New Hampshire now stands alone in a sea of blue. For the last three presidential elections every state in the Northeast has voted Democratic except New Hampshire. New Hampshire has only done so twice (albeit narrowly in 2004). As the Northeast has drifted left New Hampshire has maintained deep bastions of conservatism. This even as liberal Northeasterners from Massachusetts, Vermont and elsewhere run to the low tax, business friendly state.
Up to the 21st century New Hampshire maintained a GOP lean. It went for Nixon in 68 and 72, for Ford in 76 even as he lost to Carter nationally, Reagan in 80 and 84 and HW in 1988. Since 1992 the state has tilted to the left in federal elections. The state backed Clinton in 92 and 96. However, in 2000 the state went narrowly for George W Bush. Yet in 2004 the state turned on Bush and gave John Kerry, a fellow Northeasterner, a narrow victory. In the wave election of 2008 Barack Obama ran way with the state.
Despite New Hampshire’s turn to the left at the presidential level the state maintains a moderate/conservative lean in state elections. Consider that in 2004 even as Bush lost US Senator Judd Gregg (R) was easily reelected and the legislature remained Republican. A moderate Democratic candidate was narrowly reelected Governor. Both GOP US Congressman also won reelection. However in the wave elections of 2006 and 2008 Democrats retook the state legislature, knocked off both GOP Congressmen and took an US Senate seat.
Since 2006 and 2008 however the state has returned to form. The GOP wave election of 2010 netted the GOP a solid majority in the legislature, an open Senate seat and both US House seats. Numerous polls have shown the presidential race a dead heat.
The power of regional affiliation in the way New Hampshire votes cannot be underestimated. In times such as 92 this can be broken when an incumbent is unpopular enough. HW Bush hailed from Massachusetts while Clinton was a Southerner. However in 2004, John Kerry, who hailed from the Bay state, beat George Bush, a Southerner.
Mitt Romney, a Northeasterner in every sense of the word, former Governor of Massachusetts, does have this regional affiliation with the state. He owns a home and regularly vacations in New Hampshire. Barack Obama who hails from Illinois has an ideology that appeals to moderate New Hampshire voters.
Neither party can claim to have an advantage heading into the state in 2012. Both of the Congressional districts are expected to be competitive, the Governor’s mansion is open for the first time in a decade, and the presidential race is a toss-up. The unemployment rate in the state is below 7%, far less than the national average. This could possibly dent the GOP’s argument in the state the President’s stewardship has been a failure.
By far the largest share of the electorate in 2008 was moderates and independents. In 2008 independents made up 45% of the electorate and moderates 46%. Both went heavily for the president while McCain only won Republicans (27%) and conservatives (28%). In 2010 independents made up 44% of the electorate but conservatives were 38% of the electorate and Republicans were 30%. To be fair however I do have to point out the exit polls on the Gubernatorial race showed quite a bit of split ticket voting.
A large part of the state’s move left at the national level is the growth of the suburbs. In both 2004 and 2008 exit polls showed the suburbs went for Kerry and Obama. Rural areas favored the GOP.
New Hampshire is unique in that both parties bases come from white voters. Minorities make up a tiny segment of the electorate. This means there is a wide swath of cross-over voters, as evidenced by 2010 exit polls. Independents clearly remain the key to victory. In both 2008 and 2010 a solid plurality identified as such. These voters can go either way, regardless of ideological turnout. If partisan turnout and ideological turnout is close to 2010 levels the race will be a dead heat until election day. If it returns to 2008 levels Obama has the edge.
In 2008 both parties have shown a remarkable ability to find strength in the state. In 2008 Barack Obama won every single age group and education level. In 2010 GOP US Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte repeated the feat. Independents broke strongly for Obama in 2008 and for the GOP in all races except Governor in 2010.
Romney’s key to victory lies in his ability to run well in the suburbs. He does not need to win them, Bush did not in 2000, but run well enough to keep down the President’s winning margin. Combined with a strong showing he will need in the ex-urbs and rural areas Romney could pull out a victory. Obama’s key to winning is to galvanize his liberal base in the state’s metro areas and win the suburbs, full of independents and moderates, and keep his losses down in among rural voters.
New Hampshire does not have any specific county that will predict where it will go in 2012. It is a largely white and a quintessential swing state. Polls remain tight and are likely to remain so until election day. For New Hampshire voters, who decided our president in 2000 and have shown a willingness to go Democratic or Republican, this is nothing new.