Getting a Handle on New Hampshire

I write a lot about Iowa here, partly because I know the state reasonably well and partly because there’s really nothing in American politics quite like its positioning in the presidential nominating process, guaranteeing many months of Invisible Primary activity. But New Hampshire is the other small honkified state standing athwart the path to the presidential nomination, with arguably a better record than Iowa of picking “winners” and definitely its own quirks and expectations.

In a table-setter at Bloomberg Politics, Julie Bykowicz discusses the Granite State as a place that has occasionally (viz. 1980 and 2000) been a stumbling block for Bush family presidential ambitions. It’s all interesting, but I think Bykowicz follows a common error in depicting the state (or at least its Republican voters) as a sort of moderate counter-weight to the intensely ideological Iowa.

Yes, there are more libertarians (and for that matter, classic old-school suburbanites) in New Hampshire than in Iowa, and most definitely, the primary format tends to make the electorate less monolithic that does the caucus format. But New Hampshire has its own cranky movement conservative faction, and its atavistic tax system–it’s the only state other than oil-royalty-dependent Alaska with no general sales or income tax–guarantees a sensitivity to tax issues that’s conspicuous even among taxophobic Republicans nationally.

Ronald Reagan’s fortunes in New Hampshire show the complicated interplay of these quirks. In 1976 he lost narrowly to Gerald Ford there almost entirely because the incumbent’s campaign did a brilliant job of convincing voters Reagan’s “devolution” agenda for dumping federal responsibilities on the states would doom New Hampshire to some statewide taxes. Four years later, after being upset by Poppy Bush in Iowa, Reagan made a comeback in New Hampshire fed in no small part by paleo-conservative attacks on Poppy’s membership in the Trilateral Commission, the great three-horned-beast haunting the conspiracy theories of hard-core conservatives in that time. But in 1988, the elder Bush turned New Hampshire’s peculiarities in his favor by skewering Bob Dole for failing to sign Grover Norquist’s no-tax-increase pledge. Four years later, after breaking his own tax pledge, Poppy struggled in New Hampshire against Pat Buchanan (who won there in 1996).

The bottom line is that it’s probably a mistake to typecast New Hampshire as “moderate” or “center-right,” even in comparison to Iowa. It’s true there are not a lot of conservative evangelicals living there by national Republican standards; the local Christian Right is mostly Catholic. So it’s not the best turf for a Mike Huckabee or a Ted Cruz. But other than that, in a big field it’s anybody’s state to win.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.