Can You Lose N.H.'s Republican Towns, and Still Win the Republican Primary? History Says Yes

Jan 11, 2016

Sen. John McCain won the 2008 New Hampshire Republican Primary, relying on the bulk of his support in the state's more liberal cities and towns.
Credit Tracy Lee Carroll / NHPR

It’s one of the most conventional nuggets of political wisdom: To win an election, first secure your base, then expand from there.

But recent New Hampshire political history shows that candidates can win their party’s core towns, and still lose the election. It happened, in both parties’ presidential primaries, in 2008. 

Last month, we explored this idea through the '08 New Hampshire primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama won the Democratic nomination that year. But Clinton edged him out in New Hampshire, by racking up big wins in more moderate and even Republican-leaning areas, rather than the state's liberal strongholds.

That same year, in the Republican primary, the race came also down to two candidates: John McCain and Mitt Romney. McCain won his primary in the same way as Clinton did. He ceded his party’s most favorable terrain – the state's southeastern slice, in his case – and racked up big margins in liberal communities like Hanover, Dover, Portsmouth and Concord (see map below).

Independent influence?

You might suspect that these outcomes are shaped by New Hampshire's fabled independent (or “undeclared”) voters. These voters, unregistered with any political party, are the largest electoral bloc in the state. Their movements are scrutinized by campaigns, journalists and pundits every four years, since state election laws allow them to decide on Election Day which party’s primary they’ll take part in.

So what do we know about the role of independents in the 2008 primary?

It’s hard to say exactly. Election returns don't break down the results by voter registration. But exit polls indicate that both Obama and McCain enjoyed wide support from independent voters.

Yet, looking at the town level, it's hard to see any strong relationship between the independent voter participation in a town and the vote outcome there.

A single example: In one of McCain’s best towns (Hanover) and one of his worst towns (Salem), the share of Republican voters who were independents was identical, 36 percent.

Same story on the Democratic side that year. For instance, roughly 42 percent of Democratic primary voters were independents in both Keene and Hampton. Obama won Keene by 10 percent; Clinton won Hampton by 10 percent.

This seems to lend support to the position advocated by UNH’s Andrew Smith and others: that talking about New Hampshire’s independent voters as a monolithic bloc makes little sense, and that undeclared voters may actually be less independent than they’re alleged to be.

Geography as political destiny

In fact, if there’s any lesson to be drawn from an analysis of the 2008 primary returns, it may be the consistent ideological geography of the state, regardless of political party.

John McCain's biggest victories came in liberal enclaves like Hanover, Portsmouth and Concord. Romney's wins came in rock-ribbed Republican towns like Windham and Salem.

As we noted earlier, Obama drew the bulk of his support from western New Hampshire, the Concord area and the Seacoast. That closely mirrors the towns where McCain enjoyed his widest victory margins – including many of the state’s liberal centers, like Hanover, Portsmouth and Keene.

The same year, Clinton and Romney’s shared base was towns like Windham and Salem, the core of old-school, Southern Tier Republicanism.

Another interesting data point on independents, let’s take a closer look at the GOP race, particularly Rockingham and Hillsborough counties (the only counties in which McCain and Romney were competitive).  

While the two candidates' vote total was nearly equal there, Romney was much more likely to win in towns where undeclareds voted in the Republican primary at higher rates. In other words, Romney won those towns in which the independents were more “Republican-leaning” than the rest of the state, in keeping with his success in conservative cities and towns statewide.

Looking towards 2016

What does that tell us for the 2016 GOP primary? Who knows. The fractured nature of this current field, with one front runner and close to a half dozen potential second-place finishers, makes it hard to see this year’s Republican race through the same binary frame of the McCain/Romney campaign.

In addition, the current front runner -- Donald Trump -- doesn’t fit any conventional ideological frame, and his campaign claims that it will attract voters who rarely show up on election day. All of which adds a healthy dash of uncertainty to our ability to use past results to predict future outcomes.

That said, it's possible a candidate could cobble together a strong result -- a clear second-place finish, perhaps -- using McCain's '08 strategy: earn just enough votes in more left-leaning towns to edge out competitors who are scrapping it out in more conservative regions.