FARMINGTON, New Hampshire — Eight years after they drew inspiration from Barack Obama’s insurgent campaign, some of the very voters who helped elect the first African-American president are standing behind a candidate whose image and message are strikingly different: Donald Trump.
Obama campaigned on themes of hope and change; Trump declared in his June announcement speech that the American Dream was dead. Obama called on the country to shed racial divisions; some of Trump’s biggest applause lines are his pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border and ban Muslim immigration. Obama is a gifted orator with a cool and intellectual demeanor; Trump is an improviser with a knack for dramatic flair.
But at Trump’s rallies in New Hampshire days ahead of the first-in-the-nation primary, it’s not too difficult to find ex-Obama supporters in the crowds. These individuals say they are once again drawn to the promise of change. But the version they’re seeking now is grounded less on optimistic idealism, and more on something harder and angrier: sheer strength and force of will.
Gary Chagnon, a machinist from Barnstead, voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. He recently submitted an absentee ballot for Trump, and said he was drawn to Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
“We don’t need hope and change,” Chagnon, 50, said. “We need somebody with a set of balls, so to say.”
Chagnon’s wife, Annette, also supported the President twice, and this time plans to vote for Trump. A 51-year-old working in the shipping industry, Annette said she doesn’t feel the country is safe and cast blame on Obama.
“He’s a little too lax on our borders. I don’t think he’s paid enough attention to that and it contributes to us having homegrown people coming in and killing us,” she said. “I don’t like it and I like that Trump is right on that.”
Sizable lead for Trump
Trump has a sizable lead in New Hampshire ahead of Tuesday’s primary. A CNN/WMUR poll released on Sunday found that 33% of likely Republican voters say they’ll back Trump, giving him a 17-point edge.
The support Trump is drawing from independents and even voters who have tended to vote for Democrats in the past exemplifies the non-traditional nature of the real estate mogul’s campaign. And that support could prove to be critical for Trump here in a state with an outsized bloc of independent voters.
Many independent voters who supported Obama in 2008 quickly turned on him after he took office, frustrated over the state of the economy and in many cases disenchanted by Obama’s signature health care law. After winning 52% of independents in the 2008 general election, Obama trailed Mitt Romney among independents four years later, 45% to 50% (Obama won New Hampshire both cycles).
In the final stretch of Obama’s two-term tenure in the White House, national security concerns, including the threat of ISIS and the flow of undocumented immigrants and refugees into the country, are increasingly pronounced.
Americans are now more likely to say that terrorists are winning the war against the United States than at any point since the September 11, 2001, attacks, a CNN/ORC poll showed in December.
Amid heightened concern about national security, voters are looking for not only a change in direction but also a shift in tone. Trump, with his no-apologies attitude and brash rhetoric, is appealing to those desires.
Chris Hickey, a retired Army veteran from Wolfeboro, is an independent who voted for Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012. This year, he’s most likely to vote for Trump, whom Hickey called a “no nonsense” candidate.
‘A little rough around the edges’
“He’s a little rough around the edges at times but I think he’ll do a good job,” he said. “One of the things I don’t like about President Obama — he’s always apologizing, it seems to me, for the United States. And I don’t think Trump will do those things.”
The sentiment isn’t limited to New Hampshire.
Jeff Heiden, a Trump fan from Marshalltown, Iowa, said Obama was the first Democrat he ever voted for in a presidential election.
“He was different and he had a lot of good ideas and it sounded like he could make some changes in Washington, D.C.,” said Heiden, 58. “I regretted voting for him so the second time around I voted for Romney.”
In Iowa last week, Trump was the favorite among GOP caucusgoers for whom the top quality in a presidential candidate was the ability “bring change” to the country (33% of them voted for Trump), according to exit polls. He also performed best among caucusgoers whose first priority is that a candidate “tells is like it is” (an overwhelming 66% of these people backed Trump).
Trump was one of the three top GOP candidates among self-proclaimed independents participating in the GOP caucuses in Iowa: 22% supported Trump and another 22% supported Rubio, while 19% chose Cruz.
“It’s called leadership. Mr. Trump’s support transcends traditional boundaries because he has a vision and a strong message that resonates,” said Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. “Mr. Trump is a uniter and has the ability to bring people together with his common sense solutions.”
Bill Hillsman, a political consultant who has worked with many independent candidates, said the most defining characteristic of independent voters is that “they hate the status quo and believe huge change is needed.”
“Obama isn’t that much different from Trump. He was promising big change, he managed to look like an outsider and a fresh face, and he got people to believe in him, not just in what he was promising issues-wise and policy-wise,” Hillsman said. “Many of these independents now see in Trump what they wanted Obama to provide. The Donald is most definitely outside the system, yet people feel like they know him.”
Inspiration turns to disappointment
When retired elementary school teacher Joan Chase casts her ballot for Trump this year, it will be the first time that the 70-year-old has ever voted for a Republican. She voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
At a recent Trump rally in Farmington, Chase said the immense inspiration she once felt watching the president soured over the years, turning into irreversible disappointment.
“I thought he was the hope, only to find out he’s not carried through with what he led people to believe,” she said. “He seems to be just undecided and I don’t know — weak.”
Her partner Harry Harrison, a Vietnam veteran who also voted twice for the president, interjected from beside her to criticize Obama’s “hopey, changey thing.” Unlike Chase, Harrison has largely supported Republican candidates in his life — the only other Democrat he ever backed for president was John F. Kennedy. Trump, he said, is the country’s “last hope.”
“I feel totally betrayed,” Harrison said of Obama. “If we don’t see a Trump in this Oval Office, I don’t think this country will survive to see another election as the country we knew it and the country I fought for.”