The Fickleness of New Hampshire


December 22, 2011

LACONIA, N.H. — Three weeks out from the New Hampshire primary, and voters in the Granite State don’t seem to have settled firmly on one of the Republican presidential candidates.

Or so one might conclude after interviewing voters in the Lakes region north of Concord in Laconia, which like the state as a whole voted for John McCain over Mitt Romney by a 37 percent to 32 percent in 2008, or nearby Meredith, where McCain did slightly better and Romney slightly worse.

“Not interested” was the most common response, reflecting perhaps not indifference but an unwillingness to talk in the freezing air.

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A few declared forthrightly for Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who have been leading in polls here. One man was for Romney “till he made that $10,000 bet.”

Former state Senate President and House Speaker Stewart Lamprey, who has voted in every Republican presidential primary since candidates’ names began appearing on the ballot in 1952, has forthrightly endorsed Jon Huntsman and gets applause at a Huntsman event in Meredith.

But former legislator and Deputy Secretary of State Bob Ambrose, at the same event, has “not yet” decided, though “I kind of liked what I saw.”

That seemed to be the case with most of the 100 people who on a bright sunny afternoon came out to see Huntsman at Inter-Lakes High School.

“I think I have decided on someone and then my mind gets changed,” says one man. It seems to be a pattern. Republicans may believe in traditional marriage, but they have been pretty quick to divorce a candidate.

One thing that becomes clear after interviewing New Hampshire voters is that feelings about the choices in the primary are a lot weaker and more wispy than feelings about the general election.

Partisan Democrats are ready with a refrain about how Barack Obama’s problems are all “Bush’s fault” and with predictions that he’ll solve them if — they sound a bit defensive and worried here — he gets a second term.

Partisan Republicans are quick to express disgust with Obama and his policies, some in terms not suitable for a family newspaper, and to say that any of the Republicans (except maybe Ron Paul) would be better.

What you don’t hear much of is the detailed debate going on in conservative websites and blogs. You know, the stuff about who is conservative and who is moderate, who is backed by the Republican establishment and who is the outsider.

Maybe that’s because every candidate has some claim to being conservative and almost all have taken stands on some matters that can be characterized as moderate or even liberal.

And who exactly is this Republican establishment some radio talk show hosts complain about? The Ivy League apparat headquartered within a few blocks of Madison Avenue in New York that engineered the nominations of Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey and Dwight Eisenhower from 1940 to 1952 has been defunct for four decades.

The one relative constant in New Hampshire is support for Mitt Romney, who has led in every poll here since April 2010. But that may just be because this is a Northern state.

When you compare national polls with polls in states, you find that Romney opponents do best in the South, especially South Carolina, which is polled frequently because of its Jan. 21 primary. It follows that Romney tends to have support above the national average in the North, and few states are as far north as New Hampshire.

The task before Republican primary voters and caucus-goers is to choose among a half a dozen or so candidates about whom they know relatively little. Those who are interested in these things are getting more information this cycle than previously from cable news debates, YouTube videos and the blogosphere.

Those who are less engaged are getting less information than in previous cycles because of cutbacks in coverage by old media like the New Hampshire Union Leader and Manchester’s Channel 9. For them, the Republican candidates, or the alternatives to Romney, seem pretty much fungible. When one self-destructs, they pick another.

Is this a good way to choose who might be the next president? No, it sounds worse (to paraphrase Winston Churchill on democracy) except for all those other ways that have been tried from time to time.

But you go to vote with the nominating process you have. Merry Christmas.




  • Michael Barone

    Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and principal coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics.

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