Political Muscle

NH’s southern tier dominates the 2020 campaign

Illustration by Peter Noonan

Over the years there have been a few things that have defined New Hampshire: low taxes, the Old Man of the Mountain and the New Hampshire Primary.

The lack of income or sales taxes remains, but the Old Man is gone and, if we’re honest, the New Hampshire primary isn’t an all-of-New-Hampshire-thing anymore. The contest really takes place in just three counties: Hillsborough, Rockingham and Merrimack.

Maybe we should just call it the Southern New Hampshire Primary.

Numbers tell the story: Nearly 65% of all primary events this cycle occurred in one of those three counties, according to the 2020 presidential candidate visit tracker from New England Cable News. The other seven counties get scraps.

This is particularly true for harder-to-get-to places like Coös and Cheshire counties. Despite the fact that 25 candidates are running for president at one time, months have gone by without a visit to one of those corners.
This should not be shocking news. Those visits are almost perfectly proportional with state’s population. Roughly 65% of the state’s residents live in one of those three counties. Remember, according to the US Census, more people live in Derry than in all of Coös County.

That said, there is something lost when it is basically Concord, Manchester and the Boston suburbs. Gone are the days of John F. Kennedy dog sledding or Gary Hart throwing an ax in a lumberjack competition in the North Country. The number of politicians who largely reside in urban areas and are never in touch with rural America is a real problem, because it can further the cultural and financial divides.

Two venues showcase the changes in how candidates campaign in New Hampshire.

First, there is what’s left of the Balsams resort in Dixville Notch. Dixville once had a legendary role in American politics. The tiny town just miles from the Canadian border was out of a Hollywood set. It was once a topic on the show “West Wing.” The town got a waiver so that the 20 or so residents could vote at midnight for New Hampshire primary day (and for the general election for president). Residents filed into “the ballot room” at the hotel, entered booths, and dropped their ballot into a large wooden box. Then, in front of the a bank of television cameras, the first election results were announced, usually live on cable news.

But there wasn’t any midnight voting at the hotel in 2016. And there probably won’t be again in 2020. The hotel is closed amid plans about what to do next.

Then there is the Institute of Politics building at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. It is increasingly a center of activity. This is where candidates often make their first trips, to politics-and-eggs-meetings and attending debates, and it’s where cable news outlets like to do their hourlong town hall forums. Why? Well, the college is very welcoming for sure, but so is Dartmouth College. But Dartmouth isn’t near the airport or Boston, where a lot of the media outlets are and where candidates can pop down for a quick fundraiser.

Is it possible that someday a candidate might spend more time in rural areas of the state? There are, after all, voters in those areas and policy positions to be addressed. But over the years, the trendlines are for them to stick to southern New Hampshire, and that probably isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Categories: Politics