Focus turns to a changing New Hampshire

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 4, 2008 

MANCHESTER, N.H. — This is not your father's New Hampshire, as presidential candidates of both parties are about to learn Tuesday, when the state holds the first primary of the 2008 campaign.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won Iowa's Republican caucuses Thursday night, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama won the Democratic ones there, but both they and their rivals are about to contest a state very different from the flat plains of Iowa.

Twenty years ago, the downtown area of this, New Hampshire's largest city, was a dying collection of worn storefronts. Now, there are popular nightspots, a new arena and a minor-league baseball team. The once-dilapidated old textile mills lining the Merrimack River now house high-tech companies, a college, expensive restaurants.

Even the topography has changed: Up north, the Old Man of the Mountain is gone, the great stone face that for nearly two centuries symbolized the state's Yankee stoicism — lost in a 2003 rock slide.

Also gone: the Republican hegemony that long dominated the state's politics. In an unprecedented sweep, Democrats took control last year of the state's two U.S. House of Representatives seats — for the first time since 1912 — and both the governorship and the state legislature — for the first time since 1874.

The election was the result of two trends: New Hampshire's rapidly changing demographics, and local distrust of the increasingly conservative national Republican Party. Both probably will have an impact Tuesday.

"It's changed," said Charles Black, a Republican strategist who first worked on a New Hampshire campaign in 1976, in Ronald Reagan's primary challenge to President Gerald Ford. "The base Republican vote used to be around 50 percent, maybe more. Now it's probably 40 percent. Now, it's a swing state."

New Hampshire's population grew 95 percent from 1965 to 2006, to more than 1.3 million, and it continues to expand. High-tech and financial services jobs fuel the boom. Nearly 25 percent of the state's potential voters didn't live here in 2000, according to a new study by the University of New Hampshire.

Virtually all the growth is south of the state's White Mountains. The North Country remains a hardscrabble place where the recent closings of paper mills probably will continue the exodus from the one region in the state that's losing population.

Picturesque towns throughout the state churned out old-fashioned Yankee Republicans for generations. But "those people have largely died off," replaced by an influx of retirees and educated white-collar workers who "move here and bring their politics with them," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.

From 2002 to 2007, Democrats registered 45,000 new voters; Republicans registered 2,800.

At the same time, traditional Republican voters here are generally at odds with the national Republican Party. In a state whose motto is "Live Free or Die," in-your-face social conservatism has never had much appeal. That helps explain why Huckabee languishes here, despite winning in Iowa and South Carolina on a message tailored to the Republicans' national base.

Additionally, the face of the state's Democratic Party has changed. Once an ethnic, blue-collar, heavily Roman Catholic party focused on the old mill towns of Manchester and Nashua, the state's two largest cities, it's become a more secular, socially liberal party with broad support among the influx of "swamp yuppies" moving into the state's smaller cities and towns.

That all helps explain why, even before last year's Democratic sweep, New Hampshire went for Democrats Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and John Kerry in 2004. George W. Bush won narrowly in 2000, as Green Party candidate Ralph Nader got enough votes to deny Al Gore a win in the state.

But Democrats don't have a stranglehold on the state's politics. The most influential voters in New Hampshire are neither Republicans nor Democrats; they're independents. Those who register "undeclared" can vote in either the Republican or the Democratic primaries.

Of New Hampshire's 850,000 or so registered voters, 44 percent are undeclared. Republicans account for 30 percent of the state's registered voters, and 26 percent are Democrats. Many of those independent voters lean toward one party or the other, but many are true centrists.

Unlike in Iowa, whose caucuses are dominated by party activists comfortable on the wings of their respective parties, the New Hampshire primary can be a playground for those centrist independents.

They gave John McCain a resounding victory over Bush in 2000 in the Republican primary, as the two basically split the registered Republican vote.

In this year's election, polls indicate that those independent voters are inclined to vote in the Democratic primary, largely because of frustration with the Iraq war.

Two things about New Hampshire haven't changed.

One is its legendary unpredictability: More than half the voters in the state make up their minds in the last week before their primary, according to exit polls. They sent a message to Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and to George H.W. Bush in 1992 by giving huge minorities to challengers Eugene McCarthy and Pat Buchanan. They rejected "front-runners" Walter Mondale in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2000, favoring insurgents Gary Hart and McCain.

"Hillary Clinton has really established herself in a very large way in New Hampshire," said George Bruno, a former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman. "A powerful staff, ample money, gets a lot of airtime, has by all accounts a very good organization. That said, others have been in her position and at the last minute, the ground shifted. . . . A lot of people hold back to see who's heading toward the winner's circle. It's just so unpredictable."

And voters still insist on retail politics, heavy on question-and-answer forums with the candidates.

"You cannot buy an election in the state of New Hampshire," McCain said. "You have to get out there and meet people."

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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