Recent Election Data Suggest New Hampshire Returning to Red State Status
New Hampshire is usually in the political spotlight only when our "first in the nation" primary comes around every four years. However, when the rest of the country is not watching, we hold other elections as well. This includes the general election that follows in the autumn, long after all the national news outlets and their reporters have packed up and left after the winter ritual earlier in the year. In the fall New Hampshire is not seen to be as critical and hardly garners more than a passing mention of our general election results given our meager four electoral votes.
Come November, national media coverage typically focuses on the states with large numbers of electoral votes like California, New York, Texas, and Florida. They also look at swing states viewed as traditional bellwethers like Ohio and Missouri. Yet New Hampshire is not seen as a deciding state for the general presidential election even though we determined the one in 2000.
You read that correctly: New Hampshire's four electoral votes decided the Bush versus Gore election back in 2000. Hardly anyone had time to realize this with the ensuing drama that followed in the drawn out Florida recount that year as well as the Supreme Court case that went along with it. Former vice president Al Gore garnered 266 electoral college votes, and New Hampshire was the only state in the region to vote for George W. Bush.
Had Gore won New Hampshire instead of Bush, it would have brought Gore up to the magic 270 electoral votes needed to secure the election, even without Florida. When we look at that election from this perspective, about 7,000 New Hampshire voters (the margin by which Bush won) seized the presidential win from Gore. Another consideration is that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader secured about 22,000 votes in that contest.
Photo caption: Political signage outside a polling location in Merrimack, NH © John P. Christie
Until relatively recently, New Hampshire was long considered a "red state," having consistently supported the Republican presidential candidate. Yes, Bill Clinton did win in New Hampshire twice, after our better known feat of making him the "comeback kid" with his second-place primary finish earlier in 1992. However, the wins Bill Clinton had can be accounted for by the effect of Ross Perot, where in 1992 Clinton won with only 38% of the vote. Even the much stronger Clinton victory in 1996 was offset again by Perot and other third-party candidates, and he still could not reach a majority of the votes.
New Hampshire has not voted for a Republican president since the Bush versus Gore race in 2000. Despite the state giving Bush 43 the opportunity to take that race to Florida, John Kerry won here in 2004, though by a slim margin. In 2008, Barack Obama had the largest percentile win since the 1980s, but even that solid victory against John McCain was nothing compared to the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 41 wins in the Granite State, which were all over 60%. A clear trend has also emerged since Obama's robust showing in 2008; in terms of presidential preference, New Hampshire has been turning consistently more red and less blue with each election cycle.
Barack Obama received fewer votes in 2012 than he did in 2008, and Hillary Clinton had fewer votes than Obama did in 2012. Mitt Romney received more votes than McCain did in 2008, and Donald Trump had more votes than Romney did in 2012. There is a clear contraction in support for the Democrat Party nominees and an expansion in support of the Republican Party nominees since 2008. With Hillary Clinton's almost historically thin victory in 2016 by only about 2,700 votes (you would have to go back a full hundred years to the 1916 win of Woodrow Wilson besting Charles Hughes by 56 votes to get a narrower win), the trend lines are well positioned to cross paths in 2020.
New Hampshire has only ten counties, and in 2008, Barack Obama carried all of them when matched up against John McCain. However, in 2012, three of the ten crossed from Democrat to Republican. In 2016, the trend continued, with Hillary Clinton winning the state and losing three additional counties to the Republican side, including the two largest in terms of population of Hillsborough and Rockingham. So, as of 2016, six of the ten counties had turned from blue to red. Between 2016 and now, New Hampshire has held more elections like the 2018 midterm; the 2020 presidential primary; and now the 2020 state primary, which occurred on September 8, 2020 to provide some more recent data points.
In 2018, our two congressional seats were up for election and they both continued to be held by Democrats. However, both of those wins were achieved while getting fewer votes. In the First Congressional District, newcomer Chris Pappas held the seat for the Democrats but earned about 6,000 fewer votes than his predecessor and fellow Democrat, Carol Shea-Porter, had in 2016. That is a 4% drop. In the Second Congressional District, Ann McLane Kuster kept her seat but while earning about 19,000 fewer votes than she did in the previous election of 2016. That is an 11% drop. Additionally, we have a Senate seat up for a vote this cycle with Jeanne Shaheen, who was also our former governor, who is finishing up her second term in the Senate. She was initially voted into her current seat in the "Democrat Peak" of 2008, when Obama first won. However, she has also had another election since then, back in 2014, where she still won but with 108,000 fewer votes — that is, an over 30% drop of support for her cycle over cycle.
In the 2020 presidential primary, there were almost 300,000 votes cast in the Democratic primary race, which was hotly contested, with Bernie Sanders unable to achieve a runaway victory as he had in 2016, where he beat Clinton by over 22%. This time around, Sanders could muster only 25% of the vote and won by just over one percent to runner-up Pete Buttigieg, followed by Amy Klobuchar with a respectable third-place finish at almost 20%. For some comparison, Sanders pulled in about 76,000 votes in 2020; on the other side of the primary, President Trump had almost 130,000.
A quick glance would tell us that the Democrats had about twice the voter turnout as the Republicans in the 2020 primary. The contextual layer to add at this point is that the Republican primary in New Hampshire, despite the long list of names that appeared on the ballot, was not even really contested (sorry, Bill Weld). The fact that President Trump was able to get nearly 130,000 of his supporters to vote for him in a race that did not really matter is a strong indicator of high voter enthusiasm. On that note, former vice president Joe Biden came in fifth, which for major candidates is essentially last place, and he did not carry a single county in the state, not even close. Biden's now running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, had already dropped out of the race prior to the first primary. This result contrasts sharply with President Trumps enthusiasm indicator and, coupled with the narrow win by Clinton in 2016, indicate a likely continuation of the contraction of support for democratic presidential nominees mentioned above.
The final and most recent piece of information we have is the primary, which was held on September 8, 2020, less than two months from the general election. The only viable proxy we have to review from these races, given the lack of major challengers on the Democrat side, is for the candidates President Trump endorsed for the House and Senate races. Bryant "Corky" Messner and Matt Mowers were both endorsed by President Trump for the Senate and the House, respectively. They both won their races, with a particularly strong showing by Mowers in the House race.
When it comes to data trends and predictive value, recentness matters, and all the most recent trends indicate an impending crossing of the vote threshold where the pendulum swings New Hampshire back into the red side of the spectrum. This movement would favor President Trump in the general election (and we now know the potential hidden electoral power of N.H.'s four votes thanks to Bush vs. Gore). Though, depending on the outcomes of the down-ballot races, where the Granite State will choose three of our four national representatives to send to Washington, D.C., could it indicate an end of the state's foray into blue state status? To properly evaluate that trend, we will have to wait for the next set of numbers to crunch after November 3.
John P. Christie, Ph.D. is a lifelong resident of New Hampshire and an associate professor of management and economics at Regis College in Weston, Mass., where he teaches business analytics and strategy.