Politics

Is New Hampshire a Swing State Anymore?

This could be its fifth straight election going blue.

A map of the Northeast U.S. with states colored in red and blue. New Hampshire is striped red and blue.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

In the 2016 presidential election, New Hampshire’s four electoral votes were won by the second-smallest margin of all the states: Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by just 0.4 percentage points. (Only Michigan, which went to Trump by less than 0.3 points, was closer.) Today, according to the FiveThirtyEight New Hampshire polling average, Joe Biden is leading by 11.4 points, making the state’s four-year swing away from Trump one of the most dramatic in the country.

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If Biden wins by something close to his current polling margin, it’ll be the biggest presidential landslide in New Hampshire in more than three decades. Even the Union Leader, an influential New Hampshire newspaper that hasn’t endorsed a Democratic candidate in a century, came out for Biden this year. The last time New Hampshire went red was in 2000. Is a state that’s voted blue in every presidential election for 20 years, even if sometimes just by a hair, still a swing state?

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I enlisted Christopher Galdieri, an associate professor of politics at Saint Anselm College and the author of Donald Trump and New Hampshire Politics, to help me answer that question. We also discussed whether what’s happened over the past four years in New Hampshire is a Trump-related aberration or indicative of a more enduring shift in the state’s politics. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Christina Cauterucci: Let’s start with the basics. How did New Hampshire go from being the second-closest state race in 2016 to favoring Biden by an 11-point-plus margin? 

Christopher Galdieri: I think a big part of it is that New Hampshire is a competitive state, but it’s also a really swingy state and it tends to swing in the same direction as the rest of the country. And Trump, for the entire time he’s been in office, has been unpopular. Democrats did really, really well here in 2018, just like they did in most of the rest of the country. So part of it is just New Hampshire following national trends.

There are also a bunch of things in the makeup of the state that make it increasingly friendly for Democrats in this environment. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the state—very narrowly, but she did win—and [Democratic Sen.] Maggie Hassan beat Kelly Ayotte, also really narrowly. It’s a very white state; we’re always derided, come primary time, for not being a diverse state. But the nonwhite vote broke very heavily for Clinton and for Hassan in 2016. And those trends have only continued.

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The other trend that is really meaningful here—and I think it’s why Clinton carried New Hampshire while she was losing Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other swing states—is that the population here is kind of absurdly overeducated. And one of the things that’s been very consistent over the last few years is that as levels of educational attainment increase, an individual’s likelihood of supporting Trump or voting Republican decreases.

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So I think those two things have let Democrats hold their own with white voters and do really well with the small number of nonwhite voters here.

Will the shift in white college-educated voters toward Democrats be an enduring one in New Hampshire?

I think it holds this year. In a lot of ways, the cake on this election has been baked for a very long time. What I’m curious about is what happens after the election if Biden wins. Do these suburban folks who had historically tended to vote Republican and then went Democratic in a big way in 2018 and look like they’re going to do that again in 2020—do they stay there, or was that strictly a Trump phenomenon? Does it become the sort of thing where it’s like, “OK, now that he’s gone, I can go find a Mitt Romney type to vote for”? That’s going to be one of the big questions in the event of a Biden victory.

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It’ll also depend on who Republicans nominate in the future—whether they nominate more Mitt Romneys or more Donald Trumps.

That’s exactly right. And there’s already folks jockeying and visiting up here [for a possible presidential run]. We’ve had Tom Cotton and Nikki Haley and [South Dakota Gov.] Kristi Noem and a few others—which is such a great idea during a pandemic, please, come visit from South Dakota.

So do any of these folks try to run an explicitly Trump-y campaign? I think Trump showed that there is an appetite for populist, anti-establishment, anti-immigrant rhetoric in the Republican primary electorate, but can anybody else do what he did? Is “build the wall,” “lock her up,” et cetera going to sound the same coming from Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley as it did from Donald Trump? Or from Donald Jr., because he seems to have ambitions? With a lot of those folks, it might come off as sort of a cover band at a wedding where it’s like, “Oh, yeah, this sort of sounds like the Rolling Stones.”

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Tell me about what happened with the Union Leader’s Biden endorsement. As a former New Hampshirite, that one surprised me.

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The Union Leader has been pretty hostile to Trump since day one. They went out of their way to sponsor a forum before the first debate in the summer of 2015, and Trump didn’t attend. They editorialized against him for a long time. They endorsed Chris Christie when it looked like he might have a shot. When Christie then endorsed Trump, they ran an apology editorial, saying “clearly we were mistaken in our high opinion of Gov. Christie.” They didn’t endorse Clinton in 2016, but they did endorse Gary Johnson.

So it doesn’t really surprise me [that the paper endorsed Biden]. It’s not that there’s no Trump audience in New Hampshire, but the powers that be in the New Hampshire Republican Party—they don’t want Trump-type candidates. They want your Mitt Romneys and your John Kasichs and your George Bushes and Howard Bakers to be the candidates that get put forth. If you look at Republicans who tend to win statewide here, it’s not that they’re not conservative, but they smile about it. They’re not hardcore culture warriors.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Mitt Romney, the ultimate Mitt Romney type, lost New Hampshire in 2012 by a much wider margin than Trump did in 2016. What’s the story there?

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I think part of it is that Hillary Clinton struggled during the primary in New Hampshire. She actually lost the primary really badly to Bernie Sanders. So there was a lot of reluctance to support her on the part of some people that you might expect to vote for her. They either stayed home or—there were an absurdly high number of write-in votes. It was about 4,500 for Bernie [Ed. note: This was nearly twice the margin by which Clinton beat Trump] and 1,400 for John Kasich. Clinton didn’t put anywhere near the kind of attention into the state that Trump did. I think she came up here twice during the general election, and Trump came up here five or six or seven times. It was enough for her to win, but it was a really close victory.

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It’s a state where Republicans can do well, and I think a lot of folks might have just been willing to take more of a flier on Trump in the same way they were in a lot of places. And it’s always tough for a party seeking a third straight term in the White House, so I think that was hurting Clinton. It was just a harder sell with her for a host of reasons, and then you had a very close Senate race between two candidates who—a lot of people in New Hampshire liked both of them. I think there were probably a fair number of voters who didn’t want to vote for Trump, but they did want to vote for Kelly Ayotte, and then they get in the booth and, well, as long as I’m here, I might as well vote for president, and if I’m voting for Ayotte, I may as well fill in the circle for Trump even though she’s not filling in the circle for Trump.

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Is the extent of the current support for Biden in New Hampshire surprising for you?

I think the extent of it is kind of surprising. But if the national polls coming out that show Biden with these 7-to-11-point leads are right, then that’s actually about what I’d expect. Again, New Hampshire tends to swing with the rest of the country. For all the stereotypes about it being an old New England state and if you haven’t been here for four generations you’re a newcomer, it’s actually a really mobile population. I wrote a book about carpetbaggers with a whole chapter on [the 2014 Senate race between] Jeanne Shaheen and Scott Brown. In 2014, the electorate was about one-third New Hampshire natives, one-third people who’d moved from Massachusetts, and one-third people who’d moved from elsewhere. We’re not quite Arizona, where you can have half the electorate who didn’t live here last time you were up for election. But that helps a bit.

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You mentioned the state’s white college-educated voters and the strong support for Democrats among voters of color. Is there anything else about New Hampshire’s demographics that could be affecting voting patterns this year?

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Age probably is a factor. It’s one of the older states. There’s a persistent brain drain issue—how do we keep the young folks from moving to Boston, that sort of thing. If Trump’s support is falling among seniors, that would help Biden disproportionately here, compared to a younger state.

Is New Hampshire one of those states that’s seen a lot of centrists and passive Democrats get extra fired up and involved in political activities since Trump’s election?

I haven’t seen that specifically, but what I can say is that I live in a pretty Democratic neighborhood in Concord, and I have never seen this many yard signs for any election before, ever. In 2016, you would see a Clinton sign here or there, and there’s one guy up the block with a Trump sign and that’s it. Now, it’s everywhere. And it’s not just Biden signs. There are signs for [Democrat] Dan Feltes, who’s probably going to lose the governor’s race next week, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, and the congressional candidates, and the Executive Council candidates, and people running for state rep. It’s really something. So I think there is an extent to which people want to be on the record on this one.

If Biden wins New Hampshire, a Republican presidential candidate won’t have won the general election there in 20 years. Would you still call it a swing state?

I would. Granted, I have a bias and a rooting interest in New Hampshire being the center of the universe in as many ways as possible, but just because it goes big for a candidate in one cycle doesn’t mean it won’t [swing back] again. You mentioned how well Obama did here in 2008. That margin was smaller in 2012, and then Trump almost won the state in 2016. We have a Republican governor who’s in no trouble. We have a Democratic senator who’s in no trouble. So the story of New Hampshire politics is that under the right circumstances, either party can win here.

For that reason, even if Biden wins big here, four years later both campaigns will be looking at it and saying, “OK, we need to focus some time here. It’s only four [electoral] votes, but they’re four gettable votes. So let’s go to New Hampshire.”

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