Tightening contest could thrust New Hampshire into pivotal role

Republican vice presidential candidate Governor Mike Pence spoke Monday in Milford, N.H.
Republican vice presidential candidate Governor Mike Pence spoke Monday in Milford, N.H.Jim Cole/Associated Press

MILFORD, N.H. — This proudly prickly swing state could emerge as Hillary Clinton’s last bulwark against a Donald Trump victory in November.

With Clinton’s poll numbers having slipped, both campaigns increasingly view New Hampshire’s relatively tiny prize of four electoral votes as pivotal in determining the next occupant of the White House.

Election prognosticators are taking notice. Each of New Hampshire’s voters has a greater chance than residents of any other state of tipping the outcome of the White House contest one way or another, according to statistician Nate Silver’s 538 election blog. Nevada and Colorado voters rank second and third, after New Hampshire, in the “voter power index.’’


On Wednesday, Clinton will campaign in New Hampshire for the first time since July, seeking to protect a narrow lead in a state has that has both saved and spurned her and her husband in presidential contests dating back to 1992.

On Thursday, Trump will lead his own rally in New Hampshire, three days after his running mate, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, spoke to several hundred supporters in Milford.

Democrats have won New Hampshire in every presidential election since 1992, with the notable exception of the year 2000, when Al Gore lost the state to George W. Bush by just over 7,000 votes, denying him the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

Four years later, John F. Kerry carried New Hampshire by just over 9,000 votes.

Polling averages show Clinton currently clinging to a five-point lead over Trump in the state, but party operatives and political observers say the margin could be closer, as it is in other swing states.

“If the race does close and becomes as close as the races were in 2000 and 2004, then a single state — even a small state like New Hampshire — can determine the outcome,” said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “There’s a lot of concern in the Clinton camp that they can’t take anything for granted.”


New Hampshire has been historically uneven terrain for the Clintons.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton, after losing Iowa to Barack Obama, roared back into contention by winning the New Hampshire primary. And in 1992, Bill Clinton scored a strong second-place finish in the primary to earn him the nickname “the Comeback Kid.”

But this year, Hillary Clinton suffered a stinging loss in the primary to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose runaway popularity with young voters helped him rack up the biggest vote total ever recorded in the primary’s 100-year history.

On Wednesday, she and Sanders will campaign together at the University of New Hampshire, where they are expected to discuss Clinton’s plan to make college more affordable, an issue that was central to Sanders’ appeal to young voters.

“He could be a crucial component in helping her to achieve victory in a state that could be one of the most important battlegrounds in the country,” said Tad Devine, who was Sanders’ chief strategist in the primary. “So that’s how big it is. It’s really important.”

Brianna Belley, 20, a UNH junior who is volunteering for the Clinton campaign, said she wants Sanders to deliver a more passionate defense of Clinton than he did in July, when he endorsed her at a sometimes awkward event in Portsmouth and focused most of his comments on attacking Trump.


“I hope his message can be a little more exciting than it was last time,” she said. “A lot of students definitely still look up to him.”

At the Pence rally on Monday, a trio of senior Republican figures who once disparaged and lambasted Trump voiced their support for his candidacy, evidence of the party unification that has helped Trump close ground with Clinton.

First came Jennifer Horn, the chairwoman of the state Republican Party, who warned last year that Trump would lose because “shallow campaigns that depend on bombast and divisive rhetoric do not succeed in New Hampshire.”

Horn argued Monday that Trump would promote “equality and inclusion and opportunity for everyone,” and urged the crowd to knock on doors and make phone calls for his campaign in the final weeks before Nov. 8.

“You don’t have permission to make plans on weekends anymore,” she said.

Another belated supporter was Bob Smith, a former US senator who endorsed Ted Cruz in the primary, back when Cruz was warning that Trump might “nuke Denmark.” Smith, too, said he was now behind Trump “100 percent.”

“If we unite here, we will win here,” he said at the rally. “And those four electoral votes might just be the difference. And you can say you heard it right here.”


John H. Sununu, a former governor and onetime chief of staff to President George H. W. Bush, who is considered an elder statesmen of the state GOP, was the third speaker and perhaps the most valuable for Trump, considering his startling turnaround.

Earlier this year, Sununu, 77, called Trump “dumb” and a “loser all his life” who would “ruin the Republican Party.”

“Don’t drink the Trump Kool-Aid,” Sununu wrote, in a January op-ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader.

But Sununu sounded as though he had sipped some sort of pro-Trump tincture on Monday, as he told those at the rally to “go home and talk, talk, talk to your friends, your family, and your neighbors” about the Trump campaign.

That exhortation was followed by a formal endorsement of Trump on Tuesday.

“Donald Trump is the only candidate in this race who can bring bold change to Washington D.C.,” Sununu said in a statement released by the Trump campaign. “I support the Trump-Pence ticket for their progrowth agenda and commitment to protecting American interests.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.