Swing Shift

Are we really that predictable?



illustration by peter noonan

Over the past 20 years, New Hampshire has earned the title of America’s swingiest swing state. In presidential election years like 2016, the state usually starts in a tight contest, only to later vote largely Democratic. In the midterm elections, two years later, the state reliably votes Republican. If history is any guide, then New Hampshire voters will continue the pattern.

I should note that I wrote this column in late September. Given all the unpredictable turns of this election year, I realize I could be horribly off. However, this could mean that not only will Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump lose the state’s four electoral votes, other Republicans could be in danger — including candidates in the state’s US Senate contest and the race for governor.

Consider the state’s First Congressional District race. The district, which includes Manchester, the Lakes Region and the Seacoast, has now had the same two people run for the seat the last four times.

The “four-peat” between Democrat Carol Shea-Porter and Republican Frank Guinta is a state record that speaks to how evenly divided the district is and how susceptible to the national mood its voters are. While partisans have their reasons to not trust either of them, it is hard to argue that one or the other was thrown out because voters specifically rejected them. After all, the same voters would pick the same candidates two years later.

It wasn’t always like this. For a century, New Hampshire was a reliable Republican state. This meant that primaries and the backroom deals of the establishment mattered more. Rivalries could be settled in a primary, and an incumbent could hold that office for years. Indeed, if the trends are right, New Hampshire’s swings could be just a few-decade-long transition as it becomes Democratic-leaning like the rest of New England. If so, that is at least another decade off, and, this year, Republicans could reassert themselves and push off that eventual date even farther.

Beyond producing political trivia, the swingy nature of New Hampshire’s voters has had an impact on governing. In 2006, voters sent more Democrats to Concord than they had since the post-Civil War days. Then, four years later in 2010, Republicans had their biggest wins in state history. This has meant that some bills that passed one year would come up again in a later year and fail.

Through those years, though, there was the same governor, and that governor, Democrat John Lynch, had to deal with radically different budgets from a Democratic Legislature and a Republican Legislature, which made it difficult to progress in a smart way to either shrink or expand government.

Big swings also mean there are fewer people who even bother running for office. Just consider the US Senate race this year. Both Democrat Maggie Hassan and Republican Kelly Ayotte have worked for years to get to this point, and yet the national mood and the candidates at the top of the ticket will likely have more to do with whether they win or lose than the years they spent cultivating political donors, activists and votes.

Elections in our swing state do seem to follow some established patterns — and running for any major office is grueling enough without knowing that you don’t really control your own destiny.

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