In N.H. Democratic Primaries, is Geography Electoral Destiny?

Dec 4, 2015

On NHPR.org this afternoon, you'll find a set of maps that illustrate the outcomes of the state’s past few Democratic president primaries. And as NHPR continues to follow this year’s competitive Democratic field, the maps add some context for what it takes to win the state – including how Hillary Clinton edged out Barack Obama 8 years ago. NHPR’s Senior Editor for Politics Dan Barrick spoke today with All Things Considered host Peter Biello about the maps, and what they might tell us about the 2016 outcome.

Biello: So we talk about the New Hampshire Primary, this big statewide political party every four years. But there’s a lot going on underneath that statewide umbrella.

Barrick: That’s right. Candidates fight it out from town to town – and when you look at those town level results, you rarely see a random checkerboard – candidates tend to roll up wins in broad chunks or regions of the state. And this reflects two factors: One, how much time and energy that candidate is actually spending in a certain part of NH. Lavishing attention on Manchester or the Upper Valley, for instance. But it’s also a result of some pretty ingrained voting patterns in the state. And that becomes clear when you map election outcomes town by town, for several elections over several years.  

So let’s look at some examples, on the Democratic side for now: The race has Clinton and Sanders at the top. That 1-2 dynamic has been the norm for several primaries now, right?

Yes. We had Obama/Clinton in 2008. Howard Dean and John Kerry in 2004, even Bill Bradley and Al Gore in 2000. This is an over-simplification, of course, but in general all those races pitted more liberal outsider candidates, Sanders, Obama, Dean – against a more establishment candidate – Clinton and Kerry. And in all those cases, the way the votes broke down geographically across NH was remarkably similar.

And a map can show me that?

Yes -- start by drawing a big diagonal slash across the state, say from Conway or so, southwest to Keene. The more liberal candidate tends to sweep the left part of that divide – so much of the Upper Valley and Monadnock regions, and pieces of the North Country. Their opponent – and eventual winner of the primary, has won southeastern NH. There are some anomalies to that divide too. Liberals also have performed well in left-leaning centers like Durham and Concord. But recent history shows that the winners of the NH Democratic primary have to perform well – very well – in old mill cities like Manchester, Nashua, and Rochester, and the heavily-populated, vote rich towns in the Southern Tier – Salem , Pelham, etc.

That’s where the majority of the population lives of course.

Right. But it’s not just enough to win those towns. Hillary Clinton, for instance, in 2008, racked up huge victory margins in places like Derry and Salem and Nashua – and Manchester – her vote margin there accounted for close to half of her victory margin over Obama. So racking up big wins in those vote rich towns has really been the key for a Democrat looking to win in New Hampshire. As loyally liberal as many of the Upper Valley and south-western NH towns are, there just aren’t enough people there to overcome a big showing in the Southern Tier.

What does this tell us about how the 2016 Democratic primary might turn out?

If past patterns hold, Sanders' base of support will be in western New Hampshire, particularly the towns bordering his home state of Vermont. But he'll have to chip into Clinton's margin in densely populated southeastern New Hampshire if he wants to remain competitive. He'll probably also need to scoop up more votes than Obama did in places like Manchester and Rochester, bastions of blue-collar Democrats.

So we can look at Clinton's and Sanders' campaign schedules to get a sense of how this geography might be shaping their strategies this year.

And you mapped that too.

Yup. If you overlay the candidates’ campaign stops over the map of the 2008 primary results, you see that Sanders has made a handful of visits to places where Clinton won big 8 years ago, like Greater Manchester. But he's largely avoided campaigning in southern border towns, and has spent the bulk of his time in the more liberal, pro-Obama places in the Concord area, the Seacoast and the Connecticut River Valley.

And barring some kind of huge turnout in those towns, they probably won't be enough to push him past Clinton come February.

You can find all of NHPR’s primary coverage, including these election maps, at nhpr.org. 

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