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Campaign 2012

N.H. could be decisive battleground

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigned in Pennsylvania on the eve of his return to New Hampshire. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images) Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigned in Pennsylvania on the eve of his return to New Hampshire.
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / April 24, 2012
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WASHINGTON - New Hampshire offers a mere four electoral votes. But President Obama and Mitt Romney are fiercely pursuing the hearts and minds of the Granite State’s notoriously finicky electorate in a race that could come down to the wire in November.

New Hampshire is seen as one of about 14 swing states in this election, and the only one in New England. Obama visited the state twice in the last five months; Michelle Obama was in Concord last month, and Vice President Joe Biden has been to the state three times this year.

For Romney, the significance of New Hampshire is personal as well as political. The state is home to his summer residence and was the launch pad of his candidacy last summer. He was a regular visitor before the hotly contested primary in January. And Tuesday night, instead of celebrating in one of the five states holding a primary that day, Romney is returning to the Granite State for a speech and a victory party that his campaign considers his official pivot to the general election.

It all means the state that traditionally gets showered with attention during the primaries is still enjoying the limelight.

“We’re not used to seeing a presidential campaign up here,’’ said Linda Fowler, a political science professor at Dartmouth College. “We’re a tiny state and our four puny electoral votes don’t attract attention. But they are this time.’’

Winning New Hampshire would give Obama some wiggle room to lose other key states. Some scenarios show that if he is able to win New Hampshire as well as several Rust Belt states, he could lose Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and perhaps even Ohio and retain the White House.

But if Romney is able to win Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio, as well as the core states Republicans traditionally win, he would be four electoral votes shy of the White House. Winning those “puny’’ four New Hampshire electoral votes would push him over the top.

Such general election tension was once rare for the first-in-the-nation primary state. For decades, through the 1970s and 1980s, New Hampshire was a reliable Republican vote. Even ties to neighboring Massachusetts, where many New Hampshire residents work and used to live, didn’t break the trend. Michael Dukakis, the last Massachusetts governor to run for president, was trounced in 1988 by George H.W. Bush in New Hampshire by 26 points.

But New Hampshire has changed over the years, and volatility has increased. Three of the past five elections have been decided by 1 point or less. If Al Gore in 2000 had won an additional 8,000 votes in New Hampshire, he would have become president.

Reversals illustrate the point. In 2008, Obama beat John McCain by nearly 10 points, only to have the state shift sharply to the right in the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans flipped both chambers in the State House and ousted Democrats from both congressional seats.

The political inconsistencies have made the state not only the sole swing vote in Democratic-dominated New England, but also one of the few political barometers for the broader electorate. If Romney cannot win over independents in New Hampshire, for example, it won’t bode well for him winning them over in states in the Midwest.

Recent poll results show the race to be a tossup in New Hampshire. A Dartmouth College poll earlier this month, conducted by the Rockefeller Center, had Romney with a narrow lead over Obama, 43.9 percent to 42.4 percent, with 13.7 percent undecided. The result was within the survey’s 4.9 percent margin of error. The WMUR Granite State poll released Monday had the president leading among likely voters, 51 percent to 42 percent. That poll was conducted by the University of New Hampshire.

Obama has some advantages in New Hampshire this year. Although the economy remains a top concern for voters, the state’s jobless rate and other indicators are much better than in other parts of the country.

Obama also appears to have a much more robust campaign operation, with more staff on the ground and more offices where volunteers gather for phone calls and canvassing.

“I don’t know what they’re doing all day, but we’re told they have something like eight or 10 offices and 30 or 40 full-time staff,’’ said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the state Republican Party. “Romney, it’s safe to say, pulled up the stakes in January and hasn’t had much activity here since.’’

Obama campaign officials are staging “welcome’’ rallies on Tuesday afternoon. They are promoting a hashtag on Twitter - called #SinceMitt’sBeenGone - to highlight some of the things Romney has said while campaigning since the New Hampshire primary in January.

Romney also has several advantages. Voters concerned with the economy are likely to be receptive to his message focused on that issue. Unlike other parts of the country where voters are skeptical of Romney, New Hampshire has consistently offered him fairly high favorability ratings.

Romney, who has a home on Lake Winnipesaukee, announced his presidential campaign in the state 11 months ago and had lavished attention on the state before the primary.

The former Massachusetts governor will deliver a speech titled “A Better America Begins Tonight’’ at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester on Tuesday. Romney is expected to carry all five states voting Tuesday - Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, and Delaware - and plans to use a nationally televised address to firmly transition to the general election.

“New Hampshire is where we kicked off the campaign. That’s where it all began,’’ said Jim Merrill, who is Romney’s senior New Hampshire strategist. “In a sense this is us coming full circle, coming back to New Hampshire to meet with voters in a key battleground state and kick off the general.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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