MILFORD, New Hampshire—President Trump may have reason to be bearish about two Northern enclaves his allies have long eyed for their pockets of loyalists and libertarian leanings.
The two states, New Hampshire and Maine, were once considered prime pickup opportunities for Team Trump looking to expand its map from a duo of narrow general election losses in 2016. Now, some prominent Republicans are joining Democrats in their assessment that the president’s most viable prospects for New England victories are starting to slip further away from his grasp, as the country continues to reel from a cratering economy and global pandemic well into the summer.
“Why is he physically coming here? I’m thinking that it is a little bit more about nostalgia,” Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said about Trump’s upcoming rally in Portsmouth, just 10 minutes away from Cullen’s hometown of Dover. “They have to feed his ego. He’s had this fixation about New Hampshire. He can’t accept that maybe he just plain lost.”
Four years ago, the president famously counted New Hampshire as kickstarting what would become a series of victories setting him up to win the party’s nomination against over a dozen Republican contenders. “He won the New Hampshire primary and that was his first political win. A man never forgets his first time,” Cullen joked.
But in the general election, Trump lost by the smallest margin of any state, less than a half a percentage point. That tightness, and ultimate defeat by Hillary Clinton here, left the president’s allies hungry for a win in 2020, seeing a victory as a symbolic momentum boost and part of an electoral strategy that can help fill in gaps if he falters elsewhere.
That was, of course, before coronavirus totaled over 130,000 deaths nationwide.
“The Democrats are doing a good job,” Michael Dennehy, a veteran Republican political consultant from New Hampshire, said. “They’re winning the narrative that the coronavirus and the impact is because of Donald Trump. The president needs to defend himself and he needs to get on the offensive.”
Another longtime Republican operative in the state who saw Trump’s rise up close predicted things could get significantly worse for him here in the near future.
“It’s going to be a bumpy four months,” the top New Hampshire Republican said. “The bottom could fall out.”
Trump’s visit to New Hampshire on Saturday marks his first general election rally in a battleground state. The event, which will be held outdoors at Pease’s Air National Guard Base in Portsmouth, will serve as a return to the place that once offered him large, enthusiastic crowds as recently as just months ago. In February, on the eve of the primary, the president hosted a mega-rally in downtown Manchester.
But the momentum on the ground has been slipping from Trump since, with poll after poll pointing out negative approval ratings and significantly behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, with his own campaign taking steps to make sure the Granite State isn’t a failure in November.
“Having lived 2016 up close, people wanted a disruptor. And I don’t blame them,” the GOP strategist said. “But when it comes down to the economy tanking as well as corona, that kind of tips the balance. People are exhausted. There is a sense of ‘enough.’”
“If you asked me six months ago, I think there was a real possibility of people who didn’t like Trump, but may have voted for him anyway because the economy was so good,” Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, said. “Now that chunk of voters is a real danger for him.”
Republican operatives skeptical of Trump note that the campaign has pre-booked advertising time for the fall, but caution that because they haven’t spent ad money yet, some in his orbit may see New Hampshire as farther out of reach than once anticipated.
“There’s a big difference between reserving time and buying time,” Cullen said. “They haven’t actually had to put money down. We’ve seen basically no significant investment from them in New Hampshire. What is more likely, is that because they think New Hampshire is in the bag? Or because they think they’ve already written New Hampshire off?”
Republicans close to the campaign’s operation in New Hampshire say that’s simply not the case, and insist they feel very confident that their efforts to court GOP and independent voters, coupled with Biden’s lack of enthusiasm among Democrats, will be powerful tools in the electoral mosaic that helps secure a second term for the president.
One Trump-aligned Republican operative in New Hampshire pointed to Biden’s poor performance in the Democratic primary—coming in fifth place—as proof that his own party did not demonstrate an excitement for him. When pressed about the binary nature of the general election, and the reality that polling has shown Trump trailing by near double digits at times, the source pointed to small sample sizes that may not be indicative of where the court is now, or mood of the electorate in four months. A second source informally advising Trump’s campaign told The Daily Beast that the state’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who is a close friend of Vice President Mike Pence, is expected to welcome the president in person on Saturday. (Sununu, for his part, has said he will not go inside the actual rally and will be wearing a mask.)
“There’s nothing more important to the Trump campaign than doing these rallies,” Dennehy said. “It’s the only way to get to his voter base and energize them. His supporters get so fired up and it lasts for weeks if not months.”
But as the president continues to sink nationally for his handling of the economy and COVID-19, New Hampshire voters are giving him strong disapproval ratings, a notable downtick from the wave of momentum he once enjoyed here. According to a poll from the University of New Hampshire taken in late June, almost two-thirds of residents disapprove of Trump’s COVID-19 response, with his approval among Republicans declining consistently each month since March. A St. Anselm survey from mid-June also showed Biden up 7 points against Trump, at 49 percent to 42 percent among registered voters, with an overwhelming majority—72 percent —expressing that they think the country is headed in the “wrong direction.”
“Granite Staters won’t vote for leaders who play politics during a pandemic,” said Michael Beyer, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “Trump, Sununu, and the entire New Hampshire Republican Party have had a chaotic and unprepared response to COVID-19, which has cost hundreds of Granite Staters their lives and livelihoods.”
Ahead of Saturday’s rally, the campaign sent out a disclaimer to register, stipulating that attendees “understand and expressly acknowledge that an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present” and that “in attending the event, you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19, and waive, release, and discharge Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.”
The same disclaimer was listed ahead of Trump’s rally in Oklahoma last month, where several of the president’s own staffers tested positive for coronavirus. “I don’t know how much it is about New Hampshire as [it is] about getting something up on Fox that looks better than Tulsa,” Scala said.
But concerns about the president’s visit have already started to reach voters in Maine, where some business owners and residents have expressed worry that a large gathering in the neighboring state could lead to an uptick in cases up North.
“It’s clear from our conversations that people are pissed off,” Will Mantell, a spokesperson for the Progressive Turnout Project, told The Daily Beast about Trump broadly. “They’re primed and they’re ready,” he said. “Voters in Maine and New Hampshire are motivated to get Donald Trump out of office.”
The Progressive Turnout Project is attempting to convert “inconsistent Democrats”—those who may not always turn out to vote or may not have voted Democratic in the past–to become active Democratic voters in the 2020 election, having knocked on 9,000 doors in Maine and 2,200 in New Hampshire. And it’s just one of several groups also focused on youth voters. NextGen America, a progressive super PAC founded by Democratic billionaire Tom Steyer, is focusing on voter registration in 11 states, including New Hampshire and Maine, which already has one of the highest voter registration rates in the country.
“When it comes to Trump and Biden, the story of young voters in Maine isn’t a change of heart about Trump, it’s a change of heart about politics and voting,” Elizabeth Rosen, NextGen’s Maine press secretary, said. “The past three and a half years, as exhausting as they’ve been, has also energized voters in a way I don’t think we’ve seen in decades.”
While Maine narrowly went for Clinton in 2016, the statistically close nature of the outcome was due largely to white, rural voters in the state’s 2nd District, which awarded Trump one of the four electoral votes up for grabs. Some experts speculate that while the state is likely to go overall for Biden as it did for Clinton, the Trump campaign is angling for a repeat win of the one electoral vote awarded in that district, which is culturally more conservative on issues like guns, abortion, gay rights.
“There’s no way Trump is going to win the 1st District,” James Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine Farmington, said. But “the 2nd District is very much in play,” noting that several candidates running in the Republican primary for that House seat have tied their brands explicitly to Trump.
Still, Trump’s success would rely on expanding his existing base, strategists said, noting that they believe he has done little to reach new voters.
“I can’t find any reason to believe that the president has done anything to grow his base in any part of the state,” said David Farmer, a managing director of the political consulting group Bernstein Shur Group in Portland. “And he was here, he’s been here.”
Trump visited Guilford, a rural town northwest of Bangor, last month. And while Farmer said the crowd that attended was impressive for the area, he didn’t believe it would make a big impact on the outcome in November. “I don’t see that it’s moved anybody or changed anybody’s mind,” he said.
Like in New Hampshire, independents in Maine historically tend to be volatile and less tied to party ideology. In 2008, for example, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and Republican Sen. Susan Collins both won by double digits. Collins, who is up for re-election but lagging behind her Democratic challenger in the latest polling, has kept herself at arm’s length from Trump, and notably didn’t attend the Guilford event. And in the midterms, Democratic Rep. Jared Golden narrowly captured the 2nd District—where Trump had won convincingly—and voters elected Democratic Gov. Janet Mills to replace Republican Paul LePage, an ally of the president.
The atmospherics on the ground appear to mirror the most recent data available in the state. The new survey from PPP released on Monday, the first available poll in Maine in months, showed Trump trailing Biden by 11 points, 53 percent to 42 percent. Of all voters surveyed, more than half disapprove of the job the president is doing in office.
“He’s got a really hardcore of support that’s going to be unflinching for him,” Melcher said, but noted that “for the first time in 20 years, there are more Democrats than independents in Maine.”
“It’s going to take some turning around on his part,” he said.