Political junkies from around the country consistently ask me the same two questions. First, why are the politics of New Hampshire and Vermont so different? (It’s a great question but takes a whole lot more than 750 words to answer.) Second, is New Hampshire becoming more liberal? For years, out-of-state newspapers — most conspicuously, ahem, this one — have kept on publishing the same story about how our state is lurching to the left. Like the broken clock that gets it right twice a day, these wishful predictions finally panned out in 2008 with Barack Obama’s 10-point victory over John McCain.
But in reality, New Hampshire has always been a swing state, especially at the presidential level. Even in state politics, we’ve had Democratic governors in every decade since the 1960s. Reporters typically overlook that fact, in part because Republicans enjoyed a particularly strong run from 1983 to1997. In politics, however, the truth is almost always more interesting than the fiction.
Over the past 25 presidential elections, New Hampshire has gone for the Republican 15 times, and the Democrat 10 times. Choices like Reagan and Eisenhower fit the bedrock Republican stereotype. But the state voted for Franklin Roosevelt three times and Bill Clinton twice. In 1916, while every other New England state went with Republican nominee Charles Evans Hughes, New Hampshire stuck with Woodrow Wilson, the consummate internationalist. Even New Jersey, Wilson’s home state, went Republican. Go figure.
The people of New Hampshire have always had an independent, and somewhat libertarian, bent. We’ve maintained a deep commitment to limiting the size of government, keeping taxes low, and promoting local control. We still have no sales or income tax, even though liberals in the state insisted throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that broad-based taxes were essential. Apparently, they were wrong. The poverty rate is the lowest in the country.
That’s not to say that the state’s demographics haven’t changed. Since 1950, our population has more than doubled. More residents than ever have been born outside the state. But for most transplants, it doesn’t take long to appreciate the priorities that have made us unique. Conventional wisdom holds that the influx from Massachusetts makes the state more liberal. Yet at least as many move to New Hampshire because they find the tax climate and the quality of life attractive.
Some observers point to public discussion of environmental issues as a sign of a shifting electorate, but New Hampshire’s conservationist streak goes back 100 years. Long before the fashionable politics of “green jobs,” the New Hampshire Forest Society was helping to found the National Forest System and championing the concept of “multiple-use” — an approach to conservation that welcomes hunting, recreation, and logging as part of a balanced management plan.
As if to make a point, the state followed up on Obama’s 2008 victory with a record-setting Republican year in 2010. In the 400-member House, America’s second-largest legislative body, the GOP won over 300 seats. The 19-4 margin in the Senate was one of the most lopsided in recent memory, and the state’s Executive Council went 5-0 for Republicans. So much for demographic trends.
So where exactly does that leave us in 2012? Precisely where New Hampshire has always been in presidential years — a swing state, a crucial state, and one that reflects the sentiments of the nation. Two weeks from Election Day, New Hampshire — along with Ohio and Nevada — is one of the few true toss-up states.
To no one’s surprise, this election comes down to the state of America’s economy, the budget mess, and what voters think about the performance of the president. In last week’s debate, Mitt Romney hammered the message that Americans shouldn’t settle for 23 million unemployed, trillion-dollar deficits, and $4-a-gallon gas. Obama argued that better days are ahead. The outcome rests in the hands of 4 percent of the public who will make their choice in the campaign’s final days.
Ironically, Romney’s biggest obstacle in New Hampshire may be the historic success of limited government, low taxes, and local control. With unemployment running below the national average for nearly 20 years, he needs New Hampshire voters to look beyond the boundaries of their town or state. Fortunately for him, that’s what we do — and we don’t believe everything we read in newspapers.John E. Sununu, whose column appears regularly in the Globe, is a former Republican senator from New Hampshire and co-chairman of Arab-Americans for Romney. His father, John H. Sununu, was governor of New Hampshire from 1983 to 1989 and is a frequent surrogate for the Mitt Romney campaign.