On The Political Front: Is Trump Rewriting the New Hampshire Primary Playbook?

Dec 14, 2015

Donald Trump
Credit Wikipedia

"On the Political Front" is our weekly check-in with NHPR's Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers.  

Two polls out last week, one from WMUR, performed by the University of New Hampshire, one and from WBUR, performed by MassInc,  showed Donald Trump leading the GOP New Hampshire Primary race, and leading big. Trump had a 16 point margin in both polls. Some analysts say at this point the real race is for second?

They have said that. Given that the UNH poll found fewer than one in five Republican primary voters have firmly made up their minds, I think it’s premature to say Trump has it in the bag. And the UNH poll also showed Trump continues to be the candidate most Republicans also claim they are least likely to vote for. Fully a quarter of the GOP primary voters polled by UNH named Trump as the candidate they were least inclined to support.

So Trump is popular, but polarizing, even among GOP voters?

Yes, but if you spend any time really talking to random GOP voters – as pollsters do, and as I did, this weekend, trailing campaign canvassers as they went door to door -- it’s impossible to not come away thinking Donald Trump is doing something quite remarkable. Pretty much any house you hit, Trump comes up. Not always positively, but he’s what comes up. At one house I visited with canvassers working for Rand Paul, an older woman who you would consider by any measure a very loyal Republican voter, and a cultural conservative – she was actually headed out the door to an anti-abortion meeting as I talked to her. What I found interesting was when I asked her about Trump’s inconsistency on core conservative issues, like health care – Trump has supported a single payer system – and on abortion rights, which he’s backed in the past but now opposes – she basically shrugged. She did say she wished he spoke more modestly sometimes, but said she understood him to be a showman, and accepted that package for what it. The Paul canvassers, who’ve been going door to door every weekend this fall, told me they’ve seen Trump pull support away from their chosen candidate and everybody else.

And Trump’s doing it with very little in the way of policy proposals, which I know is frustrating the other candidates.

It’s palpable at most of their events. The norm is for candidates to not spend too much time on so-called process questions, tactical stuff, polls and the like. But that accounts for a good deal of what Trump talks about. And since he’s leading the polls, every other candidate is almost forced to reckon with his controversial statements. It’s a rarity for any of the others candidates to not be asked about Trump constantly – it’s often the first question they get -- and Trump talk often overshadows their own messages du jour. Sometimes the candidates chide the press for asking them about Trump at every turn  – Chris Christie has, so has Rand Paul. John Kasich said last week he hoped all the Trump questions would stop when the voting starts.  Jeb Bush told reporters after an event in Manchester that Trump was playing them like a violin.

Didn’t Jeb Bush also say a Trump win would be bad for New Hampshire’s political brand?

He did, and he might have a point, in that Trump has stayed at the top of the polls for months without living the catechism celebrators of  the New Hampshire primary often say candidates must --  endless retail politicking, intimate campaigning, earning support voter by voter. I’m not sure Trump has once campaigned here two days in a row or even held more than one public event a day when he has been here. Compared to what candidates have traditionally done, it’s really kind of amazing.