Presidential candidates and their surrogates spend most of their time in high-population, close-contest areas, swinging quickly on runs through Minnesota-Wisconsin-Iowa, for example, or Michigan-Ohio-Pennsylvania. But in the past week, Barack Obama, John McCain, and Joe Biden went out of their way to visit New Hampshire, a small prize far removed from any other 2008 electoral contest.
‘All’ for none
This year, for the first time, New Hampshire voters will not be able to vote a straight party-line ballot in one motion. The state banned “straight-ticket voting” in July, which will force voters to fill in their ballots in each race — previously, they have had the option of filling in an “all Democrats” or “all Republicans” oval at the top. Roughly a quarter of all voters in the state used the straight-ticket option in 2006.
Both parties are claiming that the change will help them. Democrats say that, historically, straight-ticket voting has helped Republicans. GOP sources point out that, in 2006, thanks to intense anti-Republican anger, most straight-ticket voting was Democratic.
There is no big secret to the gush of interest in the Granite State, which has affixed itself to the short list of presidential battlegrounds. Had Al Gore received just 7000 more votes in New Hampshire eight years ago, he would have received the state’s four electoral votes — and there would have been no President George W. Bush.
The past two presidential contests went late into election night, as states tallied their razor-thin margins with the fate of the free world in the balance. With national polls again showing a dead heat, and electoral-college projections similarly neck-and-neck, it is very possible that a few votes in one state could again make the difference.
But not knowing which state — of at least a dozen close battlegrounds, according to analysts — holds that key, campaigns are going all out for every last possible vote, in all of them. They are fighting with street-by-street urgency not only in Florida and Ohio, but in Virginia, and Colorado, and, yes, in little New Hampshire.
“New Hampshire is obviously very important,” says top Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod, in Concord this past Friday evening with his candidate. “It’s a state we have to keep a strong focus on.”
New Hampshire may be a microcosm of the national race, not only on the presidential level, but further down-ballot, as well. As the Democrats attempt to expand their majority in the US Senate — hoping to get near the coveted 60 votes needed to force bills to the floor — one of the most contentious races is the rematch between former governor Jeanne Shaheen and incumbent Senator John Sununu. National Republicans hoping to regain some of the congressional seats they lost in the 2006 anti-GOP tsunami have also targeted both of New Hampshire’s freshmen Democratic representatives.
All of this is catching the attention — and the resources — of the national parties and activists. The focus is only partly on persuading voters — those notoriously independent-minded Granite State curmudgeons — on the issues and the candidates. Observers believe that if the national election is ultimately close — close enough to once again depend on the outcome in New Hampshire — then the difference in all of these races, up and down the ballot, will be turnout.
So first it’s all about undecided Independents, but later, when the rubber meets the road, it’s all about getting decided voters in the booths. In the big public events, like Obama’s speech to several thousand in Manchester on Saturday, or McCain’s “start your engines” guest spot in front of some 90,000 watching the Sylvania 300 auto race in Loudon on Sunday, the emphasis is on persuading those Independents, who will form the bulk of what is expected to be the highest-participation election in New Hampshire history. But further from the media glare, both camps of declared voters are scheming to get that extra little percentage of their base to the polls. This emphasis on turnout may be where the next president will be determined.
Taking their time
New Hampshire voters are never in any rush to make up their minds. They are notoriously slow to decide, and will second-guess themselves repeatedly. The primaries have taught this lesson well, whether in John Kerry’s final-week surge in 2004, John McCain’s startling blowout in 2000, or Hillary Clinton’s poll-defying win nine months ago.
In this year’s January primary, McCain won the Republican vote, while Obama finished second to a resurgent Clinton. To some, that underlines the advantage that McCain has in the state — where he has spent a decade winning over both Republicans and Independents. Obama, by contrast, has only been working the state for 19 months, since his first campaign swing through New Hampshire in February 2007.
“No question, Senator McCain has had some appeal to people in New Hampshire,” says Mark MacKenzie, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO. “People know him better than they know Senator Obama — that’s just a reality.”