While New Hampshire polls differ at the margins, they align in one area. All of them put the totals favoring one candidate or another at about 90 percent, with 10 percent undecided. My impression is that this is mistaken. I haven’t phoned random samples of 600 voters, but I make an effort to speak to six or eight people at every event I go to, those waiting in line, those sitting or standing near me. And from that (a sample of maybe 50 people so far) I would figure an undecided rate of closer to 50 percent. Now it may all be that people who go out in freezing cold to political events are more likely to be undecided: they are window shopping, politically engaged late deciders who take very seriously the responsibility that New Hampshire’s (and Iowa’s) first in the nation status bestows on them. That would make sense. You go out not to hear a message which confirms your views or to enjoy the crowd energy of the like-minded, but in order to make up your mind. Nevertheless, I would take the polls right now with a grain of salt. They could shift a lot between now and February 9th.
Donald Trump, the current leader in the polls, seems well aware of this. In the Concord High gymnasium on Monday, he made a golf reference, which may have been obscure to many in his audience, but not to me. Trump said something like “I’m like ‘he’s looking for the clubhouse, Johnny’.” That is, he described his own situation by quoting the on course reporter following the guy leading the tournament by four shots on the 12th hole. “Johnny”, of course, is Johnny Miller, in the booth at 18, America’s premier golf-commentator. I doubt this analogy has been used at a campaign rally before. Trump would like the New Hampshire vote to be held, like, yesterday.
He has toned it down. That’s what New Hampshirites tell me—many are astonished his speeches aren’t more volatile. Perhaps because the media has so emphasized the allegedly extreme things he says, people are generally pleasantly surprised that he seems calmer or more normal. Some have suggested to me that they suspect the media has gone out of its way to misrepresent him. My own sense is that Trump really has softened his rhetoric, both because that plays better in stoic Yankee New Hampshire, and because the rhythm of the campaign calls for it.
At a Cruz event Wednesday morning I sat next to a woman who said she would never vote for Trump. She cited an incident in which Trump is alleged to have used an odd spastic arm gesture to mock the disability of a reporter, and Jeb Bush is on the air with a TV ad about it. Trump has said that he did not know the reporter was disabled, and another reporter has noted that Trump sometimes makes peculiar gestures while making fun of people who aren’t disabled. Whatever is the truth (and I doubt that Trump would be so stupid as to mock someone for a disability) it’s a damaging charge, which has denied him at least one vote. The woman told me that her family is all over the place on the election, some are Trump supporters, some for Sanders. She is for Carly.
I’ve seen two Cruz events in two days. It is not surprising that he is doing fairly well nationally. He has clearly absorbed something from his evangelical pastor father about the cadences of public speaking. He has been practicing this craft since he was 13, when he was in a group called Constitutional Corroborators, which traveled around doing performances before Rotary clubs and veteran’s groups, acting out constitutional debates. McKay Coppins, in his book The Wilderness writes, “At home, Cruz would practice these performances late into the night, studying himself in the mirror as he perfected each tic and quirk of his delivery.” At age 13.
Cruz events are slick. Unlike other candidates, who keep their waiting audiences warmed up with rock and roll tracks, Cruz has two large screens streaming very professionally produced videos. Videos of Cruz testimonials from various right wing and “liberty” activists, videos of Cruz wallowing in crowds of adoring voters. One video segment states that the federal government is taking meals away from senior citizens who want to pray.
Cruz’s actual talk is as carefully studied as those he gave when he was 13, delivered with rehearsed precision, every gesture and change in intonation precisely timed. There are scripted violent jokes and puns about the Federal government—“difference between an EPA regulator and a locust is ya can’t use pesticide on a regulator” —there is the list of five things he will do on Day One, and the five things he will get started on right away. For Cruz, and honestly, for all the Republicans up here, the Obama administration is spoken of like some sort of foreign occupation. Audiences like it. They applaud the shredding of the “catastrophic” Iran deal, applaud moving the U.S. Embassy to the “eternal capital of the Jewish people” in Jerusalem, applaud the deletion of Obamacare. Louder than applause for “rebuilding” the military is applause for reforming the Veterans Administration. Perhaps there is more concern for warriors with wounds of various sorts than there are for new wars.
Like Trump, Cruz is at war with the Republican establishment, but the targets are different. Cruz explicitly attacks Dole, McCain, and Romney as not real conservatives, as moderates who lost because they softened the right-wing message. Because they are alive and still protective of their reputations, they hit back. Contrasting himself to them, Cruz projects himself as Reagan, sweeping aside the failures of Jimmy Carter. But the analogy may feel a bit forced: the American economy is somewhat stronger than 1970s, and Iran and Russia, however difficult to deal with, are not nearly as hostile as they were in 1980.
Cruz gets some applause from his vow to destroy the IRS. Apart from an individual in a “VATMAN” costume outside the event, there is little discussion of the value added tax or the flat tax that Cruz campaigns on. My sense is these regressive taxes would be a ripe target in general election, especially in the current political climate.
But to the extent New Hampshire remains a domain of retail politics, Cruz and the others could rise at Trump’s expense. You can’t really see The Donald hanging around for 45 minutes after his speech, shaking hands, taking selfies, and making small talk with voters. Cruz is good at it, and so are all the others. It could make a difference. Cruz seems to be drawing about 250 people to events, at least in the more populous south of the state. If he did a dozen of them the past week, that’s 3,000 people, or between 1 and 2 percent of the vote.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.