We’d gotten there early only to have to stand in the snow, and when our feet lost feeling, we stuck it out as long as we could before running across the parking lot and into the lobby of the Best Western, where we warmed up briefly before returning to the line.
It snaked along the sidewalk and down the side of the road, and it was the price paid by the 1,200 fans and few blacklisted members of the media who wanted to see what we thought could be history: Donald Trump’s first primary victory, the first event that would prove it wasn’t just used-car salesman hype and reality-show bluster, but a movement, like he claimed it was, that would fundamentally remake—or, more accurately, break—the Republican Party and perhaps the spirit of American politics.
It was Feb. 9 and we were in Manchester, New Hampshire, at the Executive Court Banquet Facility, a drab event space the Trump campaign had outfitted with TVs set to cable news and stocked with trays of cubed cheese and crudités. There was a cash bar, and the crowd made good use of it, sipping vodka cranberries and beers as they waited to learn their fate. Were they an angry few, or a sprawling cavalry? At that point, early in the evening, it wasn’t clear.
A week before, Trump had suffered a frustrating defeat in the Iowa caucus, losing to Ted Cruz—Lyin’ fuckin’ Ted, can you believe it?—by a narrow margin. Trump skeptics had been reassured by the loss, but in New Hampshire, he was leading the rest of the Republican field by a daunting 19.5 percentage points—in fact, there hadn’t been a poll since June in which he was anything but No. 1.
At that point in the primary, with eight candidates remaining, the debate was still consumed by talk of “lanes” and whether Trump could be knocked out if one of these chumps could grow some balls and fight him. Marco Rubio, we still believed, might prove a legitimate competitor, someone the “establishment” could wrap its pasty arms around. It all seems so funny now, the idea that the “establishment” might have any sway at all.
When Trump finally arrived on stage after the race had been called, his face was illuminated by an uncharacteristic display of an emotion—sheer glee—that we are unlikely to see again unless he manages to win the presidency. “Oh, wow! Wow, wow, wow! So beautiful! So beautiful!” he said then. “We are going to make America great again!”
Whether or not Trump succeeds Tuesday, he’ll first make a stop back Monday night in Manchester, at the SNHU Arena, in the hopes that the place that first made him a winner will make him lucky one more time.
It’s yet another example of the bizarro reality of 2016, as New Hampshire was once a place that brought fortune to the Clintons. It was Bill Clinton’s second-place finish in the state’s primary that made him “the comeback kid” in 1992, after stories about his marital infidelity threatened to end his first presidential campaign. And in 2008, when the polls were giving Barack Obama a comfortable 8 percentage-point lead, Hillary Clinton managed to win by nearly 3 points, keeping her candidacy alive for five more bitter months.
This time around, however, she was decisively defeated by Bernie Sanders, who is something of a hometown hero, representing neighboring Vermont in the United States Senate. Still, New Hampshire has voted for a Democrat in the general election every time since 2004, and in polls against Trump, Clinton led consistently—save for one in May (Boston Herald/FPU) that was tied—until the end of October.
Out of the last five polls, taken between Oct. 28 and Nov. 2, at the height of the media coverage of the FBI’s discovery of new Clinton emails, Trump led in all but one, which was tied. He led by as little as 1 percentage point, in the UMass Lowell/7News survey, and by as much as 5, in the one conducted by ARG, giving him an average of a 2-point lead, according to Real Clear Politics.
For Trump to win the 270 electoral votes he’ll need to be president, he has to take New Hampshire as well as Florida, Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, and parts of Maine and Nebraska, in addition to the more solidly Republican states that went for Mitt Romney in 2012.
Trump has been campaigning in New Hampshire since long before he was a candidate. In 1987, a Republican activist, Mike Dunbar, invited Trump to speak at the Portsmouth Rotary Club, an event that seemed to ignite his interest in running for office, according to BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins.
Dunbar told Trump he thought he’d make a good shepherd for a “grassroots movement,” and soon the two had concocted a “Draft Trump” campaign that resulted in talk of The Donald heading to The White House in 1988. “It was literally standing room only,” Dunbar told Coppins of Trump’s first speech, at a Portsmouth restaurant. “All the tables were taken. People were lined up around the room. There were cameras up on a platform in the back. It was a heck of a show.”
This February, when Trump told his victory party crowd, “We love you, we’re not gonna forget you,” it sounded like a line, like a potential class president promising Capri Sun in the school water fountains. But Trump is a man who appreciates loyalty, and New Hampshire hadn’t forgotten him. He followed through, campaigning in New Hampshire well after the primary concluded, confusing some observers who didn’t see the point then. Why spend precious time and resources in a blue state, after all, when you could spend them in a swing state, or a red state that’s in danger of becoming vulnerable, like Georgia?
But infrequently and in odd ways throughout his lifetime, Trump has been right, and his bet on New Hampshire may just prove to be smart.
Speaking at a rally in Atkinson on Friday, Trump predicted he’d have a “great, great” performance on Election Day. “Whoever wins New Hampshire,” he said, “is going to win.”