Given the Granite State's first-in-the-nation primary status and its reputation for fiercely independent voters, it's not surprising how much attention the miniscule northeastern state is receiving from this year's presidential candidates. "Despite the fact that in 2010 Republicans won virtually every office, New Hampshire in 2012 is acting a lot like the New Hampshire of four years ago when Democrats swept the state," says Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "It's a battleground state to be sure."
Though 270 electoral votes are needed to clinch the White House, the closeness of the race means New Hampshire's four electoral votes could be the key in determining the outcome on Election Day. Since 1980, New Hampshire residents have only voted for one failed presidential candidate and that was Sen. John Kerry in 2004, who hails from neighboring state Massachusetts. Few people outside of New Hampshire remember that if Democrat Al Gore hadn't lost the state by about 7,000 votes in 2000, the hanging-chad sideshow in Florida would have been irrelevant and Republican George W. Bush would not have been the 43rd president.
A recent Granite State Poll shows President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney deadlocked in the state with 12 percent of voters undecided, a jump from the 4 percent undecided in August. Similar to national polling, respondents give Obama higher personal approval marks than Romney, but a fair number are withholding support for the president due to concerns over the economy.
Though Obama won the state in 2008, Romney's campaign is optimistic about their chances. Romney built strong ties to the state as governor of neighboring Massachusetts. He also owns a vacation home in Wolfeboro, N.H. and is making his presence known there with nine campaign offices across the state. Romney has held 15 events in New Hampshire since securing the GOP nomination in late April. He also campaigned heavily in the state leading up to the Jan. 10 primary, which he won handily with 39 percent of the vote. Romney has held 107 events during 34 trips since launching his White House bid in 2011, according to his campaign.
Not to be outdone, the Obama campaign also has a robust ground operation in New Hampshire, with a total of 22 campaign offices statewide. The president, first lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden have made 11 trips to the state since the beginning of 2012, according to the Obama campaign.
Many of the state's stereotypes still hold true, local political leaders on both sides of the aisle say. The state's population is slightly older, whiter, and less religious than most of the country.
Voters are perennially concerned with fiscal issues, such as the economy, jobs, and government spending despite an unemployment rate in the state well below the national average, 5.7 percent compared to 8.1 percent.
Each of the Democrat and the Republican gubernatorial candidates seeking to replace an extraordinarily popular conservative Democrat have already signed "the pledge," as it's known locally, vowing to oppose implementing a sales or income tax. "Basically, we are a very frugal state," says Wayne MacDonald, the state GOP chairman. "That [pledge] is still very much part of our governing philosophy."
The Granite State's ingrained aversion to taxes would appear to benefit the Romney campaign, which is touting a tax plan that would cut individual rates by 20 percent, but local campaign hands say it will take more than that to win over voters.
With a statewide population of just 1.3 million, voters expect their doors to be knocked on and for candidates up and down the ballot to swing through their coffee shops. "Personal contact is very important," says Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat and former governor. That contact matters most with independent voters, the largest, most influential—and influenced—voting bloc in New Hampshire, she adds.
Those independent voters are fickle, too. In 2006 and 2008, everything fell to the Democrats. In 2006, for example, Democrats unseated the two Republican congressmen. But in 2010, Tea Party fever struck. Both Democratic House incumbents lost to Republicans and the Sarah Palin-endorsed Kelly Ayotte, who has proven to be a rising GOP star on the national stage, ascended to the U.S. Senate. Additionally, voters elected a more socially conservative crop of state legislators than the state has seen for some time.
So despite the old political maxims that hold, there are new factors in play when it comes to New Hampshire politics, which cuts both ways in the presidential campaign. Like their national counterparts, the two political parties have become more divergent over the years, most notably among the GOP. Some of the libertarian, Rockefeller Republican-types that have ruled the local party for decades have fallen in favor of a crop of more socially-oriented conservatives.
Neil Levesque, director of St. Anselm Institute of Politics, says New Hampshire Republicans used to be large landowners in rural areas, but due to recent migration from other states, New Hampshire has become more regionally divided. "Those people were escaping big government and taxes and now those areas are solidly Republican. And the towns out towards the Connecticut River for example, have gone the way of Vermont and it's become very much a Democratic stronghold," he says.
When it comes to the presidential election, there are a few things to keep in mind, local experts say. Notably, despite Romney's close ties to the area and near-constant campaign presence in recent years, New Hampshire voters aren't giving him the same support they gave Kerry in 2004. Though Romney handily won this year's primary, he lost to Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008.
Democrats may also be exploiting social issues to gain an advantage, both in pumping up voter enthusiasm and in converting conservative and independent women voters to Obama supporters. "There's been a surprising amount of talk about social issues, such as abortion and even contraception, in New Hampshire that began in the spring," says Scala thanks to bills debated in the state legislature. "Republicans here tend to be libertarian and are ambivalent about issues like gay marriage and abortion so those social issues tend to fracture the Republican base, whereas economic issues or tax issues can historically fracture the Democratic base," he says.
Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, adds that Republicans may be in trouble in the Granite state because, among other things, the legislature voted to cut state university funding—already the lowest in the nation—in half.
MacDonald, Buckley's Republican counterpart, says the battle lines are drawn and all that remains now is execution. "It's certainly with independents where the challenge lies and Republicans have done well most of the time making that case," he says. "In 2006 we didn't. But 2010 was a different story and we're working on making our case with the independents right now and we feel confident we can do well in 2012."
Given New Hampshire's penchant for picking winners, the whole country is eager to know where the independents fall.
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Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter.