EXETER, N.H. ― It’s a state that prides itself on seeing through politicians, with voters who will reflexively tell you they vote for the person, not the party. It’s a state where people brag about the number of presidents they’ve shaken hands with ― and add to the brag by noting how many of those presidents they still voted against.
But for someone who lived in New Hampshire for the first 22 years of his life ― me ― and still visits his family who live in the state, it’s a bit surprising to see houses that never put up political signs during the George W. Bush or Barack Obama years now proudly displaying Donald Trump flags and homemade billboards.
In one sense, it shouldn’t be surprising. New Hampshire was the first state in 2016 where Trump won a primary, beating out the second-place finisher, John Kasich, by 20 percentage points. And Trump only barely lost the state in the general election, with Democrat Hillary Clinton edging him out by less than 3,000 votes.
But Trump is campaigning there, and he feels good. He and his team continue to think they could miraculously pull out the state’s four electoral votes.
On Sunday, Trump held a rally at the Manchester airport. Feeding off the energy in the audience, Trump commented on his chances in the state.
“This is not the crowd that comes in second,” Trump said. “It’s like a poll, except much more accurate.”
Even if Democratic rival Joe Biden and his team expect to cruise to victory, something is happening in New Hampshire. Like almost every state, there is a political realignment happening here, with rural voters trending more Republican and suburban voters more Democratic.
“What we saw in 2016 was a microcosm for what we’re seeing nationally,” University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala told HuffPost. “Larger numbers of whites without college degrees shifted to Trump.”
And it’s not just education levels swinging voters to the Republican Party. The suburban/rural divide is alive and well, just like it was in 2016 and 2018.
That should mean good things for Biden, broadly speaking, as the suburbs shift more to Democrats. But there are also questions about how that shift continues to play out. In New Hampshire, according to Scala’s research, some of these exurban areas appear to also be trending a bit more conservative.
“We find that those small suburban areas that are kind of outside smaller cities like Manchester tend to act like rural America, politically speaking,” Scala said.
And then you have areas like Rockingham County. It’s the southeastern-most tip of the state, only about an hour from Boston, going right up to the edge of Manchester. The county used to be somewhat of a bellwether for the state, with Republicans usually beating out Democrats by a couple of percentage points in elections, though Obama did win it in 2008 by 1 point.
In 2016, Trump won Rockingham with just over 50% of the vote, and, even though there are Democratic strongholds in the county, such as Portsmouth, Democrats are facing a new reality in the area.
“Rockingham County going forward is a problem for the Democrats,” Scala said. “It’s a large county for New Hampshire, it’s fast-growing and it’s tilting Republican.”
That may be true in the future, but Democrats continue to be confident about the state, given their position in the polls and Trump’s relatively static disapproval rating.
A Democratic strategist told me the Biden campaign was “more than confident” about winning New Hampshire ― though, in perhaps a nod to just how confident the campaign is, I couldn’t get someone to comment on the record. A separate Democratic strategist told me that no one wants to be quoted this close to the election saying they’re going to win any state by double digits. “Everyone is trying to scare all of their voters to the polls,” this operative said.
However, one longtime GOP operative in the state told HuffPost that in New Hampshire, Trump’s disapproval rating may not be as insightful as some analysts think.
“Almost every one of my friends is voting for Trump, and these are not insane people,” the operative said. “These are people who know that Trump is a flaming fucking asshole. But they look at the alternative, and they don’t like it.”
The alternative, in this operative’s words, was a march toward socialism. And even if that thinking is more than a stretch, this longtime GOP operative ― who himself is not voting for Trump ― thinks there are plenty of “shy Trump voters” in the state.
“To come out for Trump, you either have to be a true believer or don’t give a shit what people think,” this operative said.
But the “shy Trump voter,” at least in 2016, seems to have been more of a myth than a reality.
For one, you’d expect to see a difference between Trump’s support in live interviews and online surveys ― and we just don’t see that. For another, even accounting for the possibility that Trump voters may not be as likely to answer polls as Biden voters, pollsters are able to weight averages so that things like education level more accurately represent the electorate. (Some states didn’t do a great job of weighting their polls by education level in 2016, and it resulted in some errors that many pollsters believe they’ve fixed.)
If there are shy Trump voters in New Hampshire, they’re unlikely to be significant enough to swing the state for Trump, given Biden’s lead.
“What we saw in 2016 was a microcosm for what we’re seeing nationally. Larger numbers of whites without college degrees shifted to Trump.”
Yet clearly Trump sees a pathway to potential victory here and potential scenarios in which New Hampshire’s four Electoral College votes could matter.
A Trump campaign operative told HuffPost that, “if we’ve learned anything over the last four years, it’s that the president’s ‘America First’ message resonates well beyond areas that are traditional Republican strongholds.”
“President Trump loves the people of New Hampshire and the state has been central to his political success ― so you can expect to see us competing hard in the state and working to earn every vote no matter what the polls say,” this operative said.
Democrats feel the same way.
A state Senate candidate, Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, isn’t taking her relatively safe Democratic seat for granted, telling HuffPost she worries about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected a state with a famous libertarian streak.
“We have to think of politics every day and every minute now because of mask-wearing,” she said.
Perkins Kwoka, who has been making phone calls for Democrats up and down the ballot, said she’d been surprised by a number of conversations with Republican voters.
“It strikes me how, in some ways, it’s almost a different set of facts that we’re dealing with,” she said.
But she added that when she gets Republicans on the phone, she’s able to keep them on the line by stressing the biographies of candidates, their records and talking through problems like education funding.
“People are still interested in new ideas and new ways to solve old problems,” she said.
That sort of retail politics used to be famous in New Hampshire. Voters wanted to meet their candidates multiple times, look them in the eye, tell them about their problems and their solutions.
With Trump, however, that style of politics is going by the wayside. In 2016, you weren’t going to find Trump in a living room or out on the street meeting voters. He opted for his signature big rallies. And the rallies worked.
New Hampshire voters ― many of whom argue they should have the first-in-the-nation primary because they’ve looked past presidents in the eye ― didn’t really care that Trump didn’t do the whole “retail politics” thing. For many of the Trump backers, they liked his brash style, and his racism, and his brash racism.
For a state that plays such an outsized role in deciding who gets to be president, it’s worth questioning if those voters are living up to the job. Certainly, the lack of diversity here was a major reason Biden was on the ropes after the New Hampshire primary. It took a massive win in South Carolina, a state that is more than 25% Black, for Biden to climb back to the top of the race for the Democratic nomination. Perhaps Biden wouldn’t have done so poorly in New Hampshire if the state were more than about 1% Black.
Either way, the shifting urban/rural dynamics and party polarization raise questions about what New Hampshire’s role should be. The state already doesn’t look like the rest of the country, and if the parties further separate in a rural split, that famously independent voter may just be splitting in two.
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