INTERVALE, N.H. – Oh, no! Not New Hampshire again! Not another elegy to those flinty and finicky voters! No, not that!
Yes, that. Because when we last left the state, back in pre-coronavirus times, the Presidential Range was draped in snow, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, both had captured nine Democratic convention delegates, and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was buried in a distant fifth place. Only one in 12 voters supported him.
Now we are back, and if you stand at the vista here by the White Mountain Highway, you will see wildflowers in the foreground, leaves changing brilliantly in the valley, and, in the distance, the Presidential Range draped in late-summer sunshine. But the political season has changed, too. We have a new perspective on presidential ranges in general: Biden is the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris of California (who folded her campaign even before the primary here) is his running mate, and once again this state is a political battleground of great consequence.
How can that be? New Hampshire, once as reliably Republican as the butter-and-sugar sweet corn is reliably ready for picking in August, has voted for the Democrats in six of the last seven elections – and it would have been seven straight had independent Ralph Nader not siphoned off 22,198 from Vice President Albert Gore’s support in 2000.
But here’s why President Donald Trump dropped in here recently, why Democrats are mobilizing as if they are preparing for a winter nor’easter, and why never-Trumper Republicans are organizing in a way independent-minded party members haven’t done since Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the American ambassador to Saigon, was the stunning beneficiary of a write-in campaign that actually won the 1964 New Hampshire primary:
Trump lost this state and its tiny (but perhaps consequential in a close contest) haul of four electoral votes by a margin of only 2,736 four years ago. To put that number in hardscrabble granite perspective worthy of the White Mountains here, that’s about one-quarter the number of votes that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard won in the Democratic primary in February, and you probably have forgotten that she even ran and never actually knew who she was.
This kind of fevered politics is, to be sure, unusual here. From 1920 to 1988 – from the presidential candidacies of Warren Harding to George H.W. Bush – the Granite State deviated from the Republican column only four times, three for Franklin Roosevelt and once for Lyndon B. Johnson in the Texan’s 1964 landslide over Sen. Barry Goldwater. In that period, Republicans basically sat back and watched that handful of electoral votes slip effortlessly into the GOP slot.
Now there is a different New Hampshire – and it has grown even more different in recent years.
New Hampshire once was a remote colony of Yankees who pretty much stayed put and stayed the same. But now this is one of the fastest-changing states in the union.
Indeed, from that 2000 election, where Nader played such a pivotal role, to 2008, when Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois prevailed, fully a third of potential voters actually were different people than the electorate before the turn of the century; they were people who either were not 18 at the end of the 20th century or didn’t live in the state. That phenomenon occurred again between 2008 and 2016. That churn is chilling news for the Republicans, and thus for Trump.
“The newer people and younger people are more likely to identify as Democrats,” said Andrew Smith, a University of New Hampshire pollster, “as the younger people look to that party and some older people either die or move to Florida.”
But New Hampshire also is ground zero for both parties’ efforts to draw new voters into the polling booths in November – a critical task for Trump, whose strategists believe there is a hidden force of potential new voters who can carry him over the line, just as it is for Biden, whose strategists believe that mobilizing the young and attracting voters, particularly Independents, disillusioned with Trump’s style and comportment, could be the margin of his victory.
“The biggest bloc of voters in this state is Independents,” said James M. Demers, a prominent Democratic activist and lobbyist, “and they’re very concerned about what they’ve seen in the president.”
That surge of new voters may not be a mirage. The state’s primary, conducted a day after Labor Day, drew a record turnout. A study by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire found that migrants into the state and those turning 18 in the past four years represent 230,000 potential new voters, or about 20% of those eligible to vote in 2020.
Like everything else in this state’s politics, the contest could come down to a measure of the popularity of a figure named Sununu and another named Shaheen.
Jeanne Shaheen has been a prominent figure in the state’s politics since she helped engineer the upset 1984 New Hampshire primary victory of Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado. She was the first female governor of the state and then the first female senator from the state. Altogether she has been in office for nearly three decades.
Chris Sununu is the third member of his family to win statewide elections; his father, John H. Sununu, was elected governor three times before becoming White House chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, and his brother served in both the House and Senate. Shaheen defeated that brother, Sen. John E. Sununu, twice in senatorial races.
Both Shaheen, a cinch to win a fourth term in the Senate, and the youngest Sununu, regularly in the ranks of the most popular governors in the country, are on the ballot this November.
The latest Siena College/New York Times poll has Biden ahead by 3 percentage points, but the New England skepticism that has animated this state for centuries is particularly appropriate in this 21st-century contest. No one really knows who is ahead.
“It is impossible for the polls to accurately reflect a race in which Donald Trump is the candidate,” said former Gov. John H. Sununu, the paterfamilias of the Sununu clan. On that, if on nothing else, all the state’s politicos agree.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.