Like any treasured ritual, the New Hampshire Primary comes with a strict protocol. Candidates are supposed to visit the state repeatedly; chat with ordinary voters in quaint, picturesque settings; and build a robust campaign organization from the ground up.
That’s the ideal, anyway. But in this election cycle, Donald Trump has been doing things differently.
“Large rallies, taking almost no questions from voters, shaking almost no hands with voters from New Hampshire,” says Fergus Cullen, a former chair of the New Hampshire GOP, listing Trump’s deviations from New Hampshire orthodoxy.
And, Cullen adds, Trump’s campaign infrastructure is highly unusual.
“It’s not like they’re identifying people and planning to turn them out, or have canvass walkers, or anything like that,” he says. “None of that is happening with the Trump campaign.”
There’s one big caveat to Cullen’s observations: He is not a fan of Donald Trump. Last year, in fact, he made an unsuccessful attempt to get Trump removed from the New Hampshire primary ballot.
But Cullen is also a close student of New Hampshire politics. In addition to his stint running the state Republican Party, he’s the author of Granite Steps: Stumbles, Surprises, Successes on the New Hampshire Primary Trail. And he insists that, in the past, candidates who’ve approached the state the way Trump has have paid a price—for example, George W. Bush in 2000 and Rudy Giuliani in 2012.
As a rule, Cullen says, New Hampshire voters prize what he calls “politics on a human scale,” marked by an abundance of two-way interactions in town halls and house parties.
Case in point: John McCain, who held a whopping 114 town halls en route to trouncing George W. Bush in that iconic 2000 primary.
The New Hampshire Primary, Cullen says, is “the last time when candidates interact with ordinary Americans, and have a two-way conversation with them about issues going on in their lives. After New Hampshire it’s all about mass media coverage, big rallies, airport tarmacs.”
Which sounds a lot like the campaign that Trump has been running from the outset.
According to UNH pollster Andy Smith, Trump has been able to defy the New Hampshire ideal because of some unique advantages.
“Donald Trump’s show”—NBC’s The Apprentice—"was a top-10 rated show for ten years in a row,” Smith notes. “He’s known to people all across the country. His name is a brand name, for goodness’ sake…We’ve never seen somebody like this guy running at the presidential level.”
And in this year’s crowded Republican race—in which debate organizers have used national polls to determine who gets to participate in the main debates and who doesn’t—that’s been a crucial Trump asset.
For the record, Smith is a close student of New Hampshire’s political folkways, too. He co-authored The First Primary: New Hampshire’s Outsize Role in Presidential Nominations. And he insists that the romantic ideal of the New Hampshire primary hasn’t always held up.
“Henry Cabot Lodge won the 1964 primary while he was ambassador to Vietnam, and never in the country,” Smith says. “Dwight Eisenhower won the 1952 Republican primary while he was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe—never even set foot in the country.”
And more recently, Smith adds, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have held their share of large, spectacular events.
We’ll give the last word on Trump’s unusual New Hampshire approach to Karl Zahn, a Trump volunteer from Milford who also volunteered for McCain’s super-grass-rootsy campaign in the 2000 election cycle.
“It doesn’t make any sense at all,” Zahn says. “The guy lives in a gold plated environment 24-7, flies in on his own plane with TRUMP plastered on the side. So logically, he should not have a connection with us.”
And yet, Zahn says, Trump does.
“You look at all the other candidates, it’s kind of scripted,” Zahn says. “You always feel like they’re trying to sell you a car. And yet with Trump, I’ve always felt: ‘This is who this guy is.’”
Ultimately, it’s that sense of authenticity that New Hampshire voters seem to crave. With Trump, it’s just delivered in a very different way.