In N.H. Democratic Primary, Small Towns Gain Electoral Sway

Jan 11, 2016

Voters in New Hampshire's smaller towns have been growing as a share of overall turnout in Democratic presidential primaries, edging out voters from bigger cities.
Credit NHPR Staff

There is a certain mystique to the New Hampshire presidential primary: flinty New Englanders trudging to the polls through snow and cold to be the first voters in the nation to cast their ballots. That earnest, Norman Rockwell image applies to how candidates are expected to campaign in the Granite State: shaking hands at coffee shops; chatting with locals at small-town diners; courting activists one by one.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump is breaking all those New Hampshire rules, mostly eschewing retail politicking in favor of big rallies. But for Democrats, newly available data shows the primary is actually moving closer to that platonic ideal of small-town democracy. For the past several decades, the influence of New Hampshire’s big cities has been waning in the Democratic contest, while small-and medium-sized towns have been gaining sway. These shifts are significant enough that they’re changing how Democrats campaign in the Granite State. Think more Madison and Northfield, less Manchester and Nashua.

We can see this shift in the town-level election returns over the years. In the 1980 race between incumbent Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy, New Hampshire’s 10 largest cities accounted for 44 percent of Democratic votes, while the state’s smallest towns contributed less than 25 percent. By 2008, this ratio had flipped, with both small and midsize towns exceeding the larger cities in terms of total votes.

And by the time Hillary Clinton edged Barack Obama in 2008, just 31 percent of Democratic votes came from what are now the state’s 10 largest cities. The rest was split evenly between the medium-sized (35 percent) and the smallest (34 percent) towns

New Hampshire's mid- and small-sized towns have eclipsed the state's largest cities as the share of all votes in Democratic presidential primaries.
Credit MassINC Polling Group

While Manchester, Nashua, Concord, and other cities are growing and will remain the largest electoral prizes, they’re being outpaced by an increase in Democratic voting in smaller towns, mostly further north. Both the middle tier of towns (those with populations of 6,400 to 24,000) and the smallest towns (fewer than 6,400) have now surpassed the big cities in terms of their influence on the Democratic primary.

Part of this can be explained by population growth. New Hampshire’s smaller towns have increased relatively faster in population than larger cities. But there also appears to be a shift within the smaller towns toward more participation in the Democratic primary rather than the Republican contest.

This suggests that an electoral strategy focused primarily on the state’s cities is increasingly tenuous for Democrats. To be sure, big cities still hold considerable sway. But with the smaller towns flexing more political muscle, candidates cannot afford to focus solely on the major population centers. With polls showing a tight contest between Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, candidates will be looking for every advantage.

It is at least questionable whether 2016 Democratic race will follow the precedent set in 2008, when small towns outvoted the cities. The 2008 election may have been an outlier--it was the only race since 1980 with two competitive primaries in which the Democratic race drew more voters than the Republican one. Turnout soared compared to 2000, in part because of an uptick in Democratic voter registration in the state, and in part because more undeclared voters chose to pick up a Democratic ballot. This year, with an active battle underway on the Republican side, some of these voters may go to the Republican side in 2016.

Credit MassINC Polling Group

On the Republican side, the breakdown is looking much the same as it ever has. Smaller towns make up the largest share of the vote (38 percent) followed by midsized towns (35 percent) and larger cities (27 percent). Unlike the Democratic primary, which has been steadily changing, the geography of the Republican vote hasn’t changed much in three decades.

But even without a big turnout on the Republican side, the power shift towards smaller towns is likely to continue for Democrats. And with it, the reality of the New Hampshire primary inches closer to that mythic image we’ve long held in our heads.

Note: The data in this analysis comes from NH Election Stats, a new online database of state election results developed and maintained by NHPR. To explore the database, go here.

Steve Koczela is President of The MassINC Polling Group and writes regularly for NHPR on the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary. Rich Parr contributed to this report. They can be found on Twitter at @skoczela and @richparr79.