Yes, We Don’t

NH’s strange political affair

Illustration by Peter Noonan

There was this weird moment in November when New Hampshire voters appeared to simultaneously say two contradictory things.

In New Hampshire presidential primary polls, voters favored political outsiders like Republicans Donald Trump and Ben Carson. In the Democratic contest, Vermont US Senator Bernie Sanders, certainly no old-school mainstream politician, was tied with Hillary Clinton.

However, when it came to Election Day in the state’s 13 cities, voters not only didn’t want to change much, in some cases they preferred throwbacks.

At the very moment when it seemed like the political mood around the country was to “throw the bums out,” no incumbent mayor lost re-election in New Hampshire. This was as true in blowout elections like in Franklin, Concord, Claremont as it was in the tighter elections like in Manchester, which was forced into a recount. Then in the cities where there were open seats like in Nashua and Portsmouth, voters picked a former mayor and assistant mayor who were both seeking political comebacks.

This is the story of how Granite State voters feel about the country versus how they feel about their state.

Weeks before the municipal election the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center conducted a poll in which only 35 percent said the country was on the right track while 61 percent said that New Hampshire was headed in the right direction.

Take Nashua, where incumbent mayor Donnalee Lozeau decided not to seek re-election and in her place former mayor Jim Donchess was taking on a young upstart named Chris Williams, who had led the Chamber of Commerce successfully for years.

Trying to get a handle on the race, I called a wise hand and was told that Williams would likely lose. (He later did.) I asked why, and the person told me “Williams has all these bold new ideas and no one in Nashua wants to hear about bold, new ideas. They are happy the way things are.”

This dynamic is hardly new. While New Hampshire has voted to toss out representatives to Washington almost every election, former governor John Lynch set a record as the longest-serving governor in modern state history. It is also a rare event when a mayor loses re-election in this state. Of course, it could just be the difference between those who vote in mayoral elections and those who pay attention to presidential politics. Turnout during the mayoral elections was low, especially compared to the turnout expected in the February presidential primary.

It wasn’t always this way. For a hundred years, from 1896 to 1996, New Hampshire was a solid Republican state in national elections. This meant that the real action for voters was on the local level, particularly in towns and cities.

The dynamic in November also speaks to how New Hampshire feels about itself. Unemployment is lower than in the rest of the country and the average income is higher. Even while a heroin crisis grips the state, most residents believe (and official studies agree) this is a great place to live.

If anything, this cycle the mood of New Hampshire is that of an oasis in a country so deeply off kilter that the political outsiders have the inside track.

Categories: Politics