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Lessons from an election

Last modified: 9/19/2010 12:00:00 AM
While the secretary of state's office rushed last week to certify who won the primary elections, political analysts awaited the ballot counts so they could figure out who will win the general election.

It didn't take long for themes to emerge: a turnout heavily skewed to Republicans, rejection of the electability argument and an expected focus on economic issues.

It's no surprise that more voters took a Republican ballot. With a hotly contested Senate race and congressional contests in each district, the Republicans had more choices open to them than the Democrats, whose only major nominating contest was for Congress in the 2nd District. But several observers said the scale of the disparity on Tuesday - 141,000 Republican voters and 60,900 Democratic voters, in a state where party registrations are close to even - shows that the so-called enthusiasm gap, beloved by national pundits, is present in New Hampshire politics as well.

'We would always like to believe in New Hampshire that we're different than anybody else, and I think in many regards, politically, we are,' said Republican strategist Tom Rath. 'However, there are certain environments and contexts that occur nationally that also repeat here. One of them is an anger, a sense of outrage at the direction. . . . I don't think this is necessarily Republican-Democrat. It's directed at the people who are in. It's almost that generic.'

President Obama won New Hampshire by 9 points in 2008, but a poll conducted last weekend showed New Hampshire residents who were likely to vote this year had split their votes evenly for Obama and John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. If the same people who voted two years ago come out again in November, U.S. Rep Paul Hodes would win his Senate race by 4 to 5 points over Republican nominee Kelly Ayotte, said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, the Raleigh, N.C., firm that conducted the poll. Drawing back those voters will be the Democrats' biggest challenge, he said.

'It's not like Kelly Ayotte is winning over a lot of people who voted for Barack Obama,' Jensen said.

While Republicans are going to the polls in large numbers, Democrats are dispirited but unsure where to channel their dissatisfaction, said Andy Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center. 'Democrats don't know who to blame right now,' he said. 'If that's the case, you stay home.'

Not every analyst looked to downcast Democrats to explain why 2« times more voters took Republican ballots than Democratic ballots last week. Charles Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord, said Democrats didn't go to the polls because there was only one high-profile race for them, and in only half the state.

'They didn't turn out in an election when there was nothing to turn out for,' Arlinghaus said. 'There isn't a lesson to be learned from that.'

GOP confidence

In New Hampshire, like other states, Republicans showed they no longer feel they need to be pragmatic in their primary choices, said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the state party. When Ayotte announced her candidacy, Republicans were fresh off two difficult election cycles.

'The idea that Kelly Ayotte was the Republican who could win was really important,' he said. 'By the time the primary got around, nobody cared about that. The assumption was any Republican could defeat Paul Hodes. People felt licensed to vote for a stronger conservative, like Ovide (Lamontagne), without any concern it might set them up for defeat in the general.'

Primaries traditionally attract the more ideologically committed voters within each party, and Arlinghaus said the clear support 2nd District Democrats gave Ann McLane Kuster over the more moderate Katrina Swett shows they weren't voting strategically either. Swett argued in the campaign's final days that her pragmatism would better position her to win the general election. But for many primary voters, 'electability becomes shorthand for abandoning your principles,' Arlinghaus said.

The areas where Ayotte ran strongest point to another potential problem for Democrats in November, said Dante Scala, chairman of the political science department at the University of New Hampshire. While Ayotte did well across the state, she had a strong showing in traditionally moderate-to-liberal areas like the Connecticut River Valley and the Seacoast, compared with Lamontagne's dominance in greater Manchester and south along Interstate 93. 'If I were a Democrat sitting back, looking at those returns and seeing that Kelly Ayotte did well in Paul Hodes's backyard in the Connecticut River Valley, that would cause me some concern,' Scala said.

He said the result could scramble a possible geographic strategy for Hodes: trying to attract Republicans in those areas by presenting himself as a moderate alternative to the conservative Ayotte.

'Some of those very voters may have already cast their votes for Kelly Ayotte once,' Scala said. 'If they voted for her once in a primary, I think they might be inclined to vote for her in a general.'

Cullen said broader political trends are so powering Republicans this year that individual campaign strategies will have little consequence. In 2006, he said, Republican candidates couldn't find a message that would neutralize their core problem: Voters wanted to vote against Republicans.

'The opposite is true in this election,' Cullen said. 'If you're Paul Hodes or Carol Shea-Porter or Ann McLane Kuster, it doesn't matter what you say. Voters have decided they're not voting for Democrats.'

Rath, the Republican strategist, and Smith, of the Survey Center, said Hodes is trying to say something with a current television ad that shows the two-term congressman as a fiscal conservative who will cut spending in a wasteful Washington. The ad mentions few names and no parties. If a viewer didn't know Hodes was a Democrat, they'd never learn it from the ad, Rath noted.

'He's running away from Washington as quickly as he possibly can,' Smith said.

Smith said it's too early to say for sure, but he predicted Gov. John Lynch as the sole big-ticket Democrat winning in November, with Republicans sweeping the federal offices and taking back the state House and Senate. 'It's going to be a big wave for Republicans,' he said.

Economic concerns

The results may also give further evidence that the economy is the prevailing issue in voters' minds. Cullen said the dominance of Ayotte and Lamontagne, both social conservatives who oppose abortion, showed that Republican voters were most interested in fiscal and economic issues. Republicans who would describe themselves as social moderates were not voting on those issues, he said.

Arlinghaus said the win by Ayotte and the resurgence of 1st District congressional candidate Rich Ashooh, who came within 3,000 votes of winner Frank Guinta, showed the economic downturn left voters sympathetic to knowledgeable candidates, even if they lack a flashy personality.

'Economic difficulties often create an interest in quiet competence,' Arlinghaus said.

Voters give Ayotte credit for having led the state Department of Justice, and they were impressed by Ashooh's detailed answers to policy questions, he said.

Lamontagne's late resurgence also suggested to Arlinghaus that 'maybe character matters a little more than people thought.' He said the candidate's strength in this campaign was not wholly based on the issues.

'People found him authentic, and authenticity is one of the most important qualities in politics,' he said. 'People are often willing to excuse a difference of opinion with you if they think it's your opinion.'

Smith said he wasn't surprised that the election did not reveal the Tea Party energy visible in other state primaries. That 'has largely come from social conservatives, and New Hampshire has very small social conservative groups,' he said. 'The Republicans here largely are moderate Republicans, Rockefeller Republicans.'

As the second-least religious state in the nation (after Vermont), New Hampshire has 'no real fertile soil' for social conservatives, Smith said. And he said the fiscally conservative aspect of the Tea Party finds less contrast to highlight in New Hampshire than other states.

'Both parties in New Hampshire are largely fiscally conservative, and that has to do with New Hampshire not having income tax or sales tax,' Smith said. 'There's no money to spend.'


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