The New New Hampshire Voter
By Alec MacGillis
CONCORD, N.H. -- As the Jan. 8 primary here nears, the campaigns are studying the recent past for clues to their fate. Will
Hillary Clinton be able to capitalize on New Hampshire voters' fondness for her husband in the 1990s? Will John McCain be able to retain the affections of the thousands who flocked to him in 2000?
But recent electoral history may hold only so much relevance for the upcoming primary, because New Hampshire has changed considerably. According to a report released today by Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute, the state has experienced such an unusually high degree of resident turnover that nearly a quarter of its million or so eligible voters are new to the scene since 2000.
According to Johnson's estimates, slightly more than 230,000 potential voters have become eligible since 2000 -- about 145,000 who migrated from outside the state and 86,000 who reached voting age. And about 128,000 residents who were eligible to vote in 2000 have left the state, while about 48,000 died.
"I can't imagine that it doesn't change the character of the electorate, to have [thousands leave] and get that surge of new voters in," Johnson said. "It's not the same terrain that we were dealing with seven years ago."
The political import of this high turnover could take any of several forms. The numbers suggest that there are fewer voters than one might assume with memories of Bill Clinton's "comeback kid" finish in 1992 and the Clintons' subsequent close relationship with the state throughout the 1990s, and that many of the voters who caught McCain fever in 2000 may no longer be around for a sequel. With so many migrants from Massachusetts, Romney's background as a former governor of that state figures to play a role in voters' perceptions of him.
The numbers may also hold some promise for
Barack Obama. Johnson said that the new residents tend to have significantly higher incomes than those leaving the state. This would appear to favor Obama in the Democratic primary, given that opinion polls nationwide have consistently shown him to fare better with higher-educated, upscale Democratic voters while Clinton generally fares better with middle and working class voters.
Clinton supporters here recognize the demographic challenge posed by these new residents, many of them drawn by expansions at big employers like Fidelity and Liberty Mutual, but say it will not necessarily be decisive. "A lot of the people ... in that group will be excited by Obama," said Lou D'Allesandro, a veteran state senator from Manchester backing Clinton. "The question is, do they come out to vote?"
The estimates of high turnover since 2000 are yet another sign why political scientists are cautioning against drawing too many comparisons between this year's primaries and those in 2000. It has been tempting to view the Obama-Clinton confrontation as an equivalent of the Bill Bradley-Al Gore match-up of 2000, which Gore won narrowly due partly to Bradley's inability to wrest the support of the state's undeclared voters -- who can vote in either primary -- away from McCain. But political scientists note that this time around, there is less competition between Obama and McCain for independent voters.
For one thing, the state's undeclared voters have increasingly been leaning more to one party or another. And, says UNH political scientist Andrew Smith, Bradley and McCain competed for independent voters in 2000 partly because they both had personal profiles -- basketball star/Rhodes scholar and war hero -- that gave them an appeal outside usual the political boundaries, particularly among male voters. "You had people brought into the primaries from outside the usual electorate," Smith said.
The notion that there could be less competition from McCain for independent voters this time around than there was in 2000 is heartening to Obama supporters who also backed Bradley in 2000, only to see him fall a few percentage points shy of a major upset of Gore after nearly two-thirds of the state's independent voters decided to vote in the GOP primary instead of the Democratic one.
"I remember vividly how much we felt that the national [Bradley] campaign had to better understand the independent voter in New Hampshire," said Mary Rauh, a co-chair of both the Bradley and Obama campaigns in the state. "We were not as effective as we should have been. We really had to target those independents ... and it was very frustrating that we couldn't get that job done."
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