Granite State likely to keep on swinging

Color New Hampshire a shade of deep purple – and don’t forget to bring a fresh set of crayons four years from now.


– The state went narrowly for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on Tuesday.

– Voters tossed out an incumbent Republican governor for the first time in a quarter century with Democrat John Lynch’s stunning upset of Gov. Craig Benson. (The previous sacking in the corner office was of Gov. Meldrim Thomson, who lost his bid for a fourth term to Littleton Democrat Hugh Gallen in 1978.)

– The Executive Council now has its first Democratic member since 1996 with the election of Nashua’s Debora Pignatelli in District 5.

All of this makes New Hampshire a more Democratic state, right?

Not really.

“I think all of this proves we’re bound to be a swing state for the foreseeable future,” said Tom Rath, a Republican National Committee member.

New Hampshire is surely even more independent with Friday’s news that a record-high 42 percent of registered voters do not want to identify with either political party, thank you very much.

“Independents now dictate the face of state elections every two years, but especially they do in presidential contests as we saw this week,” said Manchester Mayor Robert Baines, a Democrat. “They tend not to vote for the too-conservative or the too-liberal candidate, but to seek out those who come down in the middle.”

President Bush and Kerry each won five counties on Tuesday. A color-shaded map of communities won by Kerry would show

blue in most cities, all the college towns and in the far eastern and western corners of the state.

Bush’s red towns mark a thick swath that runs right up the center of the state.

Primary colors

Since the president won’t be eligible to run again, the 2008 campaign will attract great interest from both parties, and Democratic and Republican candidates already are lining up to pose as the next obvious nominee.

In the closing weeks of this election, several prospective 2008 contenders made visits on behalf of the Bush-Cheney team.

They included former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who defeated bush in the 2000 New Hampshire presidential primary but faded as the race wore on.

Later this month, McCain will return to be the keynote speaker at a dinner in Manchester co-sponsored by The Union Leader of Manchester.

Since the summer, several Democrats who would like to replace Kerry at the head of the party’s ticket in 2008 also made trips here.

Running mate John Edwards was here twice, and there were visits from Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh.

Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan said she’s looking forward to a breather.

“Give us at least a few weeks off. The last two years have been non-stop, and the voters sure need a break,” she said.

Unconnected voters

Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said recently that more of the state’s voters are identifying themselves as unconnected to political parties.

“More and more describe themselves as independent or swing voters,” he said. “The parties are becoming less and less relevant to them.”

New Hampshire’s Election Day registration law also has helped to depoliticize the electorate and make it even more unpredictable.

Tuesday was the third presidential election where someone could sign up to vote at the polls on Election Day.

With each election, the impact of these late-breaking voters has grown.

In 1996, they made up roughly 7 percent of the electorate. Four years ago, it was just under 12 percent. This year, the record 95,000 who showed up to register and vote represented 14 percent of voters.

“This is proving to be a more popular way to be involved with every succeeding election,” said Secretary of State Bill Gardner.

These new registrants are usually not new to the state but have either not voted recently and were dropped from the rolls or they moved from another district.

As a result, they are harder for campaigns to find and influence their vote, and even harder for pollsters to accurately judge.

Republican State Chairwoman Jayne Millerick said both parties have to work harder with every election to try to convince the unaffiliated.

“New Hampshire has had a growing number of independent voters, and it’s a challenge for both parties to convince them to vote for us or the Democrats,” she said.

Sullivan did say that polling by the national party did reveal the number of those who identified themselves as Democrats rather than Republicans was growing.

“I think we’ve recovered from the 2002 elections that were devastating to us as a party, and the unpopularity of this war in Iraq had many more freely admitting they thought of themselves as Democrats,” she said.

The GOP is still the majority party in registration, but its edge is slipping.

Since the day Bill Clinton won his second term in 1996, the number of registered Democrats has gone up 11 percent, while the Republican ranks have slipped by 3 percent.

The new voter registration totals drop the Republican Party’s piece of the voter pie down to 31 percent, less than a 5 percentage point advantage over the Democrats.

However, the number of independent voters over that same period rose by 56 percent.

Pollster Dick Bennett of American Research Group said McCain’s primary run in 2000 galvanized support of those anti-party, moderate independents more than any candidate before and since.

“These people think both parties represent their own special interests and that Washington does not exist for most Americans but to serve the most powerful,” he said recently.

Kerry’s lead among independents waxed and waned during the summer and early fall, but he remained ahead of Bush among those voters since he trounced the rest of the Democratic field in New Hampshire on Jan. 27.

The independents also continued their knack for ticket splitting, choosing by wide margins Republican U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg and GOP Reps. Charles Bass and Jeb Bradley.

Only one of 15 Republican state senators running lost their election last Tuesday – Kingston Sen. Russell Prescott – and no Democrats broke through to win any new county offices.

Rath said it would take at least one future election to determine if Bush’s narrow defeat here was personal or the sign of a shift in political mood.

“I think there was a cultural disconnect for some voters to this president, who does walk with a swagger and has a Southern way about him,” he said. “Clearly, this endeared him to a great many here, but there were others who never warmed up to him.”

Somewhere in the distance, a starting gun for the 2008 campaign is going off.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 224-8804 or