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  •   Prosperity Alters Politics in New Hampshire

    By Terry M. Neal and Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, March 21, 1999; Page A3

    CONCORD, N.H. The formula for political success in New Hampshire as the 1990s began was to tap into the anger and anxiety of a state plagued with economic despair. It worked well enough to put Patrick J. Buchanan and Bill Clinton on the national map.

    But New Hampshire is a changed place from eight years ago, or even four for that matter. As the next millennium approaches, winning the presidential primary here will require a strategy that appeals to an electorate that is more diverse, wealthier and focused on a more eclectic range of issues than the tax and economic ones that have long dominated.

    Today, New Hampshire is the fastest growing New England state and its unemployment rate is the lowest. More than 60 percent of residents were born elsewhere, and on average, they are wealthier than those who have left. The high-tech industry is replacing manufacturing as the economic base.

    On the political side, Democrats have broken the GOP's stranglehold on the state, leaving this year's crop of Republican presidential candidates without all the usual political power bases to tap into. The political shift presents Democratic contenders, particularly Vice President Gore, with a rare opportunity to mine a surprisingly well-developed, energized party infrastructure.

    And here's the real shocker: The state's tax-obsessed voters are calling education, not taxes, their number one concern--although the two issues are very much intertwined because voters face for the first time a broad-based tax to finance public education.

    In short, New Hampshire is starting to look more like the rest of the country.

    "We're not the conservative state we used to be," said state Senate President Clesson "Junie" Blaisdell, a Democrat whose party won a majority in the state Senate last year for the first time since 1912. "Education is the big issue. We've got a university system that needs help, problems with our Section 8 [public housing] program, a growing elderly population and a $6 billion state budget."

    Because of its long-held status as the nation's first presidential primary state and its uncanny knack for picking winners, New Hampshire has continued to have an outsized influence on the national political scene. That influence could grow even more next year.

    A number of states have pushed up their presidential primaries to within weeks of New Hampshire's mid-February contest. California, for instance, will hold its primary on the same day in early March--instead of in June--that New York and several other states will vote.

    Political analysts say the front-loading magnifies the importance of New Hampshire and Iowa, which holds the nation's first caucus Feb. 7. Not only do candidates count on the boost--and free media--from doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire, those that don't perform particularly well there now will have little time to recover before the next round.

    More than a dozen potential presidential candidates have been traipsing to New Hampshire for months, putting together campaign organizations and meeting voters. It is too early to predict which candidates' messages will resonate the most with voters. While taxes and the economy will continue to be important issues here, candidates are likely to find an electorate that, like much of the rest of America, cites education, health care and quality-of-life issues as equal or even bigger concerns.

    "The kinds of complaints you get in good economic times are back," said New Hampshire-based pollster Dick Bennett, president of the nonpartisan American Research Group. "People are complaining about traffic jams, about not having enough time in the day to do things, about growth and the impact of too much construction--the type of things that even in '96 they weren't talking about. It's amazing to see."

    The increasing number of out-of-staters settling here, particularly in the southern part of the state, has diversified the interests of the electorate.

    "A lot of these immigrants want the natural beauty and the low density and the uncomplicated small-town life," said Linda Fowler, a professor at Dartmouth College. "That's why they left Massachusetts. It hasn't just been a tax-evasion move but a quality-of-life issue too."

    The state's unemployment is less than 3 percent and per capita income is eighth in the country. Last year, aggregate personal income in the state was $34 billion, up from $24 billion in 1992. And average housing prices finally have started to creep back up to the Reagan-era $140,000, after dropping below $110,000 in 1992, according to the Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

    In recession year 1992, candidates found the state facing hard times. Unemployment was high and the state's manufacturing base devastated. In candidate forums in town halls and living rooms, it was not uncommon for residents to break down crying as they told tales of losing their jobs and their homes, of being forced to decide between medicine and food.

    Clinton's 1992 performance here is legendary because his famously emphatic bearing soothed people who were less concerned about the recent Gennifer Flowers revelations as they were about what he would do to help the state recover. Using a completely different style and message, Buchanan appealed to voters by beating up on President George Bush's economic policies with his populist, nationalist message.

    Both men finished second in the state's primaries but gained national prominence by exceeding expectations. Clinton, who dubbed himself "The Comeback Kid," went on to capture the nomination. He also won the state in the general election in a rare victory for a Democrat. Buchanan received 37 percent of the vote to Bush's 53 percent, but Bush's unimpressive showing did lasting damage to him.

    Until Clinton's second-place showing in 1992, no candidate had gone on to win the presidency without first having won New Hampshire. Voters rewarded him again in 1996 by giving him a victory over Robert J. Dole in the general election.

    "As far as I'm concerned, New Hampshire doesn't even deserve to be first in the nation anymore after voting for Bill Clinton twice," quipped one Republican resident, 70-year-old Lois Bealieu of Newmarket.

    But former Democratic Party chairman Jeff Woodburn said: "There's just a love affair with him in this state because New Hampshire brought him up when he was struggling with Gennifer Flowers."

    The economy continued to be a dominant issue in 1996, even as the state was well into its recovery from the recession. Today, the economy and taxes barely register as top issues. In a December poll, Bennett found that only 4 percent of respondents said the economy was the most important problem facing New Hampshire and 20 percent cited high property taxes. But education funding was the number one answer at 50 percent.

    One issue dominating state politics has thrust the education issue out front. The state Supreme Court, in a ruling known as the Claremont decision, deemed the system of funding education through local property taxes as unconstitutional because it penalizes children living in property-poor communities. The state is under court order to devise a new, more equitable school funding plan by April 1.

    Earlier this month, the state House narrowly approved the state's first income tax. But Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat overwhelmingly reelected to a second two-year term, is vowing to veto any broad-based tax. Now the Senate is examining a range of funding options including increasing the liquor tax, allowing slot machines at state racetracks, raising business taxes or creating a 4 percent sales tax. Recent polls in the state show it is a hot topic of debate. A survey commissioned by two newspapers found that 57 percent of those polled oppose an income tax, but 60 percent support a fairer tax system than the current one based on local property taxes.

    Some Republican presidential candidates already have tried to mine the Claremont topic as an early campaign issue. Many voters have reacted negatively, two pollsters said, because they consider it a state issue. On the other hand, the pollsters said, candidates might find the broad topic of education fertile ground in 2000.

    Many of the new migrants come from Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. The median income of those coming into the state exceeds those leaving by about $1,000. Although many came to escape high taxes, they are well-educated, highly skilled workers who expect a top-notch education system.

    "People move into the state expecting a certain level of services, the largest of which is education," said Bruce Berke, a top adviser to Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) who is organizing support for presidential candidate Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio). "That's the one they have the highest expectation for, and it costs the most."

    Shaheen, who in 1996 became the first Democratic governor in nearly two decades, has been hailed by leaders in both parties as a talented strategist who has moved her party to the middle while portraying Republicans as right-wing extremists. Unlike most Democratic gubernatorial candidates, she signed a pledge not to push for a broad-based tax. That has allowed her to talk about education, health care and other issues without being branded a liberal.

    Shaheen has not endorsed anyone yet but her husband, Bill, is overseeing Gore's in-state campaign.

    "We have not had a Democratic governor and a Democratic president at the same time in a generation," said state Rep. Raymond Buckley, a Democratic whip. "It shows people we can accomplish things."

    But despite Shaheen's success and the Democratic takeover of the state Senate, Republicans still control both U.S. Senate and House seats. And Republicans say Gore will have to prove himself to voters with his own record. "[Former Republican governor] Steve Merrill had every bit as high a rating as Shaheen does, but Dole couldn't ride his coattails," said state House Majority Leader Gene G. Chandler.

    Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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