Donald Trump’s unconventional campaign, and his failure to meet a large number of New Hampshire voters one-on-one, has some Republicans worried that a Trump victory could undermine the state’s argument for keeping its primary first in the nation.
Trump has shunned the up-close campaign style that has become a cherished rite in New Hampshire presidential primary contests. He hasn’t slogged up to the North Country. He hasn’t sat down with small-town editorial boards or marched in parades. He’s only conducted a few town hall meetings where everyday voters can raise their hands and ask a question.
He has rarely even spent the night in New Hampshire during the campaign.
It all has longtime watchers of New Hampshire worried a Trump victory would undercut the argument that New Hampshire’s primary should remain first because the state’s small size lets voters really get to know the candidates, so they can cast more informed votes.
“The argument has always been that we do the hard work and look the candidates in the eye so the country knows who the best person is,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican operative who has worked on several New Hampshire campaigns. “But Trump has been able to build support in the state without having to do any of the town hall meetings, the activist meetings, the stops at local coffee shops that most primary candidates have to do.
“He’s just parachuting in and leaving,” he added. “A Trump victory would give some ammunition to other states who are jealous about New Hampshire’s status.”
Add to this the concern that the state might choose a virulently anti-establishment renegade for the first time in two decades, one who may not be best positioned to win a general election.
A Republican National committeeman from Texas is already making moves to change the primary process in a way that would not grant any special status to New Hampshire.
And RNC chairman Reince Priebus put New Hampshire officials on edge when he said in September that the RNC would reevaluate the entire primary process.
Priebus has remained steadfast that the early states will have to justify their early spot on the calendar. In the past, the early states have presented a united front, making it difficult to make any changes in the rules. Although New Hampshire has a state law mandating that its primary take place first, the RNC could penalize the state or rule that its delegates are invalid.
Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, recently published a book recounting the history of the primary. The book makes it clear that Trump is doing something that is rare in recent decades.
“In the past, not every candidate who did lots of grass-roots activities did well — but every candidate who did well in New Hampshire, without exception, did lots of grass-roots activities,” Cullen said.
“It could reset the dynamic,” Cullen said of a Trump victory. “To some extent, successful candidates have always honored the tradition in New Hampshire while also making sure the time was quality and productive time. Trump has made no pretense of doing that.”
State party leaders say they are constantly trying to defend the primary from critics, and that it’s a constant battle. “We have to go through this almost every cycle,” said former governor John H. Sununu.
But many say the last time they faced a similar dilemma was in 1996, when Pat Buchanan mounted an insurgent campaign and defeated Senate majority leader Bob Dole.
In that case, the concern was less the amount of time that Buchanan spent in New Hampshire — he stumped in the state often, marching in parades and winning the Union-Leader endorsement — than that the state had chosen a candidate who had little shot at the nomination.
For several presidential election cycles afterward, Granite State leaders pleaded their case to national leaders that their primary should be preserved. Groups called themselves Primary Defenders, and candidates were asked to sign commitments to continue to uphold New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status.
“They’re always alarmed when they lose any measure of control,” Buchanan, who admires much of what Trump is doing, said in an interview of establishment Republicans. “The fact that we won it, they were very concerned.
“The establishment would probably like to do away with New Hampshire and Iowa,” he added. “They would like to start with New York.”
In some ways, Trump is reflecting the evolution of the primary process. With built-in fame from his career as a businessman and entertainer, he hasn’t had to build name recognition the same way others have, so he can avoid small settings. Social media and online ads have changed the face-to-face nature of campaigning, allowing a candidate like Trump to dominate even in a state like New Hampshire.
Opponents used to use fax machines to spread around accusations of Bill Clinton’s infidelity. And Lamar Alexander went door to door handing out a VHS tape he wanted people to view.
“What has happened is the McCain model — 100-plus town hall meetings where you answer questions from anybody — has been embedded as the great way to win,” said Steve Duprey, a RNC member from New Hampshire who helped run McCain’s campaign. “But there are other ways, or that’s the theory.”
Several New Hampshire officials said they were not worried about the state’s first-in-the-nation status. Unlike with Buchanan — when New Hampshire was one of the few states to vote for him — Trump is a national phenomenon.
Trump has also run a different campaign because he’s a different type of candidate — and Duprey said Trump has built a robust, localized campaign operation even if the candidate himself rarely does the smaller-scale events.
“These national figures don’t come to the state as much. They don’t have to,” said Judd Gregg, a former governor and US senator from New Hampshire who said he was not concerned about the Trump impact. “They’ve got name recognition. What New Hampshire’s about is people who don’t have the name recognition.’’
Trump has generally relied on large rallies in voter-rich southern New Hampshire. On Jan. 11, he held one of his few small events, where he swung by the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester for a burger. He said that rallies are better for him “because you can talk to more people.”
“The reason the people do the small diners and everything is they can’t get anybody to show up, to be honest with you,” Trump told reporters at the diner.
For opponents to the special status for New Hampshire, there are several opportunities to disrupt the nominating calendar for the 2020 election. The first came Thursday during the RNC meetings in Charleston, S.C.
Tom Mechler, the chairman of the Texas Republican Party, threatened to make a motion to do away with the primacy of the first four states to vote, which also include Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada.
Mechler withdrew his motion following complaints from Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas who is currently fighting for votes in those first four states. But Mechler said it would come up again at the RNC convention this summer, when the party typically sets rules for the next nominating contest.
“There’s a lot of people in the grass roots that feel strongly about whether other states should go first,” Mechler said in an interview. “I know . . . there’s a long history. It’s a sensitive topic.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.