Why Chris Christie went straight from the GOP debate to New Hampshire colleges

HENNIKER, N.H. — Chris Christie kicked off a two-day New Hampshire college tour soon after Wednesday’s GOP debate, trying to grow the anti-Trump Republican coalition among student voters.

He held town halls on four different college campuses across the Granite State: Franklin Pierce University, Keene State College, New England College and University of New Hampshire, all featuring signs that said, “Christie on Campus: Direct Questions. Direct Answers.” 

The goal, according to the campaign, was to engage with a voting bloc that has potential for impact in New Hampshire but has been often ignored by Republicans.

Christie’s pitch for New Hampshire students was a continuation of his message against Donald Trump during the latest debate, when he called the former president “unfit for office” and called out other Republicans for not opposing him more strongly. Approximately 40% of voters in New Hampshire are registered as “Undeclared,” allowing them to choose whether to vote in the Republican or Democratic primary. 

A super PAC backing Christie encouraged Democrats to re-register earlier this year so they could participate in the GOP primary in January. It’s not a play that could work in every state. Trump still leads widely in state polls — but New Hampshire does have a tradition of independent voters pushing in a different direction than other Republican primaries.

“I’d say to every student who’s still here, that that’s the reason to register to vote and vote in the Republican primary,” Christie told students at New England College on Thursday. “Don’t count on Joe Biden to stop Donald Trump. Let’s stop Donald Trump now.”

New Hampshire also has same-day registration, which means state residents can show up to the polls and vote on Election Day even if they haven’t done so before. The policy can be especially useful to college voters, as out-of-state students have the unique opportunity to participate in the first-in-the-nation primary after moving to New Hampshire for school.

The Christie campaign left double-sided pamphlets on every seat at its events this week — one side with information about how to register to vote in New Hampshire, including a QR code leading to the secretary of state’s voter information website, and the other side with a QR code leading to a campaign volunteering site.

The campaign said it had encouraged the town clerk of Rindge to hold a public, campuswide registration event at Franklin Pierce University the same day the governor spoke.

“We’re going to make sure that we have folks here who are going to help register you if you are not registered to vote yet, to make sure you get the opportunity to go and vote in our primary on Jan. 23, because the students here at New England College can make a big difference,” Christie told students during one of his stops.

“If you’re not registered to vote here, get registered,” he said during a town hall in Keene. “Your vote has more of an impact here then we’ll have any place else in the country. If you’re not from New Hampshire and you’re from someplace else, I’d tell you register and vote here.”

Still, some students plan to keep voting in their home state. 

Connor Henchey, a Republican who is a sophomore at Franklin Pierce University, plans to vote in his home state of Massachusetts. 

“It’s just a little bit of a process for me to go through to register up here. And I’m already registered back home. It’ll be easier for me to go back home,” he told NBC News.

During these town halls, Christie said his party often ignores the college vote. 

“I hear people in my business complain all the time about you,” he said at Franklin Pierce University. “They say young people don’t vote. Young people don’t get involved. Young people don’t care about the country enough at this stage in their lives, to get involved enough even to register and to vote.” 

He later added, “If you’re not registered to vote, I’d urge you to register and to get involved. But I gotta give you a reason to get involved. I can’t just expect you want to do it on your own.” 

Christie said he has no basis to complain if he has not tried to pitch to young voters why it is important to vote.

Shane Henrick, a Republican who is a senior at Franklin Pierce University, thinks it is important for young people to vote. He has not decided who to vote for yet but said part of Christie’s message resonated with him. 

“Like he said, it is our future more than his. So I think it’s very important for younger kids to look at politics and see who they want to vote for,” Henrick said.

Some students came for the food at these events and stayed for the politics. Lauren Kayon and Kayla Doan, both juniors at New England College in Henniker, said they showed up on Thursday night for the free beer and the free pizza. 

They both plan to vote in the Republican primary. Doan, who is still undecided, called Christie “personable” and said, “He actually seemed like he cared.”

In a news release from his campaign about the college tour, his campaign wrote that Christie has been an advocate for Republicans talking to voters and going to places they “historically avoid.” 

His team argues Christie is “only candidate with the ability to build the diverse coalition of support to beat Trump and then President Biden.”

According to his campaign, that coalition consists of traditional Republicans, new independents and college-aged voters.

Jacob Favolise, 20, a student and Christie supporter at Keene State College, believes there is a “real opportunity to change turnout. “I think there’s a lot of people that are maybe considering voting for the first time. The race is starting to come into focus at this point for students as the semester winds down,” Favolise told NBC News. “I certainly think that Gov. Christie is a candidate that a lot of undeclared voters, of which there are many on college campuses, could see themselves voting for.” 

But even some of Christie’s event attendees are among those backing Trump. Madeline Boop, a senior at Franklin Pierce University, thinks events like the ones Christie is holding at college campuses are “a really big key in getting us to actually participate.” But she plans to vote in Nevada for Trump next year.