Politically Thinking: Granite State offers hints to Dems

New Hampshire was a key to the Democratic resurgence from 2004 to 2008. John Kerry won the state in the 2004 presidential election, the same year Democrat John Lynch defeated a Republican incumbent to become New Hampshire’s governor. In 2006, Democrats Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter defeated incumbent Republicans to win New Hampshire’s two congressional seats. In November 2008, Barack Obama won New Hampshire, while Democrat Jeanne Shaheen defeated incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. John Sununu.

A poll of Granite State voters conducted by the University of New Hampshire a few weeks ago shows that the state is up for grabs in 2010. Republicans could end up winning both U.S. House seats and a U.S. Senate seat in November. This poll sends warning signs to Democrats not just in New Hampshire, but in many of the swing states and districts that Democratic House and Senate candidates, and President Obama, won in 2006 and 2008.

Obama’s approval rating in New Hampshire has fallen from 65 percent when he was inaugurated to 48 percent in early February 2010. Kerry and Obama won the last two presidential elections in New Hampshire because they received a majority of the votes of independents, those who do not consider themselves either Republicans or Democrats. When he was inaugurated, Obama’s approval among New Hampshire independents was 66 percent. Today, only 39 percent of New Hampshire independents approve of the president’s performance.

The drop in support for Obama among independents is closely related to those voters’ disapproval of the president’s performance on the economy. Only 29 percent of New Hampshire independents approve of Obama’s economic performance. Disapproval of Obama on the economy is particularly strong among two constituencies that are important for Democratic victories in New Hampshire: lower-middle-income men who have not graduated from college, and senior citizens.

Dissatisfaction with Obama, especially on economic issues, is translating into poor poll results for New Hampshire Democratic candidates in this year’s House and Senate races. Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes is seeking the Senate seat now held by Republican Judd Gregg, who is not running for re-election. While the Republican candidate will not be selected until a primary later in the year, Hodes is running behind the best-known GOP candidate, Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, by 8 points, larger than the poll’s margin of error. UNH poll director Andrew Smith believes Hodes will have difficulty winning the Senate seat, since he does not poll above 40 percent, even in trial heats against relatively unknown Republican candidates.

Former congressman Charles Bass, whom Hodes defeated in 2006, has indicated that he will likely run for the first district House seat that Hodes is vacating. While Bass may face a primary challenger, and while several candidates will contend for the Democratic nomination in this open seat, the UNH poll shows that Bass would be the leading candidate in November. Bass leads possible Democratic candidates by margins of 7 to 11 percent.

Democrat Carol Shea-Porter is seeking re-election in New Hampshire’s second congressional district. Voters in her district disapprove of her performance by 40 to 35 percent. Since October 2009, her net favorability rating has dropped from plus-11 to minus-5. Like Hodes, Shea-Porter is unable to poll above 40 percent against relatively unknown Republican candidates, an ominous sign for her re-election prospects.

The Democratic candidates’ hopes for winning the New Hampshire House and Senate seats may very well depend on a much faster economic recovery than nearly any reputable economist is willing to predict.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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