Why Obama can't take New Hampshire for granted.

A guide to the swing states.
Sept. 29 2008 5:02 PM

Don't Take It for Granite

Democrats control New Hampshire, but Obama still faces a tough battle here.

Read the rest of the Swingers  series.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

CONCORD, N.H.—At first glance, New Hampshire looks like it's Barack Obama's to lose. Though George W. Bush won the state in 2000, he did so narrowly. In 2004, John Kerry won a slim victory here, making it the only state where Bush failed to repeat. Then came the 2006 midterms. The Democrats practically took over the state, unseating two Republican members of Congress, winning control of both houses of the state legislature, and returning Gov. John Lynch to office with 74 percent of the vote. They even won a majority on the state's unusual but influential executive council, when a septuagenarian probate bondsman named John Shea beat out a moderate Republican he'd lost to four times previously. (Apparently not sanguine about his chances, Shea left for a European vacation on Election Day. After some initial confusion, he was located at a Belgian hotel and notified of his victory via fax.)

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

Yet if Obama is going to keep New Hampshire in the blue column, he's going to have to work at it. The state isn't as Democratic as the 2006 election makes it seem. And if any Republican can take it back, it's John McCain.

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The Democratic victories in 2006 were the result of several factors unique to the midterms. This election year, New Hampshire will do away with straight-ticket voting, but in 2006, voters had the option of pulling the lever for a party's whole slate of candidates. The election of John Shea suggests many did just that. With the wildly popular Lynch at the top of the ticket, and the Republican Party seen as responsible for a failing war, the Democrats were poised for a rout.

What that rout belies is a state still closely split between Republicans and Democrats—at last count, the GOP held on to a small advantage of 4,891 more registered voters. With the presidential race now at the top of the ticket, and concern about Iraq eclipsed by worries about the economy and energy costs, Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, expects the 2008 results to look less like 2006 than like 2004. John Kerry carried the state by a mere 9,247 votes, and that was over Bush, whom even New Hampshire Republicans seem to like about as much as they like Carl Levin.

By contrast, McCain and New Hampshire have maintained a robust mutual-appreciation society since 2000. In the state primary that year, he defeated Bush by an embarrassing 18 percentage points. In the 2008 primary, voters passed over a New Hampshire taxpayer (Mitt Romney, who owns a house on Lake Winnipesaukee) to revive McCain's flagging 2008 presidential bid.

New Hampshire's license plates have made its "Live free or die" motto famous, but it's not just a motto. This is a state with no sales tax and no income tax on wages. It's the only state in the union without an adult seat-belt law. It's a state that grants its citizens an explicit "right of revolution"—see Article 10 of the state constitution—should the people's liberty ever become endangered. Such a place might seem to have a natural affinity for McCain, the self-styled "maverick" who boasts of his willingness to stand up for the causes he believes in, even if it means breaking ranks with his own party. McCain's causes have also tended to resonate with the state's voters—his disdain for wasteful government spending appeals to New Hampshire's GOP and its right-leaning independents, who man one of the last outposts of Rockefeller Republicanism.

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