On the trail: Is enthusiasm for first in the nation primary waning?

  • A New Hampshire primary voter leaves a polling location at the North Hampton Town Hall on Jan. 27, 2004. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 2/26/2021 4:06:36 PM

A new survey suggests that support among Granite Staters for New Hampshire’s century old tradition of holding the first primary in the presidential nominating calendar may be slipping.

Sixty-three percent of state residents questioned in a new University of New Hampshire Granite State Poll say that it’s very or somewhat important to them that the state hold on to its first-in-the-nation primary status. But that’s down from 81% in a July 2008 UNH poll.

A third of those surveyed said it was not very or not at all important to continue to hold the first presidential primary, up from 18% in 2008.

UNH pollster Andrew Smith suggested that a “critical” factor in the drop off in importance in holding the first presidential primary may be due to “population churn” in New Hampshire.

“We’ve got a lot of people who are not from New Hampshire that have moved into the state and may not be as in love with the New Hampshire presidential primary as people who grew up here,” Smith said.

Veteran New Hampshire based political scientist Wayne Lesperance pointed to last month’s insurrection on the U.S. Capitol as another contributing factor for the first-in-the-nation primary’s decline in importance among Granite Staters.

“The country has been through a national trauma,” said Lesperance, vice president of academic affairs at New England College. “The topic of hosting presidential candidates and everything associated with that is probably not on peoples’ minds.”

“What happened on Jan. 6 and the events that led up to it has put Americans generally in a spot where they don’t want to talk about these kinds of political issues,” he added.

But Lesperance predicted attitudes would rebound.

“Let’s give it some time and see if that number rebounds,” he said. “I suspect it will.”

The decline in perceived importance was more pronounced among Democrats – who dropped from 91% in 2008 to 63% now – than among independents – 70% in 2008 to 59% now – and Republicans – 76% in 2008 to 66% now.

Smith suggested that one contributing factor to the larger percentage drop off among Democrats may be that the winner of the 2016 and 2020 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primaries – Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont – didn’t end up winning the party’s nomination either time. Hillary Clinton, the 2016 nominee, was trounced by Sanders in New Hampshire. And President Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic standard bearer, came in a disappointing fifth in the first-in-the-nation primary.

The poll’s results come as New Hampshire’s political leaders gear up once again – as they do every four years – to protect the state’s cherished presidential primary position. The threat this time around is coming from Nevada, which is attempting to leap frog New Hampshire and Iowa – who’s caucuses for a half century have led off the nominating calendar – and jump to the to lead off position.

Among national Democrats, the knock against Iowa and New Hampshire for years has been that the populations of the two states are too Caucasian, they lack any major urban areas and aren’t representative of a Democratic Party that’s become increasingly diverse over the past several decades. Nevada – along with South Carolina which votes fourth and holds the first southern primary - are much more diverse than either Iowa or New Hampshire.

Poll shows competitive Hassan-Sununu race

The UNH survey indicates Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of holds a 48%-46% edge over Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan in a hypothetical 2022 U.S. Senate election contest.

The race in New Hampshire could end up being a crucial showdown that may determine whether Republicans regain the Senate majority they just lost in the 2020 cycle.

Hassan, Sununu’s predecessor in the corner office, is running next year for a second six-year term in the Senate.

There’s plenty of speculation that Sununu, who was overwhelming reelected in November to a third two-year term as Granite State governor, may challenge Hassan in 2022 rather than run for reelection as governor.

The survey indicates that Sununu’s approval rating as governor stands at 72%, with a 55%-19% favorable/unfavorable rating. Hassan’s favorable/unfavorable rating in the new poll stands at 42%-38%.

While Sununu's approval rating remains very high and his favorable rating is superior to Hassan's, the poll indicates a close contest next year.

"New Hampshire is a state that leans Democrat and most people vote their party, especially in national elections," Smith explained.

There’s speculation that if Sununu doesn’t challenge Hassan, former Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire may consider running again. Ayotte, a former state attorney general who was elected to the Senate in 2010, lost reelection to Hassan in 2016 by a razor-thin margin of just 1,017 votes.

The poll indicates that Hassan holds a 48%-43% advantage over former Ayotte in a potential 2022 rematch.

The only declared Republican in the race at this early point is retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who ran unsuccessfully for the 2020 GOP Senate nomination. The new poll indicates Hassan leading Bolduc 52%-39% in a hypothetical match up.

The survey also shows Hassan topping Republican Corey Lewandowski 53%-34%. Lewandowski, a top political adviser to former President Donald Trump, has expressed interest in running for governor next year if Sununu runs for Senate, but has shown little interest in mounting a Senate run. He flirted with Senate run during the 2020 cycle.

As Republicans aim to win back the majority in the chamber from the Democrats in 2022, they’ll be defending 20 of the 34 seats up for grabs in the next midterm elections. As they play plenty of defense, the National Republican Senatorial Committee – the reelection arm of Senate Republicans – sees Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire as potential pick-up opportunities to flip a blue seat red.

Partisan divide over redistricting commission

The UNH poll also indicates that New Hampshire residents are ambivalent about a proposal to move New Hampshire's state primary from September to earlier in the year. A plurality – 47%- of those surveyed neither supported nor opposed the move, with 18% backing and nearly a quarter opposing moving the date of the state primary. Bills that would adjust the date of the primary are currently in front of lawmakers in the state legislature.

The New Hampshire state primary falls later in the calendar than it does in every other state except Rhode Island. Last year, there were just 56 days between the state primary and the Nov. 3 election.

The poll also shows that 38% support establishing a redistricting commission to redraw legislative boundaries in the state, with 14% opposed and a quarter holding no position.

With Republicans controlling the governor’s office, the Executive Council and both the state House of Representatives and Senate, and thus controlling this year’s once-in-a-decade redistricting process, there was an expected wide partisan divide on this question. Support for an independent redistricting commission stood at 57% among Democrats, but just 20% among Republicans.

For the third time in three years, attempts by Democratic state lawmakers to push for a redistricting commission will likely once again fall short.

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