How Has New Hampshire’s Political Geography Shifted Since 2000?

New Hampshire used to be a heavily Republican state. For over a century, Republicans were clearly the majority party in New Hampshire, and Democratic wins, though they happened occasionally, were clearly the exception to the rule. During that time, New Hampshire produced such notable Republicans as Styles Bridges, Norris Cotton, Warren Rudman, and the (still extant) Sununu dynasty. And until the turn of the century, all of those Republicans won their elections fairly easily.

But since the turn of the century, or more specifically since 2004, there has been a noticeable leftward shift in New Hampshire’s politics that has turned the state into a swing state. In 2004, Democrat John Lynch unseated one-term Republican Governor Craig Benson, the first time since the 1920s that a first-term governor has lost re-election. In addition, in 2004 New Hampshire voted for John Kerry for President, the first time since 1848 (thus before the Republican Party existed) that New Hampshire voted for a Democratic presidential candidate who did not win overall. Two years later, in 2006, Democrats swept pretty much every election that they possibly could, winning both U.S. House seats, both houses of the state legislature, and the Executive Council. Since then, the state has settled into somewhat of a swing-state equilibrium, with every statewide election, every congressional election, and control of the state legislature being fiercely fought between the two parties.

But in the years since New Hampshire became a swing state, how has the political geography of the state shifted? Which towns and regions have trended Democratic, and which have trended Republican? To answer this question, I look at five different sets of elections that have happened since then. Each of those five sets of elections had a similar result. Those five sets of elections are:

  • The 2000 and 2014 gubernatorial elections. Both were won by Democrats by a margin of 5 percentage points.
  • The 2002 gubernatorial and 2010 Senate elections. Both were won by Republicans by a margin of between 20 and 25 percentage points.
  • The 2004 gubernatorial and 2016 Senate elections. Both were won by Democrats by a margin of less than 2 percentage points.
  • The 2002 Senate and 2016 gubernatorial elections. Both were won by Republicans by a margin of between 2 and 5 percentage points.
  • The 2004 and 2016 Presidential elections. Both were won by Democrats by a margin of less than 2 percentage points.

For each of these elections, I compare each town’s result to the overall statewide result, and then compare those between the two elections to see how each town trended during the intervening time. At the end, I will present a map of the towns that trended Democratic or Republican in all five of the elections listed above.

The 2000 and 2014 gubernatorial elections

NH trends 00Gov - 14Gov

In the 2000 gubernatorial election, then-incumbent (now-Senator) Jeanne Shaheen (D) defeated former U.S. Senator Gordon Humphrey (R) by a 5-point margin. In the 2014 gubernatorial election, then-incumbent (now-Senator) Maggie Hassan (D) defeated businessman Walt Havenstein (R) by an identical 5-point margin. As the above map shows, though, their coalitions were very different. Hassan performed substantially better than Shaheen in most of western and northern New Hampshire, as well as in the Seacoast region and in the cities of Manchester and Concord. Hassan underperformed Shaheen in much of the rural and suburban areas in southeastern New Hampshire (Salem being a notable exception). There are two specific trends that warrant further comment. First, Manchester trended Democratic while Nashua trended Republican. Manchester is on a long-term Democratic trend as it diversifies and its inhabitants begin to identify more as city-dwellers. Manchester used to be consistently redder than Nashua and voted about the same as the state as a whole; now it is roughly as Democratic as Nashua, and consistently votes to the left of the state as a while. Second, Coös County trended substantially Democratic during this time. Coös was in fact on a long-term Democratic trend, and went deep blue in 2014, but that trend abruptly reversed itself in 2016 when Trump performed very strongly in Coös. It will be interesting to see if 2016 was merely an aberration in Coös’s Democratic trend, or whether it was a lasting realignment.

The 2002 gubernatorial and 2010 Senate elections

NH trends 02Gov - 10Sen

In the 2002 gubernatorial election, businessman Craig Benson (R) defeated state senator Mark Fernald (D) by a 20-point margin. In the 2010 Senate election, state AG Kelly Ayotte (R) defeated Congressman Paul Hodes (D) by a 23-point margin. Again, however, their coalitions were notably different. Democrats again improved in the northern half of the state, while Republicans improved in much of the Concord area as well as in most of the towns on New Hampshire’s southern border.

 The 2004 gubernatorial and 2016 Senate elections

NH trends 04Gov - 16Sen

In the 2004 gubernatorial election, businessman John Lynch (D) defeated incumbent Governor Craig Benson (R) by a 2-point margin. In the 2016 Senate election, Governor Maggie Hassan (D) defeated then-incumbent Senator Kelly Ayotte (R) by less than two tenths of one percentage point, or approximately 1,000 votes. Despite the similarities in the margins, Lynch’s and Hassan’s coalitions were radically different. Lynch performed extremely well in the Concord area, which is why the map shows it trending Republican. The reason why Lynch did so well in the Concord area is because Benson had been involved in some scandals during his time in office, and multiple elections in many states across the country have shown that voters who live in the vicinity of a state capital are more knowledgeable of, and less tolerant of, political scandals*. The map also shows the Berlin area trending Republican, which is mainly due to the Trump wave causing Hassan to underperform there. Another notable aspect of this map is that the Seacoast did not trend Democratic, as it did in the first comparison. However, much of northern New Hampshire, including the Lebanon/Hanover area, the I-93 corridor from Franconia to New Hampton, and almost all of Carroll County still trended Democratic, as well as (importantly) the city of Manchester.

*See, for example, Louisiana’s 2015 gubernatorial election, Virginia’s 2013 LG election, and Pennsylvania’s 2005 Supreme Court retention referendum.

The 2002 Senate and 2016 gubernatorial elections

NH trends 02Sen - 16Gov

In the 2002 Senate election, Congressman John E. Sununu (R) defeated Governor Jeanne Shaheen (D) by a 4-point margin. In the 2016 gubernatorial election, Executive Councillor (and brother of John E.) Chris Sununu (R) defeated fellow Executive Councillor Colin Van Ostern (D) by a 2-point margin. The map comparing these two elections is somewhat of a combination of the three previous maps. Grafton County and every town that borders Lake Winnipesaukee trended Democratic. Grantham (fast-growing town SE of Lebanon) and New London (home to Colby-Sawyer College) both trended heavily Democratic. Manchester, Peterborough (an artists’ colony), and most of the Seacoast also trended Democratic. Every single town on the border with Massachusetts trended Republican. The Berlin area also trended Republican, for the same reason as with the previous comparison.

The 2004 and 2016 Presidential elections

NH trends 04Pres - 16Pres

In the 2004 and 2016 Presidential elections, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton both won New Hampshire by margins of less than two percentage points, even as they both lost the overall elections. The Manchester area and the Seacoast area (with the exception of the towns bordering Massachusetts) trended Democratic, as did the Lebanon/Hanover area, New London, and most of the northern half of New Hampshire (with the Berlin area again an exception). Much of Cheshire County and southern Sullivan County trended Republican – this is also due to the Trump wave among working-class whites. The east-central part of the state also trended Republican.

Looking at each of the above maps individually is not as meaningful as combining their information into one map. My final map colors only the towns that trended either Democratic or Republican in all five of the above comparisons.

NH trends towns

The trends are pretty obvious here. All but five of the consistently Democratic-trending towns are in the northern half of the state. What do those towns have in common that the remainder of the towns in northern New Hampshire don’t? The towns that are consistently trending Democratic are more educated and touristy, while the towns not colored blue are generally more working-class (and so swung toward Trump). Of the five towns in southern New Hampshire that are consistently trending Democratic, three of them are on or near the Seacoast, and that whole region seems to be trending Democratic in most elections. The other two are Manchester, which is diversifying (it is 82 percent non-Hispanic White now; it was 98 percent as recently as 1980), and Peterborough, an artists’ colony just east of Mount Monadnock.

More than half of the towns that are consistently trending Republican are in a contiguous band stretching from Amesbury, Massachusetts almost to Laconia. These towns are increasingly becoming commuter towns for Concord, Manchester, and (the southernmost ones) even Boston. The closer-in suburbs are generally not trending in either direction, but as these towns continue to grow with right-leaning commuters who care about gas prices and low taxes, they are shifting to the right. The same phenomenon is also visible northwest of Manchester in towns such as Weare and Dunbarton, both of which are also colored red on the map.

One final note: there is only a single example in the entire state of a consistently Democratic-trending town directly bordering a consistently Republican-trending town, and those two towns are Gilford (which is consistently Democratic-trending) and Gilmanton (which is consistently Republican-trending). The differences between these two towns demonstrate the opposing trends at work in New Hampshire. Gilford is a touristy town with a shoreline on Lake Winnipesaukee and the Gunstock ski resort. Gilmanton has easy road connections to Concord and other areas of employment, allowing its development as a commuter town. Emphasizing the divide between the two towns is that the Belknap Mountains are directly between them, resulting in the fact that there is not a single road connection between the two towns. This has allowed them to develop in two different directions, which seems to be causing their politics, formerly very similar, to diverge.

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