Probably the last place I thought I would find myself during my college’s expedition to New Hampshire was a Trump Town Hall.
Yet, there I was on a frigid, snowy afternoon in Concord waiting in line to see the Real Estate Mogul himself speak. My classmates and I arrived at Concord High School about two hours early. To my surprise, we were some of the first people in line. We stood huddled outside locked doors for about an hour before finally entering the school. The crowd, mainly middle-aged voters, proceeded through the doors and into the spacious gymnasium.
From the moment I entered the gym, it was clear that the Trump Town Hall was different from the other New Hampshire Town Halls my class had attended. Unlike the staff at those campaign stops, Trump organizers did not request all participants to sign in at the door, providing a phone number and email address. Staff did not confirm or record attendance using sign in sheets or try to schedule shifts of volunteers before the event. Instead, Trump ushers distributed green flyers with information about dates and locations of Trump phone banks.This choice appeared even stranger during the event as surrogates emphasized the importance of growing Trump’s grassroots organization.
The event began a few minutes ahead of schedule. Several surrogates spoke to Trump’s character during their introductions and sought to highlight his both sincerity and outsider status. First to take the stage was New Hampshire State Representative Stephen Stepanek, who quickly introduced a former marine. The veteran said only a few words about Trump but reiterated that the candidate was “the real deal,” who had done a great of work for veterans. Former New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate Andrew Hemingway then began a brief introduction during which he gauged the audience’s level of support for the presidential hopeful. Surprisingly, when Hemingway asked “how many of you are ready to make America great again?,” only about a quarter of the audience responded. The lukewarm response of the voters seemed at odds with Hemingway’s repeated exclamations on the number of young voters supporting Trump and the vigorous state of the campaign’s grassroots organization. At least at this event, attendees seemed to be there for the spectacle. However, Hemingway made an effort to prove how Trump’s real estate background would translate into executive success. The former gubernatorial candidate asserted that Trump dealt with government bureaucrats his entire career, cutting deals and developing enormous building projects. To Hemingway, navigating Congress would be simple compared to managing the complicated bureaucracies of housing projects.
Rep. Stephen Stepanek returned to the stage to give a final few words before the candidate arrived. He appealed to the voters’ sense of justice, reminding the audience that the Trump campaign is self-funded and not beholden to special interests. Stepanek connected Donald Trump’s independence from interest groups to his ability to make hard choices in office when he declared, “Donald Trump knows how to say you’re fired,” to loud applause. Stephen concluded with a final appeal for volunteers. Going against the establishment is never easy, he suggested, but by volunteering and getting out the vote, Trump’s supporters can demonstrate that the “silent majority is silent no more.”
After a brief pause, Donald Trump strode up to the podium to the tune of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger. While the audience clapped, the candidate described the energy of the campaign thus far, saying events are “always like this, full.” Given the muted applause, Trump’s statement seemed overzealous. During his remarks, Trump repeatedly returned to his poll results and listed off projections for the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. This refrain was one of the few running themes of his speech, which shifted between topics quickly as Trump breezily moved from one statement to the next without transitions. He also interacted with the audience frequently. If an attendee yelled out a statement, Trump would offer an off-the-cuff comment. The presidential hopeful kept the tone of his remarks casual by avoiding formal policy discussion. Throughout the proceedings, he focused on making short statements, typically ending with an emphatic “believe me.” After wrapping up his official remarks, Trump took three questions, all from the VIP section in front of him. All together the event lasted about an hour.
Walking away from the event, I was struck by the modest number of open Trump supporters who attended the Town Hall as well as the campaign’s strategy for volunteer recruitment. Even as surrogates mentioned the size and scope of the campaign’s grassroots operation, staff did not actively seek to schedule shifts, and only about a fourth of the audience stood when asked who was voting for Trump in the primary. From the experience, I would say that Trump’s campaign will have to channel enthusiasm for their candidate into more than well-attended events, good polling data, and a media blitz. If Trump is to truly harness the power of the “silent majority,” he and his supporters will have to embrace the more mundane facets of New Hampshire grassroots organizing: phone banking, door knocking, and voter persuasion. Until then, Trump will remain a spectacle, not a political force.
Gabrielle Simeck is a St. Olaf sophomore from Chicago, IL., majoring in political science. She is studying campaign politics and election cycles in New Hampshire as part of a St. Olaf program examining the 2016 presidential election.