NASHUA, N.H. — On Friday and Saturday, the New Hampshire Republican Party held its final big event before the February 9 GOP primary. The First-in-the-Nation Presidential Town Hall, at the Nashua Radisson, attracted the local officials, activists, and politicos who make up the state GOP establishment. They heard from Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Rand Paul, and other candidates who hope to make a mark in New Hampshire. But lying just beneath the attendees' enthusiasm for the candidates was a remarkable level of confusion, frustration, and just plain bewilderment at what is going on in their state's presidential race. How is it that Donald Trump is leading his closest competitor by nearly 20 points? They wish they knew. Below are scenes from a very puzzled party:
Life in the GOP bubble
In one of my first conversations at the Radisson, with two Republican activists, I asked a simple what's-up question about Trump. Both immediately responded in exactly the same way: "I don't know anybody who supports him." They're politically active and aware, but they said they have no contact in their daily lives with even a single person who supports their party's front-runner.
After that conversation, I began to ask everyone I met: Do you know anyone who supports Donald Trump? In more cases than not — actually, in nearly all the cases — the answer was no. I asked one woman Friday night, and she said she hadn't thought about it. I ran into her the next morning at breakfast, and she said, "That was a good question you asked me last night, and I've given it some thought." And no, she didn't know any Trump supporters.
Given Trump's big lead in the polls, if so many politically active Republicans don't know even one Trump supporter, either the polls are wrong or there is some serious GOP Pauline Kaelism at work in the nation's first primary state.
An exception: I talked to two party officials, one county and one regional, who said they knew a lot of Trump supporters. "They're not Republicans," one told me, explaining at length that the Trump fans she knows are inexplicably devoted to him — unfazed by Trump's lack of policy specifics or any of his controversial statements. The two officials described having conversations and asking which candidate a voter supports, whereupon the voter quickly glanced left and right, to see if it was OK to talk, and then said, "Trump." That happens a lot, they told me.
'I don't see it'
Most of the politicos in Nashua didn't deny that the polls are what they are. They just explained that they haven't personally encountered evidence that the Trump-dominated polls are accurate.
"I don't see it," said one very well-connected state Republican. "I don't feel it. I don't hear it, and I spend part of every day with Republican voters."
"I have seen no mass emails, no door knocking, no phone banking," the Republican continued. "Anything that has taken place of that nature has just taken place in the last week or so."
"So what explains the polls?" I asked.
"I don't know."
The big worry among such Republicans is that there is a Trump movement out there that they can't see. "That's how we got burned by Obama," the politico said, recalling the 2008 race in which the Obama campaign used technology and social media to build a level of support that escaped the notice of Republicans stuck in an earlier era of campaigning. Today, clued-in Republicans know and respect Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who goes way back in New Hampshire. Corey's good on data and technology, they told me. They wonder if he's got something up his sleeve, and they just don't see it yet.
Acute Republican ontological confusion syndrome
At the gathering's dinner Friday night, I sat next to former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu and his wife Nancy. When we talked about the presidential race — a race in a state whose ground-level politics Sununu knows better than almost anyone — Sununu must have said some version of "I don't know what is going on" about a dozen times.
Sununu has not endorsed a candidate. But in a brief speech before dinner, he seemed to send a message to fellow Granite Staters to stay away from unserious choices.
Sununu's message was that New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation status is a precious gift, but it might not last forever; state Republicans could lose it if they do something crazy. "We must remember why we are allowed — and I use that word, 'allowed' — to be first in the nation," Sununu said. "We are allowed because we have done a good job historically, and so we must in the next 18 days make sure we continue to do a good job."
"You have to go out and communicate with our friends and neighbors that a primary is not to settle internal differences within a party and a state," Sununu continued. "It's not a get-even process. It's not a gotcha process. It's a process that we have a responsibility to pick the next president." Voting in the primary is more than just voting, Sununu said: "It's making sure that as a body, those of us who support the Republican Party, those of us who care about this country, make sure that our friends and neighbors do it responsibly."
The short version of that is: Friends don't let friends vote for Trump.
By the way, I asked Mr. and Mrs. Sununu whether they knew anyone who supports Trump. They looked at each other for a minute, thinking, and finally said yes, there's a guy down the street from them who does.
I talked to a Republican political operative who has done a lot of work in New Hampshire. He has done so much work, in fact, that he knows many of the streets throughout the state by heart, and knows which houses display candidates' political signs at primary time and which don't.
He described driving down a street on the west side of Manchester, checking out the houses. He noticed Trump signs in front of houses that he knew had never displayed signs before. Seeing that, he began to think that all the talk about Trump appealing to a different kind of voter might be true.
Flipping off the Union Leader
As we talked, the operative expressed utter amazement at what Trump has been able to get away with (at least so far) in New Hampshire. Not a lot of campaign appearances in the state. No retail politics to speak of. Not much of a visible ground game.
But what really amazed this politico was how Trump had completely dissed the powerful, or at least once-powerful, New Hampshire Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid. Like all the other candidates, Trump of course wanted McQuaid's endorsement. But when Trump didn't get it, he let loose on McQuaid, calling the publisher "a real lowlife" and the Union Leader a "failing" paper.
The operative recalled how previous candidates had wined and dined McQuaid, kissed his ring, done the whole fawning routine in hopes of winning the paper's endorsement. And when McQuaid didn't give it to them they ... kept mouths shut. Deep inside, they wanted to say to McQuaid the kinds of things Trump actually said, but they didn't have the wherewithal to do it. Truth be told, the operative found Trump's reaction pretty hilarious.
Speak no ill of The Donald
Republican elected officials in New Hampshire are in a delicate position when it comes to Trump. Plenty of them don't like him, but they know that many of their voters do. So even if they're inclined to criticize Trump, they stay quiet. When was the last time a big New Hampshire Republican up for election this November blasted Trump? Not lately.
Also, down-ballot GOP candidates need Trump. One thing they're all trying to do is to sign up as many potential voters as possible, to get contact information in hopes of shepherding those voters to the polls. Trump's big rallies are great places to do that. Trump events are where the people are, and the other campaigns know it.
So the candidates constantly hear their communications advisers, if they have them, advise against going after Trump. What's in it for the campaign to be crossways with the front-runner? At this point in the race, nothing.
Are the polls really right?
I took part in a panel discussion at the Republican meeting. (Actually, it was planned as a panel discussion, but when the snowstorm kept other participants in Washington, I was the sole panelist with moderator Scott Spradling, the former WMUR political director.) When we got to question-and-answer time, a lot of the participants wanted to talk about polls.
Some of them just didn't believe the polls are accurate. The samples are too small, they said, the margins of error too large, and not enough cell-phone users are surveyed. The underlying sense was that Trump's lead just feels wrong.
I said I thought averages of polls, like the one at RealClearPolitics, are pretty accurate at the time they're taken. Did Herman Cain really lead the Republican presidential race for a while in 2011? Yes, he did, even though he fell soon after. The polls accurately reflected the moment.
In addition, I talked a bit about Republicans who in the 2012 general election convinced themselves that the polls were somehow skewed, that Mitt Romney was actually leading President Obama. They talked about poorly-chosen samples, about inaccurate weighting, about sheer bias. But in the end, the polls were mostly correct. Now, of course, we won't have a final pre-election picture of the New Hampshire situation until just before the primary. But when we do, the polls will probably be pretty close to reality.
'It doesn't make logical sense'
Perhaps the most fundamental reason veteran Republicans can't quite get their heads around the Trump phenomenon is that, if it is real, it would say something about their state that they don't quite understand.
They noted the Republicans who have won the New Hampshire primary in recent years: Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush. (It's been 20 years since 'Pitchfork Pat' Buchanan won the 1996 GOP primary.) For Trump to really be on the verge of victory, wouldn't that mean the state of New Hampshire somehow had a total political personality transplant in the four years since Romney's victory? Is that really possible? Has New Hampshire returned to older times, or taken a turn in some unknown new direction?
Like everything else, they don't know.
"I don't understand it," yet another of those Republicans who doesn't know any Trump supporters told me as I got ready to leave the First-in-the-Nation gathering. "It doesn't make logical sense."