New Hampshire

Can the Democrats finally swing it this year?

When Republicans in New Hampshire talk about no-good immigrants streaming across the border, they’re not talking about the Rio Grande. Clifton Pratt, a burly man with a gray beard, speaks like he’s under siege: “The reason this election is so close,” he said, between slurps of soup at the Seabrook Republican Chowderfest on Tuesday, “is because we’ve been infiltrated by the liberal Democrats from Massachusetts.” Nearby, Roy Crossland agreed. “They move in because they like it the way it is, and then they want it to change.”

In some ways, Pratt and Crossland are right. New Hampshire is the fastest-growing state in New England. According to a study by the UNH Survey Center, some 67 percent of the adults who live there were born elsewhere: 27 percent of adult New Hampshirites were born in Massachusetts. The state’s population grew by 11.4 percent (about 125,000 people) between 1990 and 2000, and the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that at least another 50,000 have shown up since the last presidential election. The growth has been driven by the tech companies that set up shop here in the early ‘90s. The migrants tend to be better paid and better educated than natives. Local politicos and academics agree that these newcomers are crucial players in the state’s electoral landscape. But it’s not at all clear that the new New Hampshirites are simply Kerry-huggers from Boston. In fact, just tables away from Crossland and Pratt, I found two couples—one from Massachusetts and one from California—who had opted to retire in New Hampshire. Both couples, obviously, were Republican. And both had arrived within the past four years.

New Hampshire is arguably the last holdout of Yankee Republicanism in New England. Voters here are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and since 1948, they’ve voted for Republican presidential candidates in almost every presidential election. The exceptions are 1964, when the state (and the rest of the country) snubbed Barry Goldwater for Lyndon Johnson, and 1992 and 1996, when Clinton won, with a lot of help from Ross Perot. (Many people in New Hampshire, which prides itself on having neither a sales tax nor an income tax on wages, latched onto Perot’s proposals for tax reform.)

The election in 2000 was a little different. Bush did hang on to New Hampshire—he won by 7,211 votes. But the margin was surprisingly narrow, given that the Gore campaign had largely abandoned the state in the weeks preceding the election. And New Hampshire was also the only state besides Florida in which the number of people who voted for Ralph Nader was larger than Bush’s margin of victory: Nader took home more than 22,000 votes. He’s not expected to do nearly as well next Tuesday.

So New Hampshire Democrats can be forgiven for wondering: Could this be their year? As the Red Sox were chugging toward their World Series win, the state party printed up new signs that read: “Kerry—Red Sox—Believe!” Baseball mumbo-jumbo aside, the Kerry supporters here have several good reasons to think their candidate might do as well as their team.

For one thing, the Democratic operation took full advantage of the primary. The Kerry campaign pulled up stakes after the January primary and didn’t return until spring, but the state Democrats filled the gap. “We made a real effort as soon as the primary was over to reach out to the progressives in the state,” said Kathy Sullivan, the chairman of the state party. In fact, she began courting Dennis Kucinich’s supporters long before primary day. She described dragging her husband to a Kucinich event in 2003. “He asked me who he would know there and I said, ‘Oh honey, you’re not going to know anyone,’ ” Sullivan said. “Kucinich was bringing out new people, people who would not have voted otherwise, or who would have voted for Nader.” Because she established ties with the smaller campaigns before the primary, Sullivan said, she had the credibility to sit down with them afterward and recruit their organizers and their volunteers.

Kerry is also devoting more resources to New Hampshire than Gore did in 2000. Chastened by Gore’s narrow loss, the Kerry campaign has advertised heavily, and Kerry himself keeps popping up. When he visits Manchester on Sunday, it will be his third trip to the state in October. Of course, the Bush campaign has responded in kind—the president is in New Hampshire today, his fourth visit in the past two months—but at the very least, Kerry is making Bush fight where he didn’t have to in 2000.

Finally, Bush’s record may work against him in New Hampshire, because the past four years have shown that he’s not a very New Hampshire kind of Republican. He did cut taxes, which many tax-averse Granite Staters are happy about. But he also revealed himself to be more conservative than moderate on energy policy, the environment, gay rights, abortion, and other social issues that moderate Republicans tend to take liberal stances on. New Hampshire also has lots of libertarians, and some worry about Bush’s imperial ambitions. Hillary Peatfield, a jeweler in Portsmouth, is an undeclared voter who opted for the libertarian presidential candidate in 2000. This year, she’ll vote for incumbent Republicans in the Senate and House races, but when she casts her vote for president, the war will be on her mind. Her husband is about to ship out for Iraq, and she’s voting for Kerry even though she’s not a fan of his party. “The Democrats think government should fix the roads, educate the kids—they’re doing a lot of things the government is not supposed to be doing,” Peatfield said. I asked her what the government should be in charge of: “Defense. Make the laws. Arrest the bad guys. We’re not supposed to go into other countries and take over so we’ll have cheaper oil.”

But the Bush team is confident, too, of course. The state party has an extensive turnout effort under way: At the Concord office, I found a woman from Connecticut who was up for a few days to get out the GOP vote. And the Republicans do have more voters registered in New Hampshire: At last count, there were 245,305 of them, and only 206,450 Democrats. The plurality of New Hampshire’s voters—279,306 people—are undeclared. In 2000, more of New Hampshire’s independents went for Gore than for Bush. So the real question is where the new New Hampshirites will fall.

The Republicans at the Chowderfest were confident they could stave off the liberal invasion for now. They relish the thought of their state as the last red bastion in the Northeast. In a short speech that night, a county commissioner told a story about something that had happened earlier in the day. Two women had stopped at Brown’s Seabrook Lobster Pound for lunch, and they saw her tacking up Bush-Cheney signs. “They came up and said they were from Massachusetts. Then they asked for Bush-Cheney signs, like refugees from some foreign country where you’re not allowed to state your opinion.” This was met with chowder-mouthed boos around the room. “We’re lucky to live in a Republican state. Let’s not take it for granted.”