has maintained a dominant lead in New Hampshire — he’s 30 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, according to a recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe/USA Today poll — despite snubbing the retail politics for which the state is known. Governor Chris Sununu, the popular Republican, called that a mistake, dismissing Trump for “keeping his supporters behind rope lines.”
This cycle, Trump has made just a handful of appearances in the state so far, many of them large rallies, not the modest house parties and diner stops that have historically defined New Hampshire politics. It’s much the same approach he took in 2016, when he was in the state far less than some of his rivals but still secured a decisive victory, fueling his path to the nomination.
But Trump is a “unicorn,” said Jim Merrill, a longtime New Hampshire political operative who directed Mitt Romney’s presidential bids in the state.
“Trump is an anomaly in his ability to kind of avoid some of the traditional trappings of a campaign and still maintain his standing,” Merrill said. “The mistake some people make is thinking that he broke the mold and that now everyone campaigning in N.H. can do it in a similar fashion.”
For some candidates, the lack of a physical presence in New Hampshire is a financial decision. Christie’s campaign, for example, does not have an office anywhere; his relatively lean campaign staff works remotely from restaurants and hotels, and travels often, limiting expenses.
The growing role of super PACs is also having an effect; in some cases, these outside groups are taking on the work historically handled by candidates’ local staff, allowing the campaigns themselves to preserve precious resources. Unlike candidates, PACs can accept unlimited donations, a clear advantage. But they are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns — a rule some campaigns seem to be testing this cycle.
Christie has appeared at several town hall events hosted by the Tell It Like It Is PAC, which is backing him. The Never Back Down PAC, which supports Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, says its canvassers have knocked on 275,000 doors in New Hampshire. The PAC, which hosted DeSantis and Sununu for an Oct. 24 town hall evening, has nine New Hampshire political staffers and four offices in the state — far more than the campaign itself, which has just one office, in Manchester. DeSantis himself recently went seven weeks without stepping foot in New Hampshire.
Ken Cuccinelli, who founded Never Back Down, said the PAC’s operations in New Hampshire predated the DeSantis campaign’s launch. Speaking to reporters after the town hall in Rye — where a large “DeSantis for President” sign hung in the background, bearing a tiny disclosure that the PAC had paid for it — Cuccinelli said there would be no advantage for the campaign to take the lead on door-knocking efforts at this stage.
“It’s almost as if it’s not a campaign — it’s just the super PAC doing almost everything,” Dante Scala, a politics professor at the University of New Hampshire, said of the trend this cycle. “You have a candidate, and that’s basically it.”
Even as the overall primary strategy changes, a more traditional retail campaign seems to be paying dividends for at least one candidate, analysts said. Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley has held nearly 60 local events in New Hampshire since announcing her run, her campaign said. The investment seems to be serving her: She has climbed into a convincing second place in New Hampshire, bolstered by a pair of strong debate performances and a comparatively rigorous campaign schedule in the first-in-the-nation primary state. Her campaign said it is looking to open a New Hampshire office soon.
“In New Hampshire, we don’t care if you’re a former president, a sitting governor, or the King of England,” Don Bolduc, the 2022 Republican US Senate nominee in New Hampshire wrote in a recent op-ed, needling DeSantis and Trump. Bolduc, a Haley supporter, credited her frequent presence in the state for her rise in the polls. “If you want our vote, we expect you to show up.”
Steven Porter of the Globe staff contributed reporting.