The Fundamentals of the New Hampshire Primary

Last night’s caucuses in Iowa apparently succeeded in thinning out the GOP herd: Bachmann’s out, Perry’s returning to Texas to “reflect” for a while, and Jon Huntsman was less than a hundred votes away from officially receiving 0%.* It seems we’ve finally reached the point where the race can be discussed in terms of more than just Ron Paul’s eyebrows, Rick Perry’s arsenal, or Michele Bachmann’s steadfast opposition to the concept of “facts”. And so in honor of the occasion, I present the first installment of my commentary on the 2012 elections.

Today, I’m in a Granite State of mind.** I’ve always liked New Hampshire. Growing up just over the MA border, it was where everyone went for tax free shopping, illicit fireworks, socialized liquor distribution, better skiing, and vacations when you didn’t have the money to buy plane tickets. I still have many friends there and get back as often as I can, and even wonder whether this will be the year I finally make it up Mt. Washington.***

So it’s been something of a personal peeve to me that in nearly all the coverage of the NH primary (both this year and in previous cycles), commentators have either treated the state as (a) a quirky, unrepresentative backwater with inflated electoral power, or (b) a mystical land of cold-tempered sages who control our political destinies. While I hate to be a buzzkill, the reality is that New Hampshire is just a regular state, with regular people, which has traditionally held the first primary and which continues to do so because nobody’s found a politically feasible way to change that yet.

To understand what the NH primary actually means, it’s important to take a more precise look at what distinguishes New Hampshire relative to the rest of the country. Two main idiosyncrasies tend to come up with regard to this year’s primary. First, because of New Hampshire’s size, many discussions are premised upon the idea that it isn’t representative of the broader electorate. And second, Romney is widely expected to win in New Hampshire because it’s in the former MA governor’s “backyard.” To see whether those ideas hold water, I decided to turn to something rarely found in recent coverage: actual data.

Data 2008 and 2012 surveys

Click image to zoom

Because of the wide variation in survey methodology across polls (which makes it hard to compare polls’ results to one another or to national-level data) and the scarcity of raw data, I decided to turn to the 2008 National Annenberg Election Survey. While the NAES’s state-level sample size is smaller than I’d like, it provides the ability to compare responses across groups and states beyond what’s possible with individual primary election polls. And just as importantly, the NAES contains a wide array of variables providing highly-detailed responses, so the resulting data can be directly compared to data from other sources—in this case, the results of the Iowa caucus entrance polls. (While using 2008 data in the context of the 2012 race naturally introduces some degree of error, in this context it’s unlikely to be a major concern: my interest is in the prevalence of certain “fundamental” variables that are highly-stable from year to year.)

I’ve tallied the results of questions on the NAES which correspond with those found on the Iowa entrance polls, and present results for all respondents in (a) New Hampshire and (b) the US as a whole, then provide the same results for (c) GOP primary voters nationwide in 2008 and (d) Iowa caucusgoers in 2012. First, some observations about the uniqueness of New Hampshire’s residents:

  • In terms of race and ethnicity, NH is much more representative of the broader electorate than one might think. It is indeed much more likely to be white, non-hispanic, and native-born than the rest of the country, but in the context of analyzing the GOP primary, that hardly makes a difference—all three groups are similarly overrepresented among 2008 primary voters and made up the vast majority of this year’s caucusgoers as well.
  • With regard to age, education, and income, NH differs only modestly from national averages.
  • The biggest difference in terms of demographics is the low prevalence of evangelicals in NH, at less than half the national average.
  • Politically, NH residents are far more likely to call themselves independent than others, but this matters more in terms of identity than ideology: the number of self-identified conservatives is only slightly below the national average, and the proportion of those who call themselves “very conservative” is similar.
  • The much higher rate of independent identification does not mean NH is full of moderates—breaking the data down further (not shown), the percentage of respondents describing themselves as “moderate” is less than 4 points higher in NH than elsewhere. While there may be some differences in ideology, they’re not nearly as extreme as the party identification rates might suggest.

So when looking at the GOP primary, New Hampshire isn’t nearly the backwater many imagine it to be. With the (admittedly big) exception of the rates of evangelicalism, New Hampshire actually does a fairly good job of reflecting the broader electorate. Given that the main argument for the value of the NH primary is that New Hampshire’s small size forces candidates to engage in on-the-ground campaigning and allows the voters to learn about the candidates, it’s hard to think of another state so small in both population and geography that would better serve as a stand-in for the rest of the country.

This leads into the second point I brought up above—whether Romney’s presumed strength in New Hampshire is due to proximity. This notion has always seemed suspect to me, since Romney was never that popular in Massachusetts, and there’s nothing in his record that would specifically appeal to the New Hampshire GOP (given that his only notable accomplishment was enacting universal healthcare with an individual mandate). Considering the fundamentals in New Hampshire alongside the cross-tabs of the Iowa entrance poll, Romney’s supposed advantage would be more plausibly attributed to the characteristics of NH voters, especially in contrast to Iowa’s caucusgoers:

  • In terms of race, ethnicity, and age, there’s little reason to suspect that these will have much impact on the outcome.
  • But Romney does stand to do well in NH due to a greater number of college graduates and high-income households in NH than in the rest of the country, both groups which favored Romney in Iowa.****
  • With regard to religion, NH has very few evangelicals, while Iowa is at the opposite end of the spectrum (57% of caucusgoers). Given that non-evangelicals supported Romney at nearly three times the rate of evangelicals, this is a huge advantage for him in NH.
  • Nearly half of Iowa’s caucusgoers identified as “very conservative”, but that pattern almost certainly won’t repeat in NH. Given that Romney does much better with moderate and slightly conservative voters, Romney is again in a stronger position in NH than he was in Iowa, and to a lesser extent should do better in NH than in the rest of the country as well for the same reason.
  • Though Ron Paul triumphed among independent caucusgoers in Iowa, Romney came in second with independents. Barring an unlikely Ron Paul landslide, the high number of independents in NH should also give Romney an edge over his opponents.

So with all of those factors considered, a strong showing by Romney in New Hampshire would be likely no matter where he came from. At best, he might get a bit of a boost from increased name recognition, but those benefits would be minimal given his prominence in the campaign and his 2008 run—all else equal, by now he would be very well known in New Hampshire whether he had been governor of Massachusetts or Montana. But even if he were helped to some degree by familiarity, it would not do him much good if he weren’t already a match for the state’s electorate. After all, as he’s become more known throughout the country during this campaign, it hasn’t appeared to help him at all with voters; as often as not, those who find out who he is learn that they’d rather have someone else.

Finally, what does this mean for the other candidates? For many of the same reasons Romney does well in New Hampshire, Santorum should suffer relative to his Iowa performance—though such a decline could be somewhat offset if he gets most of Perry’s and Bachmann’s supporters (who appear most similar to his own in terms of fundamentals), and maybe a few of Gingrich’s as well. The wildcard here is Ron Paul: given the independent nature of NH voters, he should conceivably do better there than most other places, but his eccentricities (both personal and political) suggest a ceiling in his potential support. He received 8% of the NH vote in 2008 and stands to improve upon that next week, but it’s hard to see him becoming truly competitive on a national scale—South Carolina won’t be nearly so welcoming as New Hampshire.

Notes: Continue reading

A “Reasonable Conversation” about Voters, Taxes, and Campaign Strategy

Most anyone who’s talked politics with me after the sun’s gone down knows about my obsession with the intersection of bad policy and good politics. One of the common themes of these rants is about taxes: the conventional wisdom for decades has been for candidates to compete over who wants to cut taxes the most, without acknowledging that tax cuts necessitate either spending cuts or budget deficits. It’s an incredibly simple equation, but few candidates ever acknowledge the tradeoffs involved.

My instinct has usually been to blame the voters. The only reason candidates would do this, I figured, was because voters are willing to believe they can really get something for nothing, that taxes only serve to line the pockets of government bureaucrats and politicians (and don’t pay for, say, Social Security or education). So you can imagine my surprise at seeing this today:

The brief summary: Pew did a national poll which found that only 30% of respondents wanted to extend all of the Bush tax cuts, while 27% wanted to repeal them for the wealthiest taxpayers, and the plurality (31%) wanted to repeal ALL of the tax cuts (including, presumably, the ones which affect the respondents themselves!).

This is pretty amazing. We could argue to no end about the reasonableness of (effectively) raising taxes during a recession, but that’s not the point. Nor are the exact numbers themselves gospel–I imagine more than a few respondents are reacting to the “Bush” part of “Bush tax cuts”, and the option of sticking it to the unspecified “wealthy” does summon the populist rage in a bipartisan fashion. What’s really important here is that, while Democratic lawmakers are clamoring to get on the tax cut bandwagon (or off of the tax increase bandwagon, if you’re thinking about attack ads), Americans appear willing to have a reasonable conversation about taxes—that is, one in which raising taxes is at least on the table.

“Willing to have a reasonable conversation”… I won’t begrudge anyone who wants to call me cynical for that one. But in political science, this is actually one of the most fundamental questions: do voters know what’s best? We know that many voters are not particularly well-informed when it comes to policy, and as such, will often use shortcuts (including partisanship, endorsements, and candidate behavior) in deciding their vote. And in their defense, this is a perfectly rational thing to do–given the influence a single voter has over the political process, becoming well-informed about policy is simply not worth the effort for anyone who doesn’t enjoy the process for its own sake. And moreover, even those whose job it is to make policy still require the services of experts when considering proposed legislation, because the scope of government policy-making is too broad for anyone to have a full understanding of all its parts. So expecting the average voter to have a robust understanding of policy is not particularly reasonable.

In reality, the outcome is always somewhat muddled–voters vary widely in the amount and quality of information they hold about policy, and act accordingly. But given the pocketbook appeal of tax cuts and the public’s general disdain for government spending (waste and inefficiency aside, most everyone’s tax dollars at least partially fund things they oppose), along with the pundrity’s dire warnings against raising taxes in a recession, it’s remarkable that a clear majority of voters are open to raising at least some taxes. And moreover, many are willing to pay more out of their own pockets. I’d have to see more data to see what this means:

  • is it the budget deficit worrying voters?
  • do they want better services (healthcare, Social Security, education, or others) and are tired of hearing that there’s no money for them?
  • are they simply reacting against the Bush-era economic policies in general, in light of their results? (The same poll shows that only 29% think Bush’s economic policies would be better right now than Obama’s.)

Regardless where it comes from, though, this trend in public opinion (assuming it’s confirmed by subsequent polls) throws the conventional wisdom on its head. There’s been talk of Obama and the Democrats in Congress attempting to steal the populist mantle back this fall by campaigning on a platform of increased taxes on the rich (a theme from Obama’s 2008 campaign, as well) and using the revenue to rein in the deficit and help out the working and middle classes. Until now I’d been doubtful–the attack ads and talking points write themselves–but perhaps it’s not as crazy to propose raising taxes as it once was. Now we just need to wait and see which candidates have the cajones to actually try it.