Know Your Battleground States 1/9: New Hampshire

New Hampshire, the smallest of the swing states with only 4 Electoral Votes at stake, is an odd candidate to be a battleground state. New Hampshire is relatively rich, overwhelmingly White and very pretty, with more than its fair share of whitewashed churches, traditional Main Streets and wooded valleys which look resplendent in the fall. Granite Staters are famed for a flinty, Yankee, libertarianism enshrined in the state’s official motto, “Live Free or Die” and the fact that the state has neither a sales tax nor an income tax. But this is the Northeast and the sort of social conservatism that plays well for Republicans in many other parts of the country plays badly in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. New England is often said to be the most European region of the United States, and that is reflected in a European-style collapse in religious observance in the region over the past generation or so. Gallup in the mid-2000s found that New Hampshire shared the title of least churchgoing state in the Union with neighbouring Vermont, while the state also has one of the highest populations professing no religious affiliation.

Plymouth Town Centre

Mitt Romney the Massachusetts governor — fiscally conservative but socially moderate-to-liberal — would be a perfect fit for New Hampshire. The small number of polls taken in the state in 2011 showed him with comfortable leads over Barack Obama, which reversed suddenly and dramatically when the Republican Primary forced Romney to the right, with Obama looking comfortable. After the first TV debate, the polls closed again and are indicating a dead heat at present. The RealClearPolitics.com average shows Obama with only a 0.8% lead in the state, although it remains underpolled. New Hampshire, long ignored in presidential elections once its Primary concluded in January, is now a vital battleground. For example, if Mitt Romney fails to make any breakthrough in the Midwest, he can still win – as long as he sweeps the southern and western swing-states and ekes out a win in New Hampshire.

The Sandwich Range in White Mountain National Forest

Perhaps no state epitomises the enormous regional shifts in American voting behaviour over the past generation. Once a reliably Republican Yankee stronghold, which voted for the Republican candidate at every Presidential election between 1948 and 1988, the Granite State has voted for the GOP only once since, when it was the only state in the Northeast to opt for George W Bush in 2000. Every county in New Hampshire voted for Barack Obama in 2008, as did all but one county in the whole of New England.

The southeast corner of the state, comprising Hillsborough and Rockingham Counties and centred on Manchester and Nashua, is noticeably more Republican than the rest of the state. This area is less than an hour’s drive into downtown Boston if the freeways are clear, and many native Massachusites have moved across the state line seeking cheaper property and lower tax. The state’s population exploded for a generation, doubling between 1970 and 2000, and although that has since slowed, most of that population growth was concentrated in Boston commuterland. This part of the state also gets its television from Boston, and Mitt Romney is a familiar figure from his spell as governor of Massachusetts in the early 200s.

Downtown Concord.

Between them, Hillsborough and Rockingham counties comprise 56% of New Hampshire’s population, and even in 2008 when Obama won the state by 10 clear points, he won Hillsborough County by only 4% and Rockingham by only 1%. He will do well to win either county this year.

Further north and west, however, the Democratic vote starts piling up, whether in blue-collar towns like Rochester and Somersfield, which powered Hillary Clinton’s come-from-behind Presidential Primary win in 2008, or the upscale retirement villages and college towns of the Connecticut River Valley, which favoured Obama. The short New Hampshire coast is another Democratic stronghold, and perhaps the most curious of them all is Berlin, a working-class former mill town way up north in the White Mountains and just 60 miles from the Quebec border. Despite its name, a majority of Berlin’s residents speak French at home.

New Hampshire in the Fall.

The area around state’s capital, Concord, dead in the centre of the state, is often decisive in New Hampshire elections, usually evenly split between the parties when the state itself is competitive, and prone to high swings.

State-level elections are also prone to wild swings here. Republicans were routed from office at every level in the Democratic wave year of 2006 only to sweep to crushing majorities in both houses of the state legislature in 2010, although Democratic governor John Lynch’s enormous personal popularity enabled him to hang on.

Pelham Congregational Church.

Romney almost seemed to have given up on New Hampshire over the summer, spending less than $100k dollars on TV advertising most weeks while Obama was spending around half a million. Republican Political Action Committees also spent patchily on advertising in the Granite State. As so much of the state is covered by Boston TV stations, advertising is expensive here and involves much wasted money spent on advertising to viewers in the reliably Democratic states around. However, Romney’s recent upsurge in polling has seen a little more interest from him and his surrogates. In the week to Tuesday, the Romney campaign spent $355k on advertising here, while Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC dumped in a cool $1.47M. Barack Obama hit back with a $1.29M ad buy. Still, ad spending here is relatively low compared to other battleground states and the big PACs are still not showing much interest.

If a narrow Obama win in New Hampshire leads to him squeaking back to the White House for a second term, the Romney campaign may yet live to rue the lack of attention paid to Granite Staters over the summer.

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