FRANCONIA, N.H. — New Hampshire is white. Very, very white. The fourth-whitest state in the country.
And when presidential campaign season rolls around, Democrats get squeamish about giving such a monochrome place so much power over the nominating process — as they should. The first-in-the-nation primary electorate doesn’t look like America.
But concern over the lack of diversity has obscured another, related phenomenon: New Hampshire’s strange political geography.
If Democrats lean on big, diverse cities to deliver victories in other parts of the country, they’ll find nothing of the sort here. The Granite State has few of the left-leaning, inner-ring suburbs that have proven such an important part of the Democratic coalition in swing states like Pennsylvania and Colorado. And a Democratic Party that’s lost its grip on big swaths of rural America is actually growing more dependent on sparsely populated corners of New Hampshire to win presidential and statewide elections.
It’s an odd inversion of the maps that dominate election-night coverage on cable television — and increasingly seem to define our national life. There’s blue where you might expect red. Red where you might expect blue.
And that could make New Hampshire one of the worst imaginable training grounds for presidential candidates. Or maybe, depending on whom you ask, one of the best.
THE MAIN DRAG in Derry, a small town outside Manchester in southeastern New Hampshire, isn’t upscale or downscale — it’s somewhere in between.
There’s MaryAnn’s, the chrome, 50′s-style diner. There’s the Edward Jones Investments office next door. And across the street: a pawn shop called “Cash for Gold.”
Sedans and sports cars compete for parking spots. And occasionally, a pick-up truck with a Trump 2020 bumper sticker rolls by.
Conventional wisdom says the suburbs have gone Democratic over the last couple of decades. But the real story is more complicated.
The inner-ring suburbs surrounding big cities — some of them white and affluent like Lower Merion, outside Philadelphia, others more blue-collar and diverse, like Aurora, outside Denver — have become crucial strongholds for Democrats. But outer-ring suburbs, whiter and more middle-class, have trended conservative.
Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, says it’s useful to think of Derry and the neighboring towns not as inner-ring suburbs of Manchester, but as outer-ring suburbs of Boston.
And the thousands of Massachusetts natives who have flocked to the region in recent decades aren’t stereotypical Bay State liberals, says Brian Chiriciello, a real estate agent who has served several terms as a Republican state representative and town councilor in Derry. They’re conservative refugees in search of lower taxes and better schools.
“I think it’s that live free or die mentality,” he says. “They kind of attach to it.”
Rachael Shannon, who grew up in Nahant, Massachusetts and now works as manager of “Cash for Gold,” made the move years ago, in search of a better life for her kids. And she says she’s found it: “The schools up here are great.”
Her daughter graduated from the high school in Londonderry — Derry’s better-off cousin — majored in equine studies at UNH, and spends part of the year as a horse wrangler at a dude ranch in Wyoming. Her son attended a private school in New Hampshire and is now a goaltender on the Holy Cross college hockey team across the border.
Shannon is a registered independent. But most of her family votes Republican. And after struggling with her 2016 presidential vote — she actually teared up in the voter booth — she went with Donald Trump. She says she’s pleased with her decision; a painful divorce left her in need of a financial boost, and the president has presided over a strong economy and tax cuts.
Much of the region of densely populated suburbs went the same way — Londonderry and Derry part of a solid red belt that curved from the west side of Manchester down to the Massachusetts border and out to Seabrook.
As the suburban part of the state trends Republican, Democrats have become more dependent on less populated areas — especially Carroll and Grafton counties in central New Hampshire. Some of their voters are a particular kind of blue-collar, white New Englander who supports Bernie Sanders, the self-declared democratic socialist from neighboring Vermont. But they’re also the white-collar employees of hospitals and universities that play an outsize role in the local economy; one recent analysis found New Hampshire has more college students per capita than any state in the country.
The region’s natural beauty and recreational opportunities have also proved a powerful draw for retirees like Susan Moore, a former information technology executive who moved to New Hampshire with her husband, Jim, 20 years ago. “We decided we’re not Florida people,” she says, sitting in her spacious living room just beyond the breathtaking cliffs of Franconia Notch. “We like to hike.”
Moore, who wears a pair of “blue wave” earrings, is co-chair of the Northern Grafton County Democrats. And the party has been making steady gains in recent decades. In 1996, Bill Clinton just edged Bob Dole in Franconia — 284 votes to 225. But four years ago, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by a margin of more than 2-to-1.
The influx of well-heeled newcomers makes the region a bit of an oddity; most of rural America is light on retired IT executives. But there are pockets of the heartland that can be persuaded to vote Democratic and New Hampshire provides a good reminder of that.
Moore adds that there is real value in the party’s presidential candidates visiting the area and hearing about the kind of concerns that prevail not just in better-off places like Franconia but in poorer rural areas as well. Access to quality health care and high-speed Internet, for example.
“When they look at their cell phones and can’t see anything happening,” she says with a chuckle, they empathize.
EXPOSURE TO NEW Hampshire voters may make Democratic presidential candidates better policymakers. But Scala, the political scientist, sees real electoral advantage, too.
With the Granite State hosting the first-in-the nation primary, he says, the party is more likely to get a nominee who can compete in the country’s rural counties and outer-ring suburbs — tamping down Democratic Party losses in these traditionally Republican-leaning areas and helping to deliver the swing states that so often determine the outcome of presidential elections.
He may be right. But winning elections requires more than just tightening the margins in the regions you lose. Democrats also need to run up big margins in large cities like Detroit and Las Vegas and their inner-ring suburbs.
The best kind of early primary state, then, probably would be one that has it all: big cities and inner-ring suburbs that lean Democratic and outer-ring suburbs and rural areas that don’t.
And if Democrats want to drop New Hampshire and find a state or states that better reflect the country’s geographic and demographic diversity, there are plenty to choose from: Colorado, Nevada, and Illinois, to name a few.
Of course, no state primary will deliver the perfect, electable candidate every time. Every state has its shortcomings. Every candidate, too. But moving the all-important first primary to a place that feels more like America — that spans city, country, and suburb — should offer a leg up. And Democrats, no doubt, could use one.