President Donald Trump strolled to a dominating victory in New Hampshire last night. “Wouldn’t a big story be that I got more New Hampshire Primary Votes than any incumbent president, in either party, in the history of that Great State,” he tweeted. “Not an insignificant fact!”
On a night when Bernie Sanders became the clear Democratic front-runner and Amy Klobuchar found a new wave of momentum, Trump wanted his preeminence in the Republican Party to be known. Commanding more than 85 percent of the vote, Trump spun it as an unqualified victory. It was nearly identical to the share of the vote that Ronald Reagan carried as the incumbent in 1984, and Trump won a higher percentage of the vote than Barack Obama, both George Bushes, and Bill Clinton did in their reelection primaries.*
But from his watch party in Manchester last night, facing the Merrimack River, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, who received 9 percent of the vote in the state’s Republican primary, was still holding on to hope. “Longtime Trump advisor Steve Bannon said that if Donald Trump loses 3% of the traditional Republican vote, he won’t be re-elected,” he said in a written statement. “I guess he won’t be re-elected.”
On Thursday, tucked inside a basement college classroom in Durham, New Hampshire, that could have doubled as a bunker, Weld described the stakes of his campaign. His expectations were the floor, he told me, leaning back and opening a bag of popcorn. If he got even a semblance of support, it meant that Republicans—and independents, who are able to vote in the state’s primary—were receptive to someone other than Trump. If Trump’s command of the Republican Party is complete, Weld at least hopes to be the firewall preventing Trumpism from spreading beyond the GOP.
“I’ve always been on the libertarian edge of the Republican Party,” he said. “But I certainly don’t feel a member of this party as it’s represented in Washington, D.C., right now.” There should be no illusions as to whether Weld will win the nomination. (He almost certainly won’t.) The president boasts a 94 percent approval rating among Republicans, according to the latest Gallup poll. But being an underdog has its benefits. “There’s nothing for me to be fearful about,” Weld said.
Among independents, Trump has a 42 percent approval rating. Weld believes that he can persuade those independents to stick with him in several of the open primaries—and semi-open primaries, such as New Hampshire’s—with what he calls the “whole truth” about Trump: that the president is an “outrageous racist” who is unqualified for office. While Pat Buchanan–esque finishes are out of reach—the political pundit won 37 percent of the New Hampshire–primary vote in 1992 against the incumbent, George H. W. Bush—an insurgent influence campaign may not be.
Never Trumpism might be more of a capillary than a vein, Weld believes, but it’s a vital one. “People ask me, you know, ‘Why are you in this?’” he said.“I mean, my goodness, we’re looking at a president who thinks that he doesn’t have to listen to anybody and he’s unwilling to read anything.” He added, “That’s dangerous for the United States.”
Thirty minutes before Weld and I spoke, he was upstairs sitting in an audience, searching for a microphone to offer more of a comment than a question to Deval Patrick, also a former governor of Massachusetts, who was speaking at a forum on higher education. Weld had called Patrick the day after Patrick announced his run for the presidency to let him know that he admired what he was doing. Then, together, they lauded another former Massachusetts governor for his vote to impeach the president. “We can welcome Governor [Mitt] Romney to the good guys’ club this time,” Weld joked. (Patrick dropped out of the race this morning after failing to gain traction in Iowa and New Hampshire.)
I asked Weld what it would mean if he’s actually able to sway some Republican voters. “It means that there is an appetite for an alternative to Trump,” he said. Then, I asked, what if he’s not successful? Well, he said, it means that Republicans are not willing “to listen to someone who’s pointing out that Emperor Trump doesn’t have a nice new fancy set of clothes on.”
*A previous version of this story misstated the share of the New Hampshire primary vote won by Ronald Reagan.