F.A.Q.: How did New Hampshire like Donald Trump?
A conversation with Politico reporter Maggie Haberman about Donald Trump's visit to the Granite State.
Josh Benson: How did Trump do yesterday, in pure retail terms?
Maggie Haberman: Well we'd have to define retail. He did not do things the proverbial "New Hampshire way," in the sense that he traveled around in a black stretch limo with an entourage of guys with earpieces and so forth. But he certainly drew a crowd, a huge one, wherever he went, and he was reveling in it. That said, many of the people he encountered were tourists who were visiting the coastal town of Portsmouth, over the border from Maine.
Josh: So that's something really interesting I got from your dispatch. As always, he had no problem generating attention, and crowds. And not just from the "mesmerized” media. But it's not at all clear whether any of it is meaningful, politically.
Maggie: There was more skepticism of him among voters than I had anticipated.
Josh: You have active Republicans going out to see him but saying they'd never dream of actually voting for him, and an important New Hampshire Republican official basically noting, with what seems like relief, that Trump didn't talk about the birther stuff, which this official knows to be politically harmful and substantively silly. Could you tell me more about the skepticism you encountered, please?
Maggie: Sure. I spoke to a bunch of people who were in a meeting with Trump where, as I mentioned in the story, he took a phone call. And afterward, while most of the people asked not to be quoted, they said they were "entertained" by him— their word—but didn't really take him seriously.
Josh: Presumably "entertaining" was not precisely what he was going for here? It's hard to tell. But how about the reception he got from the local Republican officials and activists—the ones who can actually make the difference between a serious primary candidacy and a clowny sideshow. How do you think they were predisposed to receive Trump beforehand, and how seriously do you think they took him afterward?
Maggie: It's unclear. Andrew Hemingway, an activist in New Hampshire, said he was approached by a Trump aide—presumably his adviser, Michael Cohen, who was traveling with him—about setting up staff.
But Hemingway was not taking it very seriously. Most people seemed confused about what his intentions are and where he stands. Which is not say he couldn't convince them if he took it seriously and made repeated trips. But at a certain point he will likely have to adjust his style.
Like, Mike Bloomberg, a far richer man than almost any other rich person who runs for office, did not travel around New York City in a limo.
Josh: Right. So let's assume for a minute that this was about media attention, since none of what you describe Trump having done bears any resemblance to the earnest and labor-intensive sort of campaigning that New Hampshire voters are accustomed to from candidates who are asking to be taken seriously.
What's the answer there? The media is required to pay attention to a candidate whom polls show to be in the top tier, even if that is a bunch of name-recognition-based ephemera that goes away once that candidate actually declares. But the media isn't required to be happy about it. How would you describe the general attitude of the reporters who were assigned to cover the New Hampshire swing?
Maggie: Actually I think most of the reporters were alternately enjoying and bewildered by the scene.
Josh: What was bewildering about it, particularly?
Maggie: All the things you just pointed to. The limo, the suit and tie, the choices of retail stops, like a Portsmouth diner that was mostly populated with tourists. However one thing I would disagree with is that he's not serious about running. I do think he's serious.
Josh: What makes you think so?
Maggie: Because I see what he's doing and the moves he's making. And while he may not be doing things particularly well, or not all things particularly well, I believe his intention is to try to be taken seriously, at least for awhile.
Josh: So from that perspective, making the trip to New Hampshire was good, and failing to explain successfully what he was doing there was less good.
Josh: OK. So how about the racial component to all this. It's hard to impute subtext, sometimes. But what was the feeling you and the other reporters were getting when people were cheering him on about the grades, and the birth certificate? At what point does it get uncomfortable in the way that the Palin rallies became at a certain point?
Maggie: Well I think it's a complicated issue. He clearly is tapping into something that some voters want, which is taking the fight to Obama. But I also think he's tapping into a sense that some voters have that Obama is in some way not a "legitimate" president.
Josh: Can Trump continue to tap into that sense that some voters have, and then legitimately act surprised when he is accused of playing dangerous racial politics? Taking him at his word that he is the least racist person in the whole world, what does it then say about him that he's trafficking in a demonstrably false conspiracy theory about the foreignness of American's first black president? When does this become a problem for the Trump candidacy (to say nothing of the Trump brand)?
Maggie: I think that's a real question, at what point this becomes diminishing returns for the brand, and for his show, which has reportedly been seeing shrinking ratings since his birther crusade began.
I think for Trump, who never does anything minimally, or subtly, the real Rubicon-crossing on the birther issue was claiming he had investigators on the ground who "cannot believe" what they're finding.
I think that if he had just been pushing it and then actually dropped it, he could maybe have moved on. And he does indeed correctly get to claim that he got Obama to produce this birth certificate, because its true. However, the "investigation" is very hard to walk back.
Josh: The funny thing is that, as you suggest, he can claim a sort of victory here—insofar as he persisted in a smear long enough and loudly enough to provoke a response from the president of the United States—and move on. But it seems clear from his new thing about the "grades"—in which Donald Trump calls the former editor of the Harvard Law Review dumb—that he intends to remain actively engaged with his new friends in the birther movement.
Does that surprise you at all?
Maggie: Not really, no. I think Trump has an inherent knack for knowing what will generate news.
Josh: How much do you think he cares about what the news actually says, when it comes out?
Maggie: Oh, I think a lot. I don't know that he always sees his press the way others do. But for instance I can't imagine he enjoyed the Andrea Peyser column in The New York Post today.
Josh: Right, well that's the key. The fact that he sends marked-up print-outs of articles about him to the authors suggests that he cares about the content of the attention. The fact that he is running a campaign based on birtherism doesn't, quite. I guess with the Peyser column he will at the very least be disappointed he didn't see a better return on his deal to grant her a ride-along.
Maggie: Exactly. I think the other question in all of this is what vacuum he's running in. Meaning I'm really not sure who is actually running at this point besides Romney and Pawlenty and probably Bachmann. Santorum could end up not running. Barbour clearly threw people for a loop. Huckabee is a big question mark. Daniels has done nothing to suggest he's running. And Newt Gingrich has disappeared, at least for now.
Josh: You're not even willing to put Rudy in that "maybe" category anymore, huh?
Maggie: Ha. I would be surprised if Rudy runs, but yes, he's a maybe. With this field? It's totally up in the air.