Trump makes rare trip to Clinton state, hoping to win back New Hampshire

President TrumpDonald John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report MORE will venture on Thursday into New Hampshire, a state that might represent the best opportunity for him to take back territory won by Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThree legal scholars say Trump should be impeached; one thinks otherwise Report: Barr attorney can't provide evidence Trump was set up by DOJ Jayapal pushes back on Gaetz's questioning of impeachment witness donations to Democrats MORE in the 2016 presidential race.

But to take New Hampshire, Trump will need to expand beyond his core base of supporters and win over the sort of establishment Republicans who have resisted his charms not only in the Granite State but around the country.

The trip is a rare foray to a bluish state by Trump, who hasn’t held a rally in a state Clinton won since October, when he appeared with three Republican incumbents in southern Illinois in the run-up to the midterm elections.

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New Hampshire is no blue bastion. Clinton carried the state by only 2,800 votes, or about three-tenths of a percentage point — the closest margin of any state in the nation.

Sen. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanSenators sound alarm on dangers of ransomware attacks after briefing Biden reveals four women he could pick as his running mate Hillicon Valley: Progressives oppose funding bill over surveillance authority | Senators call for 5G security coordinator | Facebook gets questions over location tracking | Louisiana hit by ransomware attack MORE (D) won the closest Senate race in the country when the then-governor ousted Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteGOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs Trump makes rare trip to Clinton state, hoping to win back New Hampshire Key endorsements: A who's who in early states MORE (R) by just 1,000 votes. Neither of the two Democratic representatives who won seats in the House claimed more than 50 percent of the vote, and Republican Chris Sununu won the right to replace Hassan in the governor's mansion.

Under ordinary circumstances, Trump's campaign should see New Hampshire as a prime target to expand his base. Since he took office, New Hampshire has added about 20,000 jobs and its unemployment rate is down to 2.5 percent, close to its lowest mark ever.

“The Trump economy continues to soar with New Hampshire having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the entire nation and paychecks continuing to grow,” Trump campaign COO Michael Glassner said when the campaign announced Thursday’s rally.

But these are not ordinary times. A University of New Hampshire Granite State Poll conducted July 29 to Aug. 8 found just 42 percent of New Hampshire voters approved of Trump's job performance, while 53 percent disapproved. Just 49 percent approved of the job Trump has done handling the economy, even with such low unemployment figures.

Regardless of the numbers, the divergent results in 2016 will mean New Hampshire is a state very much in play in the 2020 elections. And each of those races offer a lesson about how to run and win in one of the most politically connected states in the country.

For Trump, winning New Hampshire would represent a crucial bulwark. Polls show his hopes of repeating his wins in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin will be difficult, but with New Hampshire's four electoral votes in his pocket, he could afford to lose both Pennsylvania and Michigan and still win a second term.

But the way Trump lost — and the way Sununu, specifically, won — shows why his path back to the White House will be challenging, both in New Hampshire and across the nation.

Sununu, the scion of a storied political family in New Hampshire, won 354,040 votes in 2016, more than 8,200 more votes than Trump received. Sununu vastly overperformed Trump in some key townships along the coast and near Lake Winnipesaukee. In seven townships, Sununu outperformed Trump by at least 15 percent of the vote.

Towns such as Newfields, New Castle, Rye and Hampton Falls are home to a combination of voters Trump has struggled to win over. 

Some are the staunchest country club Republicans, voters who have backed the Sununu family since John H. Sununu first won a seat in the state House in 1972. (Indeed, Newfields is Chris Sununu's hometown; Hampton Falls is his father's hometown.)

They are also home to a growing number of wealthy professionals who commute to Boston for work but who prefer New Hampshire's far more favorable tax climate. Hampton Falls has the highest per capita income in New Hampshire, and New Castle has the highest home prices.

Both groups, especially the women among them, have voted for Trump at lower levels than they have prior Republican candidates. They will stick with a traditional Republican like Sununu — or even Ayotte, who outperformed Trump even though she lost too — but they are not willing to back the president.

“Trump needs to improve in the more moderate, lean-GOP areas like Bedford and Amherst to win [New Hampshire],” said Mike Dennehy, a longtime Republican strategist who steered the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLessons of the Kamala Harris campaign Overnight Defense: Trump clashes with Macron at NATO summit | House impeachment report says Trump abused power | Top Dem scolds military leaders on Trump intervention in war crimes cases Top Armed Services Democrat scolds military leaders on Trump's intervention in war crimes cases MORE's (R-Ariz.) two winning presidential primary campaigns in New Hampshire. “Bedford is actually heavily Republican, but swing voters who are lean GOP are the ones who Trump needs to connect with.”

The other two towns where Sununu vastly overperformed Trump were Hanover and New London — two college towns with disproportionately high median incomes and levels of education.

“One of Trump's challenges [is] how to persuade independent college-educated voters who are personally well off, but intensely dislike Trump. Especially female voters,” said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy.

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Those same voters — college-educated suburbanites — are deeply unhappy with Trump's temperament in office. They are the bulk of the reason Democrats won control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections and represent the gravest threat to Trump’s own chances of repeating his 2016 victory in states from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt.

Conversely, Trump outperformed Sununu in four of New Hampshire's 10 counties. He did best in Coos County, where he ran more than 6 percentage points ahead of Sununu. Coos County, along the Canadian border, is the whitest, poorest and most rural county in the state. 

Trump also outperformed Sununu in Belknap, Sullivan and Merrimack counties, areas far enough from the Massachusetts border that commuters are unlikely.

“Trump did better than Sununu in blue collar areas of the state,” said Andrew Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center.

But it is unlikely that turning out more voters in Coos County, population 31,500, can offset suburban voters — even lifelong Republicans — in Bostonian exurbs like Rockingham County, population 295,000. 

Trump’s rally Thursday will show off his strength in the blue-collar regions that propelled him to the White House three years ago. Those who are absent, the ordinarily Republican voters closer to the Massachusetts border, will speak volumes about the challenges he faces in New Hampshire and across the country.