Dueling visits to New Hampshire by President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney on Friday, the first day after the national conventions, signify the importance of the state and its scant four electoral votes in November.
The Granite State bears little resemblance demographically to the nation, but its singular political culture has made it a coveted tossup state.
New Hampshire exercises an outsized claim on both parties’ strategies precisely because of its unpredictability, able to deliver either side a razor thin victory in the final hours, as it did for George W. Bush in 2000. If Al Gore, winner of the national popular vote, had carried New Hampshire, instead of losing it by around 1 percentage point to Bush, he would have been president. Florida would not have mattered.
In some of the 2012 electoral college scenarios to reach the magic number of 270, New Hampshire is critical to victory for either party if the race stays as tight as it has been in recent polling.
The candidates, by making it their first post-convention stop, are validating the importance of the state, whose major claim to political fame traditionally flows from its first-in-the-nation primary.
‘Undeclareds,’ as they are known in New Hampshire, constitute a plurality of voters.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are scheduled to appear Friday at an afternoon rally at the Strawbery Banke Museum near downtown Portsmouth. Friday evening, Romney — who has a summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee — is scheduled to appear at Holman Stadium in Nashua. That follows a visit with veterans on Thursday in Concord, N.H.
“The fact that New Hampshire, with only four electoral votes, is the first place the president and vice president are going is an indication that they are looking at scenarios and a couple where those four [electoral votes] are critical,” said Patrick Griffin, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist who has worked for Romney in the past.
“Certainly, if you look at the national map, one can envision scenarios similar to 2000, when Democratic elites were saying if only Al Gore had spent a little more time and money in New Hampshire, he would never have had to worry about Florida,” Dante Scala, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said.
New Hampshire has followed the national results in eight of the last 10 presidential elections, backing the losing candidate in 1976, when the state went for President Ford over Jimmy Carter, and 2004, when New Hampshire narrowly backed John Kerry of Massachusetts over President George W. Bush. In 2008, Obama beat John McCain by about 9 points.
Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said the reason the state shapes up as another toss-up is the nearly equal number of Republicans and Democrats in the state.
While the GOP has a slight edge in registration, Smith said he relies more heavily on how voters identify themselves in his surveys.
“Undeclareds,” as they are known in New Hampshire, constitute a plurality of voters, but among these independents slightly more identify themselves as Democrat than as Republican, said Smith, who conducts polls for WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., and The Boston Globe.
Citing 2000, when Gore lost the state by 7,211 votes out of 568,000 cast, and 2004 when Kerry carried the state by 9,274 votes out of 677,000 cast, Smith said: “It’s going to be that close again this year because the parties are pretty evenly divided.”
Obama has led Romney by a few points in recent Smith surveys, but he said he is now in the field on another poll and it shows that more voters are saying they are undecided with no discernible edge to either candidate.
“I think what it means is that this will be a turnout election in the sense that the party that wins New Hampshire and wins nationwide will be the one able to get their core voters, or base voters, out in higher numbers,” said Smith.
At this point, Republicans seem more motivated, he said.
“This is an interesting place to play,” Griffin, a veteran of many New Hampshire campaigns, said.
He said the state is fiscally conservative and socially moderate and that each candidate appeals to one of those philosophical bents but not both.
The economy of the state, with its highly educated, relatively affluent electorate, is doing better than the country as a whole, Scala said.
But the generation of voters who grew up since the 1980s is experiencing an anxiety about the worst economy they can recall, he said.
“Social liberalism makes them identify with Democrats but the economic stagnation of the last few years makes them wonder about Obama and what four more years of his presidency would bring,” Scala said.