Trump Works On N.H. Ground Game, But Will He Need It?

Jan 27, 2016

Donald Trump's campaign sell buttons outside a Concord High School rally.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

With the New Hampshire primary just two weeks, away every presidential campaign is turning towards a basic goal: make sure supporters turn out to vote. For GOP frontrunner Donald Trump the challenge is persuading the crowds who pack his rallies to actually show up on primary day.

Attend any Donald Trump rally and you are sure to hear Trump recite poll numbers reflecting his first place standing. Voters in Farmington got a bit of that  when Trump campaigned there Monday:

“When you are number one you always like to talk about it.”

But they also heard a something a bit different from Trump on polls, something more conventional, that went beyond self-celebration.

“Don’t worry about polls, because there is only one poll that counts, February 9 for you people. Right?”

Whether Trump has  -- or needs -- a strong campaign organization to top that most important poll is a hard question to answer. Trump’s campaign tends to defer talking with any specificity about tactics.  But according to Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Trump is out to change the way the GOP and presidential organizing works.

“It’s a breath of fresh air, an opportunity to expand the party, grow it, and bring it back to the days when it was more inclusive, and bring people back to voting again.”

When asked if he was confident that will happen, Lewandowski, pointed over his shoulder, at the crowd gathering for a rally in Claremont earlier this month.

"Two thousand people. I think any other candidate in this race would die for ten percent of those people in Claremont, New Hampshire," Lewandowski said.

But whether those supporters turn out to the polls is the big question.

“I mean to go to a rally, it’s like going to a party, and you participate in an experience," says UNH political scientist Danta Scala. “But convincing a voter who doesn’t habitually vote to actually change his habits and that costs time. Will they do it?"

There are indications the campaign is trying. They’ve been emailing rally attendees to invite them to “talk or walk,” phone bank or canvass door to door. These sessions have been closed to the media, but according to Joanne Lester, a voter from Pelham who phone banked at Trump’s Manchester office, they’ve been well-organized and well-attended.

“It feels like a, family might be strong, but it’s just a great group with a lot of integrity, I find. When people call us and say they like someone else we don’t bad mouth them.”

The Trump campaign has also released a list of 200 town chairs. NHPR reached out to a couple dozen of these at random this week. The few who agreed to talk on tape were a mixed bag. Luke Sacher of Fitzwilliam, for instance, said he plans to vote for Rand Paul in the primary.

Fred Gilman or Gorham, meanwhile, said he doesn’t see his role as a Trump town chair involving getting other people to back his chosen candidate.

“No, not particularly, and I have to go back to my mother when she said don’t ever talk to people about politics because it’s steeped in them, and you are not going to change them “  

Back at the rally In Farmington, though, campaign volunteers like Greg Salts were busy buttonholing audience members asking them to commit to help the campaign. Salts has worked a couple of Trump events and says he’s learning as he goes.  

“My daughter and I got 52. When we had the table set up, we got 6. I mean, who wants to stop and go on a website. “

With primary day nearing, it may be late for building an organization.  But, given Trump’s standing in the polls – he leads most local ones by around 20 points – it may not matter, so says UNH’s Dante Scala.

“Because maybe he doesn’t need that much of a ground game if he’s riding that wave, so to speak.”

The nature of that wave will be largely determined by Trump’s performance in Iowa. Caucus-goers there will decide that next week.