These New Hampshire voters don’t love everything Trump says. But here’s why they’re planning to back him

Andrew Konchek has a long list of complaints about Donald Trump. But there’s one reason he is ready, again, to set all those worrisome things aside.

“I’m with Trump because he supports fishermen, you know, and obviously it’s my livelihood,” Konchek said in an interview at the Portsmouth pier.

The first time we watched Konchek, in a sleeveless shirt, push off the dock in September, he was most likely voting for Trump but said he wanted to give Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis a look.

“What he’s doing in Florida is working,” Konchek said last week. “I don’t feel like he is ready for the big seat, though.” Other voters didn’t either. DeSantis dropped out of the race on Sunday after finishing a distant second in Iowa last week.

One clue it is decision time in New Hampshire: the Portsmouth pier is covered in snow, the metal gangplanks down to the boats are coated in ice and Konchek is wrapped in several layers and still fidgety in the sub-freezing temperatures.

“It’s a little colder,” Konchek said with a smile. “Definitely a little colder, but you get used to it.”

New England tough, yes. But in reality, Konchek has little choice. It is the job that pays the bills, so he is on the water whenever the weather allows.

Dropping and retrieving gill nets while living in tight quarters below deck and eating frozen food reheated in a microwave is tough work any time of year. It is brutal in these conditions.

“That’s where your fish comes from,” he says, shivering, after showing a visitor how to work the gill nets on the Alanna Renee.

Konchek is part of a CNN project to track the 2024 campaign through the eyes and experiences of voters who live in key states or are part of key voting blocs. Or both.

Spending time with Trump voters like Konchek brings a better understanding of the former president’s visceral appeal to those who are no fans, and sometimes harsh critics, of how he conducts himself.

John King with fisherman Andrew Konchek in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in January. - CNN
John King with fisherman Andrew Konchek in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in January. - CNN

Konchek says politicians and regulators repeatedly ignore suggestions from those who work on the water about how to protect the climate and the fish stock in a way that also allows working class fishermen like him to make enough to get by.

Trump opposes planned green energy wind farms off the coast that Konchek believes would destroy the historic fishery just off the jagged coastline where New Hampshire and Maine meet.

While in Portsmouth last week, Trump also said he would on his first day back in office get rid of the government observers who are on board every trip to make sure fishermen honor quotas and other rules.

“Trump does not support the Green New Deal or the wind farms and I know that he backs us fisherman,” Konchek said.

Konchek sees a vote for Trump as a vote to save his job.

Plus there is this: “These guys work like hell,” Trump said of the fishermen at his Portsmouth event. “It’s dangerous. It’s rough.”

Yes, many Trump supporters believe and repeat his lies about the 2020 election results. Many parrot his excuses about the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol or even repeat MAGA conspiracy theories that it was an inside job orchestrated by the FBI. Many love and mimic his coarse language and harsh tactics.

But Trump’s resilience is deeper than that, and his critics – Democrats and Republicans – have so far come nowhere close to cracking the code and reaching voters who voice disdain for all the chaos and coarseness, but see Trump and his policies as best for their blue-collar bottom line.

Konchek is one example.

We mention a Trump social media post morphing a photo of Nikki Haley into Hillary Clinton. Then Trump’s new baseless birther conspiracy theory that Haley, the former South Carolina governor who was born in the state, is somehow ineligible to be president.

“That’s obviously a fault that I have,” Konchek said about the former president. “I don’t like the way that he speaks sometimes. He can be a little ignorant and rude.”

His loyalty causes tension at home. Konchek’s wife supports Haley now and has never been a Trump fan. But when a Trump flag came in the mail late last year, Konchek quickly and proudly flew it from his porch.

“She said I was ruining Christmas and wanted me to take it down,” Konchek said. “And she took it down and I put it back up.”

Unwelcome drama, and lots of it. But no other candidate repeatedly talks about a livelihood Konchek loves and sees as threatened.

“He’s kind of a bully,” Konchek said.

“But you think he fights for you?” we ask.

“I do. Yep.”

So Trump gets his vote Tuesday.

‘He talked like me’

Ditto for Debbie Katsanos.

She is an accountant, voted for Bill Clinton twice, backed Trump beginning in 2016 and, like many voters we meet, is past her boiling point with Washington and politicians.

“Anything to do with government from the dog catcher to the president needs a term limit,” Katsanos said in an interview in a Portsmouth book shop and bar.

Why Trump?

“At first I didn’t like him and thought he was a big blowhard,” she said. “But then I started listening. … He talked like, he talked like me. I felt I could carry on a conversation with him.”

Not that she agrees with everything Trump might say in that conversation.

“I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid,” Katsanos said. “He could tell me the moon is made out of cheese. I’m not going to believe that, you know.”

So who won the 2020 election?

“Oh, Biden,” Katsanos said.

She does say she has doubts about that election.

“But I don’t have proof to back it up,” she said. As an accountant, she has to follow rules and wishes Trump did after he lost all the recounts and legal challenges.

“There’s no sense and point in fighting about it at this point,” she said. “But he has a second chance.”

John King talks to New Hampshire voter Debbie Katsanos in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in January. - CNN
John King talks to New Hampshire voter Debbie Katsanos in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in January. - CNN

Katsanos employs a double standard – she would say distinction – we hear from many Trump voters.

She’s not a Biden fan, she says, because “he’s been caught in a lot of lies” throughout his 40-plus years in elected office.

We remind her, in a polite understatement, “Trump’s not known as the world’s greatest truth teller.”

No disagreement.

So how is conduct that disqualifies Biden acceptable from Trump?

“I don’t like politicians,” Katsanos said. “I don’t think one term made him a politician.”

Her bottom line on Trump: “Sometimes he just doesn’t know when to shut up.”

But he will get her vote Tuesday because of her bottom line on what she wants most from Washington.

“Close the border and get this economy moving again” is her list. “He’s got faults,” she says of the former president. “He’s not a saint. He doesn’t walk on water. I think he relates to people. He’s relatable.”

The challenge for Haley

The resilience of Trump complicates Haley’s hopes of engineering a New Hampshire victory.

She was a longshot when we first visited in September. Now, she is the only Trump rival – and supporters like retired Navy pilot Pete Burdett believe it can happen.

“I think there is a very real opportunity for Nikki to squeak out a percentage point on top of Trump,” Burdett told us at his lakeside home in Belknap County in the New Hampshire lakes region. “And wouldn’t that shake the rafters.”

Burdett backed Trump in the 2016 primary here and in both the 2016 and 2020 general elections. He thinks it’s time for Republicans to move on – and to win.

“I think it is electability,” Burdett said of Haley’s closing appeal here. “It’s really important for us to remember who can really beat Biden. Who lost to Biden last time? Trump did. Nikki’s got what – 17 points is what somebody said on Biden now.” That refers to a Wall Street Journal poll late last year that showed her leading Biden by that margin in a hypothetical general election matchup.

But to shake the rafters, as Burdett put it, Haley needs to pick up more support to counter Trump’s loyal base.

John King and New Hampshire voter Pete Burdett in Belknap County ahead of the primary. - CNN
John King and New Hampshire voter Pete Burdett in Belknap County ahead of the primary. - CNN

Chris Christie supporters are one obvious Haley target. But several we contacted during our latest New Hampshire visit said they were likely to still cast their ballots for the former New Jersey governor – whose name is still on the ballot because he dropped out so recently.

Why? The Christie supporters see Haley as unwilling to call out Trump’s election denial and, echoing Christie, say she is unacceptable unless she retracts promises to pardon Trump if he’s convicted on federal charges.

Stanley Tremblay is another potential plus one for Haley.

He is an independent, disgusted with both Democrats and Republicans, and a third-party voter in both 2016 and 2020 who told us in September he is likely to reject the major party candidates again this fall.

Tremblay is especially sour on Trump, because he believes in truth telling and because he sees division and polarization as the source of much of what makes him so politically disaffected.

Undeclared voters can participate Tuesday – so Tremblay could help Haley and hurt Trump – and then still vote third party in November.

But he won’t.

“Because I really don’t feel like I can trust her enough yet to be able to give her my vote,” Tremblay said in an interview at his Nashua brewery, Liquid Therapy.

Might he regret it, if Trump wins here and then coasts to the nomination?

“No,” Tremblay said. “They’re both cardboard at the end of the day.”

Bottom lines motivate Trump votes

Deven McIver will cast his primary ballot in Thornton – population 2,809.

“I’m going to for Trump,” he told us during a break from his work at a quarry preparing giant slabs of stone to be crushed into construction gravel.

Thornton is 90 miles north from the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border; 95 miles south of where New Hampshire meets Canada. The quarry is off the road that is a gateway to New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains area.

It is mostly Trump country up here, though McIver, 46, says he voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

“I said, ‘Oh, we’re going to have all this change and stuff,’” McIver said.

But he skipped the 2012 election because he was disappointed by Obama and didn’t like Republican Mitt Romney. Then in 2016, he was excited enough by Trump to vote in the primary.

“Because he wasn’t a politician,” McIver said. “So I thought this will be interesting.”

Trump critics who think his supporters are blindly loyal would benefit from some time in the quarry with McIver, or on the boat with Konchek.

“Pretty good,” is McIver’s grade for Trump’s term as president. He was especially troubled, though, by “a lot of people coming and going” in top White House and agency jobs.

“I don’t pay attention to it,” is his answer when asked about the caustic Trump social media posts and attacks he dishes out at his rallies. “I’m more busy getting up, getting ready to go in the morning.”

John King speaks with New Hampshire voter Deven McIver at a rock quarry in North Woodstock, New Hampshire, in January. - CNN
John King speaks with New Hampshire voter Deven McIver at a rock quarry in North Woodstock, New Hampshire, in January. - CNN

McIver doesn’t see himself as qualified to assess whether all the legal cases against Trump are legitimate.

But while Trump, who has pleaded not guilty in all those cases, rails against prosecutors and judges and anyone he sees as a threat, and his MAGA supporters blame anyone but Trump, McIver takes a calm wait-and-see approach.

“He has to go through a process for that,” he said. “And how it turns out is how it turns out.”

He has a matter-of-fact answer when asked what would happen if Trump were convicted in the special counsel’s classified documents case and faces prison time.

“If he’s convicted on it, then he goes to jail,” McIver said. “I guess he won’t be president.”

McIver’s work in the winter is mostly alone. He has an array of vehicles equipped with tools that splice slabs of rock from the hillside quarry, move them to level ground and break them into pieces small enough for the crusher that turns them to gravel.

He let a visitor drive the front-end loader around the worksite. While offering lessons on how to lift the bucket and steer with a joystick, McIver shared more of his take on Trump.

“Sometimes he’s not his own best friend,” he said. “He’s different. … It’s a show.”

Some Trump supporters love the show. McIver is not one of them. Many Trump supporters rail against the courts and Congress when they take issue with Trump. McIver is not one of them, either.

“We have other branches of government,” he said. “They will keep him in line. … We have checks and balances in our government. They can keep him in line. He can’t have everything he wants.”

McIver makes $40,000 a year, enjoys the work and is grateful his commute is just a few miles so he has more time with his family.

It is a paycheck-to-paycheck life and inflation is especially tough on those with little to no margin in the family budget.

“With Trump, I was doing pretty good. I was able to save more,” McIver said. “Right now, it is harder. … Your groceries are expensive and the cost of everything you purchase is expensive.”

It is that blue-collar bottom line that keeps him ready to vote for Trump even as he concedes it is beyond unusual to acknowledge your choice needs guardrails and is likely to test the rules and norms if given power.

“I know what I’m going to get,” McIver said. “I know he will fix the border and work on the economy.”

But he makes clear he is “just a regular Republican.”

“I don’t stand on the side of the the road with a flag every Saturday.”

There are plenty of local MAGA Republicans who do.

“I see it when I go to the store on the weekends,” McIver said. “It’s like, ‘Boy, they could be cleaning their yard.’ I got better things to do than that.”

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