WINDHAM, N.H. — President Trump, who lost New Hampshire by the slimmest of margins in 2016, will kick off his bid to flip the state into his column Thursday, mustering his fan base with a nighttime rally in Manchester in the same week that a crowd of Democratic candidates are pitching locals on how they can beat him.
The president’s trip to the SNHU Arena and the scheduled appearances of no fewer than 10 Democratic candidates underscore the importance of the swing state’s four electoral votes. On Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was in Franconia, saying at a town hall meeting that she would try to pull Trump voters to her side by asking the wealthy to pay their “fair share” in taxes.
Polls and interviews suggest the political terrain will be challenging for Trump, who lost New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton by fewer than 3,000 votes, or less than half of a percentage point, the second-tightest margin after Michigan in the general election.
The latest poll from the University of New Hampshire reflects a hardened political battlefield that Trump and his Democratic opponent will face. Among Republicans, 82 percent say they approve of the job Trump’s doing; just 5 percent of Democrats say the same. That’s largely unchanged from a year ago, but Trump’s support among independent voters dropped during the same period, from 55 percent last August to 40 percent in the latest survey.
It’s a worrying sign for Trump, given that undeclared voters — those not registered with a party — make up more than 40 percent of New Hampshire’s electorate. The trend reflects a larger threat Trump and Republicans face in suburban America, especially among well-educated women, where the president’s inflammatory style and, at times, racist rhetoric have hurt the GOP.
In the affluent suburban community of Windham, just north of the Massachusetts border, it’s not hard to find voters who support Trump. The town and surrounding area backed him in 2016.
“Are you talking about Trump? I voted for him and I’m going to vote for him again,” one woman called out over her shoulder after overhearing a reporter asking another shopper about the president outside Shaw’s supermarket on Indian Rock Road.
It’s also not hard to find voters who loathe him. “Sorry excuse for a human being,” pronounced Chris Friberg, 57, who voted for Clinton, as she pushed her cart to her car. “I’m hoping that New Hampshire is going to once again come through.”
But there are also voters like Sarah Fabian, on whom Trump’s New Hampshire hopes likely rest. An undeclared voter, the 55-year-old Windham resident voted for libertarian Gary Johnson in 2016.
“I like some of what Trump’s been doing but I can’t stand his mouth, and that was right after the whole grabbing the woman thing,” Fabian said, referring to the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump is heard describing women in vulgar terms. “I just didn’t feel comfortable voting for him after that.”
Her vote in 2020 depends on whom the Democrats end up nominating, Fabian said. She could see herself backing a more moderate Democrat, but if the nominee is too far left, she’ll likely go for Trump.
She likes how Trump is standing up to China on trade, even if it means some higher costs for her current home renovation. “Something needs to be changed,” Fabian said. “But again, I wish he’d shut his mouth . . . because it’s really hard to defend him with that stuff.”
Several Windham voters, including some who supported him last time, expressed similar ambivalence about the president in interviews, saying they liked aspects of his tenure but are frustrated by his bombast, rhetoric, and incessant tweeting. A few said they hoped the Democrats would nominate someone they could support, but they’re not willing to swear unconditional allegiance to the yet-to-be-chosen nominee.
Few, including some Democrats, wanted to be identified, given the small size of the community and the high emotions surrounding politics these days.
“I voted for him — I don’t know why. It’s embarrassing to me,” said Kristie, a 44-year-old resident who declined to give her last name.
Still, when the presidential election comes, she said, she’ll vote for the “best candidate” — including Trump, if that’s her judgment.
This wait-and-see approach among voters who don’t like Trump shows how much the Democratic contest and subsequent campaign matters. Polls show Trump continues to get lackluster scores among well-educated suburban voters, especially women, and results of the 2018 midterms gave Democrats significant gains in those areas too.
“The real test for prosperous suburban voters who don’t like Trump, of course, is if the Democrats put forth Warren or [Senator Bernie] Sanders as their nominee with promises of big structural change,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala.
The success Democrats had in New Hampshire, as they did across the country, in the midterms signals trouble for Trump, said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party and avowed member of the “Never Trump” camp. Democrats won both the state’s congressional seats and retook both chambers of the Legislature, though Republican Chris Sununu prevailed over his Democratic opponent.
“The alienation of persuadable voters seems to have only gotten worse since then,” said Cullen.
One electoral uncertainty in New Hampshire, and elsewhere, will be the economy, analysts say. Polls show New Hampshire voters give Trump better marks for his handling of the economy than they do for his tenure overall, and the strong economy was cited by all the Trump supporters the Globe interviewed. If the economy falters — stocks plunged on Wednesday as evidence mounts that recession is coming — that could hurt his ability to pick up swing voters, or even cost him support among current defenders.
Trump’s allies in New Hampshire aren’t worried. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm,” said state Representative Al Baldasaro, who cochaired a national veterans commission for Trump’s 2016 campaign. Among the factors working in Trump’s favor, he said: New (and controversial) voter laws — which are being challenged in court — that should discourage out-of-state college students from voting in New Hampshire. “I think it’s going to make a big difference.”
And as was the case in 2016, Baldasaro doesn’t think polls tell the whole story. “You’re going to see all these closet Trumpers coming out,” he said.