Whether he has a real campaign structure or not, Donald Trump is a draw in New Hampshire.
This morning in Exeter, 300 people who arrived two hours before his town hall (as I did) didn’t get in before the venue was full. The line of disappointed ticket holders snaked out two hundred yards down the sidewalk. Trump didn’t come out to at least wave and say a few words to those who didn’t get in; a better politician would have. I listened to the speech in a coffee house where some Philips Exeter students were streaming it. The prep school students favor Bernie, by and large (what would you expect?), and have the expected attitudes of their social class towards Trump and his supporters. I was pleased at least to hear that Trump had stopped talking about getting cheated in the Iowa caucus, as he did yesterday, because, honestly, no one here cares.
Do Trump’s crowds transfer into actual votes? Certainly fewer than those who attend other candidate events: near me in line were a Mom and her teenage son who had come from Maine to see him, another Mom and her kid who came from Massachusetts, and three Danish journalists. Politico yesterday ran an important article about how Trump’s political operation was amateurish, and the candidate himself acknowledged that he wasn’t really familiar with the term “ground game” until a few weeks ago. It’s a learning on the job thing, and can’t help but make people wonder how he would do as president.
In any case, clearly the parts that came easily and naturally for him—garnering media attention, filling the unfilled non-neocon American nationalist ideological slot—Trump has done already, turning himself into a contender. Now comes the harder part: to elevate himself as a serious candidate, who can talk more specifically about policy, speak more concretely about who would fill a Trump administration, and—equally important—can adopt and utilize up-to-date campaign techniques. The science of winning elections has evolved a good deal since the 1950s, and while rallies are important, so are data mining and targeted get-out-the-vote operations. Trump seems never to have heard of either. He will have to learn quickly if he is to compete effectively against Cruz or Rubio or someone else, and certainly would be required to win victory in the fall. I’d put the odds that he is willing to commit to that effort at about 50 percent. Hearing his soundbites yesterday whining that Ted Cruz “stole” the Iowa vote made me think they were less than that.
So who are the competitors? There is Jeb, whose self-deprecating “please clap” line, when his audience failed to notice he had reached a crescendo in describing his own commander-in-chief qualifications, seems to sum up his campaign. He would probably make an excellent secretary of education, but he will excite no one.
Seemingly the weakest of those with some chance is Chris Christie, who now runs at about 6 or 7 percent in the polls, after spending a lot of time here. I’m surprised he’s not doing better: I saw Christie last night, and there is no one who is a more compelling speaker, and no one you’d rather “have a beer with” to adopt that storied standard. He is unscripted, he goes into digressions, he tells stories, he has a great politician’s voice, deep and full of range. Last night at a Milford fire house, he held an audience of 200 or so nearly mesmerized for two hours; he spoke of drugs, a law school friend’s fall into addiction and death, school loans, rock climbing, his wife being mistaken for a young staff aide. He gave a routinely hawkish answer on Iran, but (without hard evidence) made me believe he was a man capable of changing his mind. He’s terribly overweight, but if you are looking for someone who can hold the attention of a room, he’s your guy.
My sense is that he actually is a polite man, but he is searching desperately for political oxygen, and so looks for vulgar and quotable soundbites—against Obama, against Hillary Clinton—which do get quoted. I was hoping that he would say something sharp about the apparently party-anointed Marco Rubio, but candidates save those for media interviews. But Christie’s rap about the carefully scripted “boy in the bubble” is starting to become a thing. I think everyone has known this for a while, but didn’t feel compelled to talk about it because Rubio wasn’t that important. But now he’s the designated anti-Trump and anti-Cruz candidate of the neocons and a growing number of the party establishment. I doubt that any of them could do better than Rick Santorum at naming Rubio’s actual accomplishments, but he seems electable, the perfect and malleable vehicle for the ambitions of more substantial men.
Rubio is getting a bump out of Iowa. I saw him yesterday at noon, in a converted mill in Laconia, a small town in the middle of the state. The room was tightly packed with 200-plus people—more of an accomplishment than drawing 200 people in the more populated southern end of the state. There was an efficient young staff, brandishing laptops. I overheard an aide tell someone the campaign was bringing in 180 canvassing volunteers from Iowa. You had the sense of a tightly run, efficient organization. The event came before Santorum’s now famous inability to name a Rubio accomplishment had circulated. Despite his boyish demeanor, Rubio is not actually all that young, when you consider that John F. Kennedy had captained a PT boat and served eight years as a fairly important senator. But he is, in a way, a perfect communicator, able to talk about immigration without being treacly (as Jeb cannot), and to be as hawkish as Bill Kristol wants. You can go to his events and never see him drawn out of his comfort zone, a perfectly programmed Chatty Cathy doll. The programmed answers are good, and Rubio delivers them well. No one fails to notice where the applause lines are supposed to be. The major question about Rubio as president is who would be the Cheney.
There is an assumption that there are three tickets out of New Hampshire, or four if you include Jeb, who has money to hang around as long as he wants. I can all too easily imagine a scenario where Trump finds himself in a battle with Cruz and Rubio and decides that this politics business isn’t really for him. Suddenly the race would be down to two, a carpet bomber and a neoconservative. I hope there is room for a genuine fourth ticket—for Kasich or Christie. They are centrist Republicans, self-made men, intelligent figures who have governed states and genuinely like the profession they are in. Watching them I have the feeling they could do town halls forever—they like the attention, like talking about policy, and basically like people. From what I’ve seen, voters like them too. But most American voters haven’t seen too much of them yet.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.