CONCORD, N.H. — Gas is at $1.76 per gallon in New Hampshire. The nation’s unemployment rate has just hit an eight-year low.
Obviously, this is a country in dire need of a big change, said Charles Pewitt, 47, a New Hampshire businessman standing inside a political rally on Friday.
“To say that the unemployment rate is low, and gas is cheap, so everybody should be, ‘Happy days are here again’ ” doesn’t ring true, Pewitt said. He is voting for billionaire Republican Donald Trump. “I don’t think a lot of people, voters, especially Trump voters, they don’t respond to that. The [response to] that argument is going to be, ‘No, no, no, we see things out in the distance which aren’t so bright.’ ”
This is a strange, restless time in New Hampshire, whose first-in-the-nation primary elections are on Tuesday.
In spite of much evidence that times are good, many voters here said their dominant emotion was not ambition or optimism but fear — and the distrustful sense that they were being kept in the dark by somebody. The good-looking unemployment figures were faked, they said. The good-sounding politicians were bought. The economy was rigged.
The result has been that New Hampshire voters — famous as the practical head to Iowa’s idealistic heart — have swung behind two candidates whose appeals are based not on pragmatism but on wildly ambitious, under-detailed plans to remake the nation.
Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Even if they can’t do what they promise, voters say, at least they seem to be appropriately worried.
“Honestly, what I hope happens is that Bernie wins this time,” said Eric Gleason, 30, of Sandown, N.H. He is a sales representative for a military contractor and says he feels that the Democrat would serve as a rebuke to the GOP. “He can’t do all the socialist stuff he’s talking about, but Republicans will have four years to sort themselves out.”
This election comes at a frustrated moment in the country’s political history: With President Obama in the White House and Republicans controlling Congress, both sides feel that their agenda is largely blocked.
A recent national survey by The Washington Post and ABC News showed 71 percent of Americans were dissatisfied or angry about the way the political system works. The all-time high was 80 percent in 2011, the first bitter year of this period of divided government. The sentiment crosses party lines, with 60 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of independents and 81 percent of Republicans saying they are dissatisfied.
The problems of America seem so tough that even choosing a president doesn’t seem like it might help.
“I don’t know if the changes I want to see in society are directly affected by the White House,” said John O’Connor, who had gone to see Ohio Gov. John Kasich in Hollis, N.H. “I think the president has his hands tied as much as the general population.”
Among New Hampshire voters, one major cause of apprehension was — paradoxically — the low unemployment rate, which is 4.9 percent nationally but even lower here at 3.1 percent.
Both Trump and Sanders have raised questions about it, saying that the number cited most frequently doesn’t count people who have stopped looking for work. Therefore the “real” unemployment rate is much higher: Trump has claimed, without any apparent proof, that the “real” rate is north of 20 percent.
That’s a double-whammy for alienated voters: It tells them things are worse than they thought and that somebody is trying to keep them thinking otherwise.
“That’s fiction,” Tim Anderson, 56, a retired special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, said of the official rate. Anderson and his family had driven from Rhode Island in a snowstorm to see Trump in Londonderry, N.H. Trump canceled because his private plane couldn’t land in the storm. “Those are manipulated to look like they’re better than they are.”
Anderson was particularly worried about another, broader measure that includes people who have stopped looking for work and people working part-time when they don’t want to. It stands at 9.9 percent, though that figure is also hovering near its lowest point since summer 2008.
There were also concerns about money in politics — and a lack of faith in the systems built to track that money and rein in its influence. Both Trump and Sanders have tried to tap into this anxiety by promising to abstain: Sanders says he doesn’t have a super PAC (although he does have other people’s super PACs supporting him). Trump says he’s self-funding (even though he’s actually taking donations).
Ray Breslin, of Londonderry, said he feels like Trump is doing the right thing there.
But does that mean he believes only the very rich can run for president without being “bought”?
“Unfortunately, things have come to that point,” said Breslin, who had also come to the Trump-less event in Londonderry. He said he had come to support Trump because Trump understood the same constellation of worries that bothered Breslin: jobs shipped overseas, gas prices depressed by foreign countries (“I’m not sure I know what the hell they’re doing,” Breslin said) and government bureaucrats going overboard on regulation.
“Of course, I have to wonder if that’s all bluster. And how is he going to be able to accomplish it once he gets in? That’s the quandary,” Breslin said. “Because he’s saying things that I believe in.”
Both Trump and Sanders have dealt with voter anxieties about the complexity of governing in a system of checks and balances by — in essence — trying not to deal with it.
Trump has said he would get his ambitious, expensive plans to build a border wall and deport millions of illegal immigrants passed. How? Just trust him. “Believe me, don’t worry, we’re gonna get such great deals,” he said in one recent appearance in Nevada.
This approach still appears to be working, in New Hampshire and other places. During a Trump event in Florence, S.C. — home to the GOP primary after New Hampshire — Mary Dittman, 46, said she likes his style.
“I don’t know if I want a president that’s that angry,” Dittman said. “But I do like him.”
Sanders also has a very ambitious agenda: He would give everyone free government-run health care and free tuition to public colleges. How would he get that through a Republican Congress?
Sanders’s answer has been to say that that’s a question for another time.
“I believe we need to lift our vision above the obstacles in place and look to the American horizon,” he says in a radio ad airing in New Hampshire. Sanders has also talked about bringing on a “political revolution” that would remake Congress so that it was friendlier to his ideas. But that sort of success seems unlikely, given the House’s large Republican majority and rampant gerrymandering that has made districts less likely to change hands.
But still. Sanders’s supporters say they believe a straight-talking outsider could change the system with his honest, heartfelt opinions.
“What I do think Bernie would do is speak truth to power,” said Rebecca Foster of Charlotte, Vt., who came to see Sanders at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H. “With him, there’s no nuance. He’d get more allies by speaking straight and not playing the political game.”
In New Hampshire, this impatience with government has become an obstacle for other candidates who built their campaigns on their experience making government work.
“Either you run towards the heat or you run away from the heat,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) told an audience in Henniker, N.H., last week. This was him laying out his value proposition — or, at least, what he thought voters were going to value. “I run towards the heat. It’s how I’m built. It’s what I like to do.”
Kasich, the Ohio governor, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush have also struggled to break into the top tier with similar pitches.
Christie, running last of them all, has now tried out a more radical message — aimed at those worried voters of New Hampshire, who feel beset by problems even when times seem good.
He’s trying to reach people who want a fireman in Washington — and those who want an arsonist.
“I want to burn Washington down [too] because it’s so damn ineffective,” Christie said last month in New Hampshire, according to the news website NJ.com. “But who’s going to rebuild it?”
David Weigel, Dan Balz, Katie Zezima, John Wagner and Jose A. DelReal contributed to this report.