Don’t Take It for Granite

Democrats control New Hampshire, but Obama still faces a tough battle here.

Read the rest of the Swingers  series.

CONCORD, N.H.—At first glance, New Hampshire looks like it’s Barack Obama’s to lose. Though George W. Bush won the state in 2000, he did so narrowly. In 2004, John Kerry won a slim victory here, making it the only state where Bush failed to repeat. Then came the 2006 midterms. The Democrats practically took over the state, unseating two Republican members of Congress, winning control of both houses of the state legislature, and returning Gov. John Lynch to office with 74 percent of the vote. They even won a majority on the state’s unusual but influential executive council, when a septuagenarian probate bondsman named John Shea beat out a moderate Republican he’d lost to four times previously. (Apparently not sanguine about his chances, Shea left for a European vacation on Election Day. After some initial confusion, he was located at a Belgian hotel and notified of his victory via fax.)

Yet if Obama is going to keep New Hampshire in the blue column, he’s going to have to work at it. The state isn’t as Democratic as the 2006 election makes it seem. And if any Republican can take it back, it’s John McCain.

The Democratic victories in 2006 were the result of several factors unique to the midterms. This election year, New Hampshire will do away with straight-ticket voting, but in 2006, voters had the option of pulling the lever for a party’s whole slate of candidates. The election of John Shea suggests many did just that. With the wildly popular Lynch at the top of the ticket, and the Republican Party seen as responsible for a failing war, the Democrats were poised for a rout.

What that rout belies is a state still closely split between Republicans and Democrats—at last count, the GOP held on to a small advantage of 4,891 more registered voters. With the presidential race now at the top of the ticket, and concern about Iraq eclipsed by worries about the economy and energy costs, Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, expects the 2008 results to look less like 2006 than like 2004. John Kerry carried the state by a mere 9,247 votes, and that was over Bush, whom even New Hampshire Republicans seem to like about as much as they like Carl Levin.

By contrast, McCain and New Hampshire have maintained a robust mutual-appreciation society since 2000. In the state primary that year, he defeated Bush by an embarrassing 18 percentage points. In the 2008 primary, voters passed over a New Hampshire taxpayer (Mitt Romney, who owns a house on Lake Winnipesaukee) to revive McCain’s flagging 2008 presidential bid.

New Hampshire’s license plates have made its “Live free or die” motto famous, but it’s not just a motto. This is a state with no sales tax and no income tax on wages. It’s the only state in the union without an adult seat-belt law. It’s a state that grants its citizens an explicit “right of revolution”—see Article 10 of the state constitution—should the people’s liberty ever become endangered. Such a place might seem to have a natural affinity for McCain, the self-styled “maverick” who boasts of his willingness to stand up for the causes he believes in, even if it means breaking ranks with his own party. McCain’s causes have also tended to resonate with the state’s voters—his disdain for wasteful government spending appeals to New Hampshire’s GOP and its right-leaning independents, who man one of the last outposts of Rockefeller Republicanism.

Yet there’s another, simpler explanation for McCain’s popularity here: “His willingness to work his butt off,” says David Carney, White House political director for the first President Bush and a Hancock resident. Since 1999, McCain has more or less made New Hampshire his second home (though he probably wouldn’t put it that way, his home-count being a touchy subject). Instead, McCain is fond of telling a joke starring his late friend Mo Udall, another Arizona member of Congress who made a bid for the White House: “Guy in Concord says to another guy in Concord, ‘What do you think of Mo Udall for president?’ Other guy says, ‘I don’t know, I only met him twice.’ “

As McCain says, it’s funny because it’s true: New Hampshire’s primary has outsized importance, and voters here are used to getting extra-special attention. McCain has been ubiquitous. In the run-up to the 2000 primary, he conducted more than 100 town hall meetings; in an effort to save his candidacy in 2008, he held 101 more. Even Arnie Arnesen, host of the liberal local talk show Political Chowder, praises McCain for how hard he’s campaigned in the state and for his willingness to go on shows like hers. “I’d probably be invited to McCain’s inaugural and not Barack’s,” Arnesen says with a laugh. “And I don’t want him to win and he knows I don’t want him to win.”

A couple of weekends ago, Obama was in the state for two public events, an evening rally in Concord, the state capital, and a Saturday-morning gathering in Manchester, its biggest city. (With 109,000 residents, it’s hardly a metropolis, but compared with the sleepy villages that dot the rest of the state, it might as well be Vegas—which is what locals call it.) That same weekend, McCain did a toe-touch in New Hampshire, making a quick Sunday-afternoon visit to the small town of Loudon. Small, that is, except for the two weekends a year when its population jumps from about 4,500 to 150,000, as RVs full of NASCAR fans hitch up at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

I’m only an occasional visitor to New Hampshire, but this was the second time I’d seen McCain at the same event—he’d shown up for the 2006 race, too. McCain mingled with voters in the infield and made brief remarks with Cindy standing at his side. (“That’s his wife?” I overheard a Bobby Labonte fan ask his buddy. “Good for him.”) The McCains got a warm welcome, though the fans I was standing with were clearly more excited to spot NASCAR legend “King” Richard Petty loping around the dais than to see the senior senator from Arizona on top of it.

Eight years of campaigning here is a lot, but will it be enough? No one I spoke with, Democrat or Republican, was willing to venture a guess at who will prevail in New Hampshire, and the polls show the candidates in a dead heat. (Same goes for the other big contest in the state, between incumbent Republican Sen. John Sununu and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.) In the end, the race may come down to a force beyond the candidates’ control—demographics.

Southern New Hampshire has become the Republican stronghold, thanks to an influx of GOP voters from an unlikely source: Massachusetts. According to UNH’s Smith, the Massachusetts transplants who have settled in places like Nashua and Salem tend to cite three reasons for moving: cheaper housing, lower taxes, and fewer liberals. But at the same time, retirees from places like New York and Connecticut are moving to New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, and white-collar workers are moving from elsewhere in blue New England to take jobs in the state’s expanding service sector. These voters may not have been around to attend multiple McCain town meetings. They may have moved to New Hampshire not in pursuit of Liberty but because they got a job at Fidelity. And they’re probably going to vote for Barack Obama.