ROCHESTER, N.H. — Burning questions about who could win Tuesday’s presidential primary weren’t the top priority here Saturday evening. Instead, it was burning marshmallows.
Around 50 residents of Rochester braved the 17-degree weather common for the winter festival in this city, huddling around a few fires, making s’mores and drinking hot chocolate while children 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 major events before the New Hampshire primary at the city’s opera house Sunday.
The small city of roughly 33,000 in southeastern New Hampshire is one of a handful of cities and towns that has mirrored the GOP statewide primary results going back to 1952.
And “the campaigns know that Rochester is a bellwether,” said Mayor Paul Callaghan, a Republican.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has also campaigned in Rochester in the final days of the race. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stopped here on his first swing through the state last year. And in many ways, the city illustrates how the GOP has changed in the last decade: Voters here twice supported former President Barack Obama before they flipped to support 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 for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and for Republican former Sen. John Sununu.
“You’ve got very conservative activists and some longtime party stalwarts,” Williams said. “So that attracts quite a bit of attention in primaries.”
Callaghan, the mayor, expects a contested primary race in Rochester this year.
“You have the real conservative activists that are definitely more on President Trump’s side. They’re active and vocal,” Callaghan said in a recent phone interview. “But a lot of folks like to keep their political thoughts to themselves. They’ll vote.”
In the GOP primary back in 2016, Trump won this city by 20 percentage points, close to his 23-point statewide margin of victory. He could be in for a big win again in Rochester and across the state if his supporters turn out at the polls Tuesday.
Rochester is the kind of area where Republicans have found success in the Trump years as the party realigned its base around blue-collar voters who are culturally conservative.
“It’s going to be Trump country for sure,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman who is a City Council member in neighboring Dover and a self-described “Never Trumper.”
Trump supporters packed into the ornate opera house in Rochester, which is attached to City Hall, on Sunday evening. And Rochester’s own Republican Party was represented. Carlton Cooper, the Rochester GOP chairman, addressed the crowd at the start of the program.
Donning a red hat with bold white letters spelling “MAGA,” Cooper implored the crowd to back Trump and took aim at Haley, saying of her and New Hampshire GOP Gov. Chris Sununu, “These two don’t represent America for us. Plain and simple.”
“This Tuesday, let’s show the world that we the people of New Hampshire are tired of Joe Biden and the Democrats’ actions. That we want Donald J. Trump back in the White House to make us great again!” Cooper ended his speech, and the crowd erupted in cheers of “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
Robert Shaw III, a Republican who attended Saturday’s winter festival at the common, cited gas prices and taxes as key reasons he supports Trump and saying: “I love Donald Trump.”
Shaw’s wife, Amy, is an undeclared voter planning to support Haley. But if Trump is the party’s nominee, she’d support him.
“Is he a jerk? Yes. No one’s perfect,” she said. “But he will help us. He will help the economy.”
Five minutes down the road at Smokey’s Tavern, a watering hole on the lower floor of Granite Steak and Grill, another Republican voter sitting at the bar said he’s supporting Trump on Tuesday because of his experience in the White House.
“He’s already been the president once,” said John, 72, who declined to give his last name.
“He knows what those idiots are like,” said John, who works in construction. “They’re going to try to ransack him again. And I think he’s probably got his plan squared away to protect himself this time.”
Suzanne and Steven Pina were also having dinner at Smokey’s Tavern on Saturday night, and they both plan to support Trump, too.
Both 73-year-old retirees, Steven is a Republican and Suzanne is an undeclared voter and a lifelong Rochester resident. Suzanne had considered voting for Haley but ultimately decided to back Trump.
“I still felt Trump deserves a second term for everything they did and said about him,” she said. “I just feel he did a good job. He reduced our taxes.”
The undeclared X factor
If Haley wants a strong showing against Trump, she’ll have to do well among anti-Trump Republicans and more moderate voters not registered with any party, who can vote in the GOP primary.
Those undeclared voters are a key bloc in Rochester and throughout the state. Nearly one-third of registered voters in Rochester are Republicans, while nearly 40% are undeclared, similar to the statewide registration.
That makes Rochester in some ways a political “mixed bag,” as Chris Bannon, 42, a pastor, described the city’s politics at the winter festival.
“You have plenty of the kind of Trump-flag, kind of MAGA crowd, which is very visible ’cause that just tends to be how they are,” Bannon said. “But there’s certainly an independent kind of libertarian streak to that. I don’t have a — there’s not a flag to hang outside your house that’s like, ‘I’m open to compromise. Let’s have a conversation.’”
Bannon is an undeclared voter who plans to vote for Haley, because, he said, “character matters.”
Michele Grant, an undeclared voter at the winter festival, hasn’t decided whom she is supporting. Speaking the day before DeSantis dropped out, she was torn over his record in Florida, Trump’s economic record and Haley’s potential role as the country’s first female president.
“I think we need to have a female in there at some point,” Grant said. “I like her views. I like the way she presents herself.”
Jonathan Roth, 57, a middle school band teacher who is also undeclared, said he’s leaning toward Haley because “she’s more moderate. … I don’t agree with everything she has to say. But I think she’s more in alignment with it with me than any of the other candidates.”
Jeff, 52, a handyman and lifelong Rochester resident, is also leaning toward supporting Haley despite having backed Trump in the 2016 GOP primary. Jeff, a registered undeclared voter, declined to share his last name.
“Everyone’s so polarized against [Trump]. Nothing’s going to get done if he’s going to get in,” Jeff said.
The key question for Haley is how many of these voters will actually head to the polls Tuesday.
“I’m leaning towards Nikki Haley, but I don’t I don’t think she’s got a shot against taking him out,” Jeff said. “So whether I show up or not, who knows?”