Is New Hampshire losing its swing-state status?

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The last Republican presidential candidate to win New Hampshire was George W. Bush in 2000.

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There’s a truism in presidential politics: Don’t ignore New Hampshire.

Long after the candidates swing through for the primary, those that win the nomination for their parties can’t just leave the Granite State in the rearview mirror. New Hampshire is one of a series of swing states, and though small, you don’t forget swing states.

Except that this year, New Hampshire got a touch less attention than usual – at least from one campaign. Since leaving the state before results were called on primary election night in February, Joe Biden didn’t return at all. He sent some surrogates, notably Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, but even his running mate Kamala Harris stayed clear.

Media attention waned, too. At times crucial to the balancing act of states for a candidate to win 270 Electoral College votes, New Hampshire didn’t make many analysts’ final shortlist of states to watch ahead of Tuesday.

And on Tuesday night, the state went decisively for Biden anyway – by seven percentage points, hardly a close call. A Republican president hasn’t won New Hampshire since George W. Bush in 2000.

So with slipping interest and increasingly Democratic results, does New Hampshire still retain its treasured swing-state status? Yes, say longtime political observers in the state. It just isn’t always the tipping point that campaigns sometimes expect.

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“We’re a swing state but we’re not on the front burner,” said Dante Scala, a professor of politics at the University of New Hampshire. “New Hampshire is pretty much behaving in the way it has for most of the past few decades. We’re a bellwether with a little bit of a Democratic lean to it.”

The legend of New Hampshire’s electoral importance was cemented into history in 2000. That was the year that Democratic nominee Al Gore lost the state to George W. Bush by 7,211 votes; had he won those votes, or siphoned off more from third-party candidate Ralph Nader, he would have secured four more electoral votes and would have won the entire election without Florida.

The message after 2000 was simple: Don’t count New Hampshire out. And few general election campaigns ever have.

“Every old political hand is going to point to the 2000 election and say ‘see, we can’t ignore New Hampshire,’ ” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

“Politics is governed by fear,” Smith added. “Fear of losing elections.”

But despite the historical hyper-intense focus showered on the state by surrogates on both sides, New Hampshire’s actual track record of importance is iffy at best.

Part of that is because there haven’t been too many elections in which the Electoral College itself has been as close and as decisive as it was in 2000.

“We frankly don’t have that many elections in which the Electoral College comes into play,” said Smith. “It’s rare.”

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Absent that, Smith says, New Hampshire doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to prove that it could swing the election anyway. When Donald Trump won in 2016, much focus fell on the swing states that tipped his way most narrowly: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But the end tally was still 306 Electoral Votes to Donald Trump, hardly a nail-biter.

In other words, despite the result being decided by just over 2,000 votes in the state, New Hampshire’s four electoral votes wouldn’t have mattered much even if they had gone to Trump.

Another simple reason that it can seem that New Hampshire’s role is smaller is because the state itself is small, Smith says. With just four electoral votes out of 270, candidates don’t always want to openly admit that they need New Hampshire. Needing New Hampshire, by definition, means the race is already too close for comfort.

“The reason that it’s not getting as much attention paid to it is it’s just small,” Smith said. “Yes, it could make a difference, but you don’t want to have to try to cobble together a coalition when you’re relying on a single vote in a single congressional district.”

Meanwhile, to Scala, the relative lack of interest by the national press and by the Biden campaign came down to a simple fact: Biden consistently polled ahead in New Hampshire.

“In this national environment … New Hampshire shouldn’t be that competitive,” he said.

And unlike in other states that proved much more competitive on Election Day than thought – such as Michigan and Wisconsin – New Hampshire’s polling lead held.

Then there’s the demographic changes.

New Hampshire has appeared to become more Democratic-leaning over the years, as new arrivals and shifting political views among independents have whittled down what was once complete dominance by Republicans.

That’s particularly clear for Congressional representatives, who have stayed completely Democratic since 2016, and particularly strong during presidential election years. Mid-term elections can swing both ways.

Of all the presidential election years in the last three decades, the least competitive years were won by a Democrat; Barack Obama stormed the state in 2008 and 2012, putting New Hampshire even further away from the role of kingmaker.

Today, Scala likens New Hampshire’s ideological profile to Minnesota – a swing state with still an assumed Democratic advantage.

Whether the Granite State keeps its status or becomes a fully Democratic state that candidates can ignore depends on how far out of the national picture our results fall, Scala said.

“Maybe going forward, we won’t be that important,” he said. “But it all kind of depends on where we land relative to the national.”

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2020 NH Presidential Election Results. Map/ screenshot

But Smith and Scala say that scenario is far off. Since 1992, most elections here, after all, have been close. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, after all, won the state by just 2,746 votes in 2016.

And Smith pointed out that New Hampshire did draw attention this year. President Trump himself visited for a rally Oct. 25, during the last stretch of his campaign, a clear sign that he viewed it as worth the time commitment. Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. also visited the state in recent weeks.

“They’re spending the resources to come up here,” Smith said. “There’s just a lot of other places they need to go to.”

As for whether Georgia and Arizona are the new media darlings? Not likely, Smith says.

“The new kid on the block is always going to get more attention,” he said.

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About this Author

Ethan DeWitt

ReporterNH Bulletin

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Ethan DeWitt is a reporter for New Hampshire Bulletin.