As Trump solidifies support, NH primary traditions lose stature (2024)

It’s a joke and an adage: A voter in New Hampshire is asked whether they support a candidate for president. “I don’t know yet,” they reply, “I only met them three times.”

But Martha McCafferty says she doesn’t need to meet other candidates to solidify her decision come primary day Tuesday. She’s voting for former President Donald Trump.

Nor does Ted Zins, of Salem, who has stuck with Trump since 2016.

Nor Joe Abasciano, of Milton, who supported Ted Cruz in 2016 but came around “late” to Trump when he became president.

Nor Ed Groves Sr. Speaking from his home in Hooksett this week, Groves said he was unsure whether he would even make it to a Trump event by Jan. 23, let alone a rival campaign’s.

“I saw what he did,” Groves said of Trump. “And he accomplished a lot. and that’s enough for me.”

New Hampshire’s primary process has long been defined by direct voter interactions with candidates and pointed questions. But with Trump vying for a second term – and a rematch with President Joe Biden – that dynamic is sometimes missing. Trump has kept to a schedule of large-scale rallies, singular speeches, and little one-on-one time with voters. and many of his voters aren’t shopping around.

The result: A Republican primary with what can feel like two separate electorates – those locked in to vote for Donald Trump and those still interested in exploring their options.

For the undecided group, the town halls, house parties, and diner visits still hold appeal. For core Trump voters, those traditional vetting venues are not necessary. Many Trump voters say they have not taken part in that aspect of the primary at all.

“We just would like to see him reelected,” said McCafferty.

McCafferty has avoided other events. But when Trump came to Atkinson Tuesday, she and a swarm of his fans battled a snowstorm to see him talk. McCafferty, Abasciano, and Zins each huddled in line, shuffling as the snow turned to hail and rain. For many, it was the first campaign event they had attended this year.

“It’s a very unique election cycle,” acknowledged Abasciano. “You almost got an incumbency type of candidate.”

The relatively low candidate engagement comes at a critical juncture for New Hampshire’s primary: The Democratic National Committee has stripped the state of its first-in-the-nation position, arguing that the overwhelmingly white state is not representative of the country. State leaders in both parties are insisting the Granite State’s process and engaged electorate is the best in the country.

Despite the dominance of Trump and his disregard for the typical New Hampshire approach, many Republicans in the state – both Trump supporters and others – say there is no cause for alarm. The New Hampshire primary is still paramount, they say, and Trump is a unique phenomenon whose disruption should not be seen as a new normal.

‘Celebrity’ factor

Greg Moore, the state director at Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire, a conservative advocacy organization, remembers the day in 2015 when Trump realized his celebrity made him a different type of candidate. The real estate mogul attended a house party hosted by Steve Stepanek, then a state lawmaker.

“That event was absolutely wall to wall, and it became immediately clear that the more traditional, small group meeting setting wasn’t really going to work for him,” Moore said. “And he shifted over to a strategy of the more rally style, which is more akin to an incumbent seeking reelection than it is to a traditional New Hampshire presidential candidate running for the first time.”

That incumbent-style profile has followed Trump to today; even while he’s out of office, many supporters see him as the natural standard bearer of his party, similar to Biden.

“I’m looking more at who’s going to be vice president for Trump,” said Groves.

Rich Nalevanko, of Alstead, says that with Trump in the primary, there should be little competition. “The primary’s going to be over after New Hampshire,” he said.

Leaving one of Trump’s rallies at the University of New Hampshire Whittemore Center in December, Nalevanko acknowledged the scale and spectacle of the event. But he argued that other rallies, like one at Stevens High School in Claremont, showed more breadth.

“He’s doing smaller venues,” Nalevanko said, shrugging. “I don’t know anyone half his age that can keep up this kind of pace. He still looks fresh.”

Haley keeps tradition

If Trump is spurning the state’s traditional retail politics, his rivals are doubling down on them. Nikki Haley has deliberately deployed a strategy of “two or three town hall meetings and one house party” per visit, said Moore, who along with Americans for Prosperity supports Haley.

Moore argues Haley’s current second-place position in the polls is a result of that effort – and demonstrates that the campaign style still matters.

“I’ve been to a number of candidate events, and the way the candidates are responding, the way the questions are being asked, you could have taken the 2024 primary and made it the 2012 primary or the 2008 primary, and it would be indistinguishable,” he said. “With the exception of Donald Trump.”

Other Trump critics acknowledge his near-singular command of the Republican stage over the past eight years. But they argue it won’t be easily replicated in the future.

“I don’t think that there is another person that I can think of who is not a reality show celebrity who could get away with just going into a state once every four to six weeks, renting out a gymnasium, getting up there, doing a little stand-up bit, and then leaving and not talking to voters and doing retail stops and doing house parties,” said Melissa Blasek, a Ron DeSantis supporter and former lawmaker. “I don’t see another person.”

And when Trump eventually exits the stage, New Hampshire’s traditions will be more important than ever, Blasek said.

“I think whenever Donald Trump decides that he is done with his chokehold on the GOP and stops running for president, that is not going to be any different,” she said.

“People are still going to have to go and talk to people.”

Bracing himself against the freezing rain, Zins agreed. If Trump wasn’t running, he would consider DeSantis, he said. But Trump is running, and Zins has no interest in other events.

“It’s Trump’s time now,” Zins said.

The independent, nonprofit New Hampshire Bulletin is guided by these words from our state constitution: “Government, therefore, should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive.” We will work tirelessly every day to make sure elected officials and state agencies are held to that standard.

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As Trump solidifies support, NH primary traditions lose stature (2024)
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