ROCHESTER, NH — Burning questions about who might win Tuesday’s presidential election weren’t the top priority here Saturday evening. Instead, he was burning marshmallows.
About 50 Rochester residents braved the 17-degree weather, which is typical for the city’s winter festival, to gather around a few fires, make hoots and drink hot chocolate while kids skated on a makeshift ice rink. But 24 hours later, politics is taking over Rochester, with former President Donald Trump holding one of his last big events before the New Hampshire primary on Sunday at the city’s opera house.
The small town of about 33,000 in southeastern New Hampshire is one of several cities and towns across the state showing GOP primary results. Back to 1952.
“Campaigns know Rochester is ringing,” said Republican Mayor Paul Callaghan.
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley also campaigned in Rochester in the final days of the race. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stopped here last year while passing through the state. And in many ways, the city shows how the GOP has changed over the past decade: Voters here supported former President Barack Obama twice before backing Trump in the 2016 and 2020 general elections.
“It’s a good mix of the makeup of the modern New Hampshire Republican Party,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and for former Republican Sen. John Sun.
“You have very conservative activists and long-time party loyalists,” Williams said. “So it’s getting quite a bit of attention in the elementary grades.”
Mayor Callaghan faces a contentious primary race in Rochester this year.
“You have more real conservative activists who are on the side of President Trump. They are active and vocal,” Callaghan said in a recent phone interview. “But many people like to keep their political opinions to themselves. They will vote.”
In the 2016 GOP primary, Trump won the city by 20 percentage points, close to a 23-point statewide margin of victory. If his supporters turn out to vote on Tuesday, he could win big again in Rochester and across the state.
Rochester is an area where Republicans have thrived in the Trump years as the party rebuilt its base around blue-collar voters who are culturally conservative.
“It’s definitely going to be Trump country,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman who is a City Councilman in neighboring Dover and a self-described “Never a Trumper.”
Trump supporters gathered at the ornate opera house next to City Hall in Rochester on Sunday evening. And Rochester’s own Republican Party was represented. Rochester GOP Chairman Carlton Cooper addressed the crowd at the start of the program.
Cooper, wearing a red hat emblazoned with “MAGA” in bold white letters, implored the crowd to support Trump and took aim at Haley, who he and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said: “These two do not represent America to us. Plain and simple.”
“This Tuesday, let’s show the world that we, the people of New Hampshire, are fed up with Joe Biden and the actions of the Democrats. We want Donald Trump back in the White House to make us great again!” Cooper finished his speech and the crowd chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
“I love Donald Trump,” Republican Robert Shaw III, who attended Saturday’s winter festival, cited gas prices and taxes as the main reasons he supports Trump.
Sean’s wife, Amy, is an undisclosed voter who plans to support Haley. But if Trump is the party’s nominee, he will support him.
“Is he a bastard? Yes. Nobody’s perfect,” he said. “But it will help us. It will help the economy.”
Five minutes away at Smokey’s Tavern, the downstairs watering hole at Granite Steak and Grill, another Republican voter sitting at the bar said he supported Trump on Tuesday because of his experience in the White House.
“He’s already been president once,” said John, 72, who declined to give his last name.
“He knows what these idiots are like,” said John, who works in construction. “They will try to recapture it. I think that this time he probably abandoned his plan to protect himself.”
Suzanne and Steven Pina were also dining at Smokey’s Tavern Saturday night, and both plan to support Trump.
Both 73-year-old retirees, Stephen is a Republican and Suzanne is an undeclared voter and lifelong Rochester resident. Suzanne considered voting for Haley, but ultimately decided to support Trump.
“I still feel Trump deserves a second term because of everything he’s done and said about him,” she said. “I feel he did a good job. He reduced our taxes.”
The Unannounced X Factor
If Haley wants to make a strong showing against Trump, she’ll need to do well among anti-Trump Republicans and more moderate voters who aren’t registered with either party and are likely to vote in the GOP primary.
These undeclared voters are a key bloc in Rochester and across the state. About one-third of registered voters in Rochester are Republicans, while about 40% are undeclared, similar to statewide registration.
That makes Rochester somewhat of a political “mixed bag,” as 42-year-old pastor Chris Bannon describes the city’s politics at a winter festival.
“You’ve got a lot of the Trump flag, MAGA crowd, which stands out because it just happens to be what they are,” Bannon said. “But there’s definitely an independent sort of libertarian streak to it. I don’t have a flag to hang outside your house saying “I’m ready to compromise”. Let’s talk.”
Bannon is an undeclared voter who plans to vote for Haley because, he said, “character matters.”
Michelle Grant, the undeclared Winterfest voter, has not decided who she will support. DeSantis, speaking a day before her graduation, tore into her record in Florida, Trump’s economic record and Haley’s potential role as the nation’s first female president.
“I think there’s got to be a woman in there at some point,” Grant said. “I like his views. I like the way he presents himself.”
Jonathan Roth, 57, a middle school band teacher, who was not named, said he gravitated toward Haley because “she’s more moderate. … I don’t agree with everything he said. But I think he is more compatible with me than other candidates.”
Jeff, 52, a lifelong Rochester resident, is inclined to support Haley, despite supporting Trump in the 2016 election. Jeff, a registered undeclared voter, declined to give his last name.
“Everyone is very polarized against it [Trump]. If he’s going to come in, nothing’s going to happen,” Jeff said.
The big question for Haley is how many of those voters will actually go to the polls on Tuesday.
“I’m leaning toward Nikki Haley, but I don’t think she has a chance to pull it off,” Jeff said. “So even if I appear, I’m not, who knows?”