Standing in his kitchen as two golden retrievers vied for his attention, Brian Cressy ticked off the reasons he’s not supporting any of the three Republican governors who have staked their presidential hopes on New Hampshire.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich? A Lehman Brothers banker. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush? Looks like a “prep school kid who’s been picked on.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie? “Don’t trust him.”
None of them would satisfy the 60-year-old addiction counselor, who has settled on voting for Donald Trump in Tuesday’s primary. And he doesn’t know anyone else in town who supports the governors — not his neighbors, not the woman who works in the library and not the owner of the general store down the street.
Highly secular, mostly moderate New Hampshire has often been the state where mainstream Republican candidates rebound after losing the Iowa caucuses to more religious or conservative politicians.
This year, however, none of the three current and former governors who fit that description have been able to establish themselves as a favorite.
“There are too many people trying to be John McCain. There are too many people trying to be Mitt Romney,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “That lane has been jammed up.”
But a deeper problem comes through in interviews with voters in this small bedroom community of about 2,400 people and in several other towns that, like this one, have sided with every Republican winner of the New Hampshire primary since 1952.
Over and over, these Republican voters expressed the belief that the country was on a disastrous trajectory of expanding government authority, Washington dysfunction and weakening U.S. influence.
None of the governors would provide a radical enough change, they said.
The country is heading toward a cliff, said Dean Gay, 53, of Rochester, another of the towns that has always been on the winning side. “Do you want to drive off the cliff at 80 mph or 40 mph?” he asked while walking into the local supermarket with his wife. “At some point it doesn’t make a difference.”
Some voters said they saw little difference between Republicans and Democrats, and feel the country needs an outsider.
“We need somebody to shake things up. What we have isn’t getting us anywhere,” said Steve Gosselin, 29, who also lives in Rochester and is leaning toward Trump.
Trump, who has dominated the polls in New Hampshire, has done “a better job giving voice to the anger the average voter feels that nothing seems to work well in this country, nothing seems to get done, and nothing is working in foreign policy,” said Republican National Committee member Stephen Duprey, who lives in Concord and hasn’t endorsed a candidate this year.
Duprey has participated in every New Hampshire primary since 1972, and said he had never seen an electorate as unsettled and frustrated. Voters seem uninterested in candidates who favor the practical and the specific, who can unspool a detailed plan for cutting spending or spurring job growth.
Kasich, Bush and Christie have trailed in the polls this year, sometimes behind Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and as the New Hampshire primary approaches, all three continue to struggle to break out of the pack.
“I looked at all of them very seriously,” said Dave Perez, 63, of Pembroke. He supports Rubio, offering up one of the Florida senator’s slogans as his prime reason: “At the end of the day, I just think Marco Rubio is the man who can win a general election.”
But voters here are notorious for remaining undecided until the last possible minute, and the governors have not given up trying to convince them that they can create change inside a federal government that the Republican electorate views with mistrust or hostility.
Christie has tried to undercut Trump’s support by urging voters to ask the New York billionaire how he will accomplish his goals. Trump rarely gets more specific than saying the country will “win again.”
Bush has confronted Trump more squarely than any other Republican, if only by virtue of being the businessman’s favorite punching bag, and called him “unhinged” for proposing a ban on Muslim immigrants. Voters, however, have resisted sending a third member of the Bush family to the White House in a year when they’re looking for something different in Washington.
“I’m so afraid the Bushes will get in,” said Donald Dube, 54, as he took a break from using a snowblower on his driveway in East Kingston. He already cast an absentee ballot for Rubio after coming “this close” to backing Trump.
Kasich has tried to strike an upbeat note, a contrast to Rubio and Cruz, who can sound apocalyptic when describing the country under President Obama.
“I don’t agree with people who say the sun is going down on America,” Kasich said in Nashua on Sunday.
That’s a message that appeals to voters like Mark Hoffman, 55, who has cast ballots for Democrats in the past. He was shoveling snow outside his building in Newmarket, where the old mill across the street has been converted into apartments, a bike store and a yoga studio.
Hoffman said he was considering Kasich because he wanted someone to scrutinize the country’s spending and “you can’t have anyone too far right or too far left.”
But it’s not an opinion shared by Cressy in East Kingston. He grew up in small-town New Hampshire — his father was educated in a one-room schoolhouse that was expanded to three rooms by the time Cressy started there — and later served in Vietnam with the Coast Guard.
The service’s crest and motto of semper paratus — “always ready” — is tattooed on his right arm, and his left arm sports a dragon, the symbol of his motorcycle club. He’s wary of war, he said, but wants the country to regain the strength he feels it has lost.
“We’re being laughed at now. I don’t believe the United States is considered a world power anymore,” he said. “I want that back.”
When he first started thinking about Trump, he thought he was “kind of a clown.” But he was won over by the blunt-talking businessman who flies on his own plane and claims his wealth means he won’t be beholden to anyone.
“He’s saying things we want to hear,” Cressy said.