After months of speeches, debates, hand shaking, baby kissing , and all the other political gestures that we’ve all come to love(?), we’ve finally reached the New Hampshire primary—the first primary election held in the United States. Together with the Iowa caucuses (which we profiled last week), the New Hampshire primary is one of the most important events in a presidential election year, creating momentum for some campaigns, while killing it for others. (As we mentioned previously, every candidate that has won both Iowa and New Hampshire has gone on to win the nomination; only George McGovern (D) in 1972 and Bill Clinton (D) in 1992 won the nomination after losing both).
This article provides some background on this event for our readers who (perhaps like ourselves only hours ago) know very little about this primary, and who wonder why such a small state has such a large role in the nomination process.
While primaries are normally either “open” (e.g., allowing all voters, regardless of party identification, to vote in either party’s primary) or “closed” (e.g., allowing only registered party members to vote in their party’s primary), New Hampshire is often called “semi-closed” in that people registered in one party can’t vote for the other, but “undeclared” voters who are not officially registered in either party can vote in either. Like general elections, voting is done entirely by secret ballot, with the state’s 12 delegates being divided among the candidates with the most votes through proportional representation.
Compared to the Iowa caucuses, turnout for the New Hampshire primary is very high. In 2008, 527,350 people (51.3% of the total voting population in the state) voted, with 287,557 voters in the Democratic primary and 239,793 in the Republican primary. These numbers are comparable with national voter turnout in a typical general election, which normally hovers around the 50% mark.
For this year’s primary, the turnout will undoubtedly be much lower as a result of having only one contested primary. (Democrats will also have a primary, but the 13 challengers to President Obama are weak, to say the least.) To get some sense of the expected level of turnout in this year’s primary, we have to look back to 2004, when Bush was running for reelection as an incumbent. In that election, 29.2% of the voting population turned out: 219,787 on the Democratic side, and 67,624 of the Republican side.
The following table shows in graphical form the percentage of the total voting population that has voted in the past 3 presidential primaries:
Sources: Presidential Primary Election Results, Federal Election Commission, 2000, 2004, and 2008; “Annual Estimates of the Resident Population by Sex and Age for States: April 1, 2000, to July 1, 2009,” US Census Bureau, June 2010.
Finally, it must also be noted that the voters who participate in New Hampshire differ from those in Iowa: whereas the Iowa caucuses tend to attract party activists and donors, the “semi-closed” primary rules in New Hampshire has the effect of attracting more independents, even taking into account the fact that the majority of these “undeclared” voters actually self-identify as either Republicans or Democrats (as polling data from the University of New Hampshire has shown).
How representative is the population to the US as a whole?
Finally, as we did with Iowa, we wanted to look at the social/economic/demographic characteristics of the population in New Hampshire to get some sense of how representative it is to the US as a whole. (We accept that almost no state is perfectly representative, but it is useful to get a sense of how far a given state is from the mean).
Starting with economics, New Hampshire is clearly better off than most other states in the U.S. According to survey data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the median household income of $63,033 (in 2009 inflation-adjusted dollars) far exceeds the US average of $51,425. And like Iowa, the unemployment rate is low relative the rest of the country: at 5.2%, New Hampshire has the 4th lowest unemployment rate in the country at 5.2%, well below the US average of 8.6%.
Turning to demographics, as the next chart makes clear, the population in New Hampshire (like Iowa) is remarkably homogeneous with 94.8% white, followed by Asians (1.9%) and Blacks (1.1%).
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2005-2009 American Community Survey
In terms of education, New Hampshire is much more highly educated than the US average, with 90.5% graduating high school (compared to US average of 84.6%) and 32.4% receiving a bachelor’s degree or higher (compared to US average of 27.5%).
In short, in many ways New Hampshire is not representative of the rest of the country. The question is: does it matter? Should candidacies be made or undone based on the preferences of one small New England state? We’ll leave that for you to discuss.