New Hampshire likes its Bigfoot status in presidential politics

New Hampshire is famous for its first-in-the-nation presidential primary, and also for a libertarian, secular quirkiness that doesn’t come close to reflecting the national mood. (State motto: “Live Free or Die.”) Long the most Republican state in the Northeast, it is now a toss-up state in presidential elections.  

(Un)Conventional Wisdom is presenting short history of each state’s role in modern presidential politics. New Hampshire is the ninth in the series.

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If you didn’t grow up in New England, the state of New Hampshire may blur in your mind with neighboring Maine and Vermont to form a land of ski resorts and inexplicably expensive bed-and-breakfasts. If you grew up in Massachusetts, as I did, New Hampshire was long a conservative wonderland, with no sales or income tax, no laws requiring that motorcyclists wear helmets or that everyone has to pay a deposit on soda cans, and no ban on fireworks.

Indeed, Massachusetts and New Hampshire has had one of the most intense interstate rivalries in America. In 1987, an Associated Press report on the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis explained, “industrialized Massachusetts is cast as the land of high taxes—‘Taxachusetts’—while more rural New Hampshire, the Granite State, is seen as populated by less-than-bright ‘graniteheads.’” I don’t remember “graniteheads” as a common slur, though. Bay Staters are more likely to ding their northern neighbors for stinginess than for stupidity.

In the early 20th century, New Hampshire was actually the most Democratic of the three northern New England states. Unlike Maine and Vermont, it could stomach Franklin D. Roosevelt and voted for the Democrat three times. In 1940, Roosevelt carried New Hampshire by six points, but that was when more than 15 percent of the state’s population lived in the mill city of Manchester. (Now about 8 percent live in New Hampshire’s largest city.) After that, the state rapidly added people, hitting peak growth with a 25 percent increase from 1970 to 1980. According to the New York Times, 25 percent of the state’s current population was born in Massachusetts; no other state has a higher share of residents from a single other state.

The new retirement communities and the “super commute” exurbs of Boston turned the state securely Republican. The three elections in the 1980s are so far the only ones in the state’s history that produced victory margins of more than 100,000, all for the GOP. In 1980, New Hampshire was Ronald Reagan’s best state east of the Mississippi, giving him 58 percent of the vote.

New Hampshire’s population growth has since slowed down considerably, with an increase of only 0.8 percent from 2010 to 2014 (behind the 3.0 percent in rival Massachusetts). As in other states like California and Virginia, it has shifted toward the Democratic Party as growth has cooled and a frontier mentality has evolved into a backlash against sprawl. Barack Obama won here with 54.1 percent in 2008, the best performance by a Democrat since 1964, and slipped to 52.0 percent in 2012.

Still, the Massachusetts diaspora may be responsible for keeping the state purple rather than solid blue. The Democratic trend in Maine and Vermont has been stronger and quicker, and Barack Obama has done better in the counties bordering Vermont than in those bordering Massachusetts. Exit polls found that Obama ran best among rural voters in New Hampshire, rather than in the suburban spillover from Massachusetts. (See my earlier post casting doubt on the theory that migrants from blue states are turning other states Democratic.) The national exit poll showed the reverse, with Obama faring the worst with rural voters. One possible explanation for this difference is New Hampshire’s secular character: the same exit polls indicated that 30 percent of the state’s respondents “never” attend religious services, compared with 17 percent of respondents nationwide, and the “nevers” broke overwhelmingly for Obama.

Rockingham County, which includes the strip of coast between Massachusetts and Maine and extends inland, is the biggest remaining Republican stronghold in New Hampshire. Mitt Romney won it with 52 percent, and it was Republican Scott Brown’s best county in the 2014 U.S. Senate race. (The former U.S. senator from Massachusetts got 55 percent here but lost statewide with 48 percent.)

Of the state’s 10 counties, Rockingham is also presumably the most affected by the Massachusetts–to–New Hampshire migration. It has the highest share of population born in another state, 66 percent (Census data on which states they came from is not readily available at the county level), and the number of votes cast for president in Rockingham went up 68 percent from 1988 to 2012, versus 58 percent for the state as a whole.

Without Rockingham County, Obama would have won New Hampshire by nine points instead of six points. In order to win the state in 2016, the Republican nominee will have to get landslide margins in towns like Londonderry, Salem, and Windham, close to the state border and full of people who fled “Taxachusetts.”

Presidential primaries

New Hampshire’s insistence on holding the first presidential primary every four years, after the Iowa caucuses, makes it a strong contender for Most Arrogant State in America (“Vote First or Die”). The strongest argument for holding the first primary here is that New Hampshire has one of the highest rates of voter participation: 70.2 percent of eligible residents cast ballots in the 2012 election, behind only Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. It also had the highest turnout among voting-eligible citizens (53.8 percent) in the 2008 presidential primaries. Without a contested Democratic race in 2012, turnout dropped to 31.1 percent.

New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primaries can be divided into two eras. For a while, the state liked to reject the winners of the Iowa caucuses in favor of more economically conservative candidates. It preferred tax-cutter Ronald Reagan to George G.W. Bush in 1980, and it snubbed farm-subsidy and food-stamp champion Bob Dole twice, for the newly conservative Bush in 1988 and for Pat Buchanan in 1996. (Buchanan ran best in the economically lagging northern tip of the state but also won Hillsborough and Rockingham counties on the Massachusetts border.)

More recently, New Hampshire has turned thumbs-down on Iowa winners with ties to the party’s religious-conservative wing, picking John McCain over George W. Bush in 2000 and over Mike Huckabee in 2008, then going with Romney over Rick Santorum in 2012. Second place actually went to Ron Paul, who carried Coos County at the top of the state. Romney won everywhere else, doing best in Rockingham County.

New Hampshire Democrats also like to ding Iowa winners, picking Gary Hart over Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis over Richard Gephardt in 1988, Paul Tsongas over Tom Harkin in 1992 (with Bill Clinton claiming a moral victory in second place), and, in the biggest upset, Hillary Clinton over Obama in 2008. Clinton’s statewide margin of 7,589 was attributable to her combined margin of 10,319 in southern Hillsborough and Rockingham counties. Obama’s biggest margins came in smaller cities, like Hanover and Keene, in the western part of the state—which happen to be near Vermont, home of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s challenging Clinton in 2016. If Clinton wins the Iowa caucuses, there’s a good chance Sanders will win the New Hampshire primary, but his victory in one of the whitest, most rural, and least religious states wouldn’t be easy to replicate elsewhere.

New Hampshire demographics (Census Bureau)

Where New Hampshire residents come from (New York Times)

Religious composition of New Hampshire (Pew Research Center)

New Hampshire Elections Division

Note: The best source for state- and county-level presidential election results is Dave Leip’s Atlas of Presidential Elections.

New Hampshire has been more Democratic than the U.S. as a whole since 2004.

More: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New JerseyPennsylvania, South Carolina.

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