There was no real reason for President Trump to be in New Hampshire on Monday.
It was the second time in six months that the president showed up at the Southern New Hampshire University arena in Manchester to speak to supporters. Many of those supporters will be voting in Tuesday’s Republican Party presidential primary in the state, but it’s not as though they needed convincing about whom to support. Polling shows Trump earning 9 out of every 10 votes, a figure that will probably turn out to be a little low.
Supporters who lined up hours ahead of time to see the president probably noticed a brick building across the street from the arena in which one window was plastered with signs promoting former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Democratic primary campaign.
On Monday, the Buttigieg camp no doubt planned to dispatch volunteers around the city to encourage his supporters to go out and vote. But with the street closed for the president’s rally, that outreach would have been trickier than expected.
According to the Associated Press, this forced detour was by design:
“Advisers hoped that Secret Service moves in downtown Manchester to secure the area for the president’s arrival would also make it harder for Democratic candidates and their supporters to [traverse] the state’s largest city in the hours before the primary’s first votes are cast,” reporters Jill Colvin and Jonathan Lemire reported, citing campaign officials.
This is one of the myriad ways in which Trump seeks to deploy the resources of his office to his benefit in 2020, but it also aims at another, more subtle effect.
Over the course of the 2016 primaries, Trump frequently boasted about the number of votes he was receiving and the surge in turnout in the Republican primaries. He hailed this as evidence that Republicans were energized and Democrats weren’t, as proof that he would win in November.
He did win in November, of course, though on the strength of electoral, not actual, votes. Whether the surge in enthusiasm was responsible is hard to evaluate, given the mix of limited historical precedents, varying types of primary contests and fields that winnow over time. In four of the states with the closest results in 2016, there’s not a clear pattern that emerges.
|Change in D turnout (vs. 2008)||-4.4%||-12||-28.2||-9.5|
|Change in R turnout (vs. 2012)||+132.9||+15.1||+95.3||+40.4|
|D vs. R turnout in 2016||D+79.6||R+11.5||D+6.1||R+8.9|
For Trump, though, the contest isn’t only the one in November. He sees every vote as a contest in its own right.
Consider the Iowa caucuses last week. Trump and his team blanketed the state, sending a planeload of officials and advocates to Iowa to compel voters to support the president, who was going to win anyway. It allowed Trump to brag about how he had won the state “big,” while the Democrats were still trying to figure out how to count votes. He touted the record turnout in the state for an incumbent president — a fairly easy mark to surpass given that most incumbents don’t bother trying to boost turnout in a race they’re sure to win.
But most presidents aren’t Trump, and most presidents don’t want to be able to constantly celebrate whatever victories they can over their opposition.
Trump clearly aims at something similar in New Hampshire, which is why he was joined in the state on Monday by his children and the vice president. During his rally, he disparaged his opponents and encouraged people to vote for the weakest Democrat running, the inverse of something he claimed was happening in 2016. Very few people will, if anyone, as well he knows.
What Trump wants to build is a sense of his own inevitability, a juggernaut of a campaign that constantly embarrasses the competition. It’s an advantage of his incumbency that he doesn’t have to worry about winning primaries — thanks in part to a GOP establishment that did a lot of work to ensure that he wouldn’t. He wants to demoralize Democrats by highlighting their divisions, celebrating his party’s unanimity and touting his campaign as breaking records, even when there’s no need for the records to be broken. He wants to gum up the works wherever he can and to get into the heads of the competition.
And if he can additionally leverage the Secret Service to make it hard for volunteers to get into a Democratic campaign headquarters, that’s just icing on the cake.