Swinging in Place: New Hampshire's Presidential Elections, 1992-2016

By Scala, Dante J. | The New England Journal of Political Science, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Swinging in Place: New Hampshire's Presidential Elections, 1992-2016


Scala, Dante J., The New England Journal of Political Science


The 2016 presidential election sent several swing states flying out of their traditional orbits. Republican nominee Donald Trump carried traditionally Democratic Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Ohio shed its bellwether status and behaved like a strongly Republican state. New Hampshire was not immune to the unusual political weather, but its movement was a mere wobble in comparison. For the fourth consecutive election, the Democratic nominee carried the state's four electoral votes, though Hillary Clinton won by a razor-thin margin with less than 47 percent of the popular vote. The Granite State maintained a balance of partisan forces that has existed for a quarter-century.1

Balance, however, should not be mistaken for inertia, let alone tranquility. For the past two decades, New Hampshire's Democrats and Republicans have fought a series of pitched battles, from the U. S. Senate to a seat in its 424-seat state legislature. This article examines the rough symmetry of recent changes in partisan forces that have reinforced the state's political equilibrium. At the level of the individual voter, working-class antipathy for liberalism and the Democratic Party has offset more liberal attitudes among the college-educated. At the municipal level, population growth has occurred, in sparsely populated rural and exurban towns that lean Republican, not in densely populated (and Democratic-leaning) urban areas. At the county level, Democrats' emerging advantage in downscale rural New Hampshire evaporated in 2016, while they held their own in suburban areas with higher levels of socioeconomic status.

In 2016, Clinton, aided by greater Democratic support among voters with higher levels of educational attainment, narrowly captured New Hampshire because of her strength in the densely populated areas of the state. But Republican strength in faster-growing exurbs and rural areas suggests that Democrats are reaching the limits of their electoral appeal and will struggle to become the dominant party in the state.

New Hampshire's Recent Political History

New Hampshire was once a solidly Republican state with a strong Republican tilt. From 1932 to 1988, the Democratic presidential nominee carried the state just four times, and only once after Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As recently as 1988, George H. W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis by 26 percentage points, more than triple his advantage in the national popular vote. But Bush was the last Republican nominee to win a majority of the popular vote in the Granite State. Just four years later, he lost to Bill Clinton, with independent candidate Ross Perot attracting nearly 23 percent of the vote. Clinton won the state again in 1996 with a plurality of the popular vote, when Perot again appeared on the ticket. New Hampshire Democrats also began to enjoy consistent statewide success for other offices in the 1990s. They gained control of the State Senate in 1998, though they relinquished it just two years later. More importantly, State Senator Jeanne Shaheen won the governor's office in 1996, and kept it for two more 2-year terms. Shaheen's success was the beginning of a 20-year period in which Democrats won all but two gubernatorial elections.

Republicans still had the upper hand, however, in elections for federal offices. In 2000, George W. Bush put New Hampshire back in the Republican column.2 Two years later, Democrats' hopes for a breakthrough moment were stymied. Shaheen fell short in her campaign for an open U. S. Senate seat against Congressman John E. Sununu.3 To compound that year's pain, the Democrats lost the governor's office in the open-seat contest. Republicans remained comfortably in control of all four congressional seats.

Just two years later, however, Democrats rebounded. New Hampshire was the only Republican state to flip to the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. The 2006 midterms brought more good news. With Bush's approval numbers cratering, Democrats won contests up and down the ballot, gaining control of both chambers of the state legislature. …

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