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Granite State Update

Along with Ohio and Colorado, New Hampshire became a state emblematic of the Democratic resurgence after 2004. What used to be a contrarian, moderately conservative state dominated by Republicans in very short order flipped decisively to the Democrats: its state legislature, governor, two US House seats and one Senate seat all changing partisan hands in a very short span of two election cycles. Most of you elections junkies will recall that NH was the lone New England state to hold out for George W. Bush in 2000, and had it not America might never have known what a hanging chad is. John Kerry eked out a win in the Granite State in 2004–the only state he won that Al Gore lost–and by 2008 Barack Obama was carrying every NH county as he cruised to a nearly 10-point victory against an opponent who had enjoyed great electoral successes there.

The Granite State has been making electoral headlines again of late, but the story now–just two years after Obama’s big victory there, as well as the re-election of fellow Dems including Gov. John Lynch, Rep. Hodes and Rep. Carol Shea-Porter–is whether Democrats can hold onto their recently-obtained power. Both House seats are listed by various prognosticators as toss-up or slightly leaning to one party or the other, for example. But it is Senate matchup between Democrat Paul Hodes (who abandoned his House seat to run) and Republican Kelly Ayotte that attracted national attention when Sarah Palin got involved in the race by endorsing Ayotte.

That endorsement has puzzled some, in part because Ayotte doesn’t seem like a Palin-esque Republican in a state that one might suspect an endorsement from the former vice presidential candidate to backfire. Here’s an excerpt from David Frum’s recent musings on this electoral development, who formulates three possible explanations for why Ayotte, who is a conservative that nevertheless has supported many moderate positions, got Palin’s blessing and whether it’s good for her or for Palin:

How then did Ayotte gain the Palin endorsement?

Three theories:

1) The “early states” theory. Palin wants to earn favors in early primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina. In those states she is endorsing likely winners even when (as with Iowa’s Terry Brandstad) that likely winner tilts more to the middle than Palin’s current political identity.

2) The “go with the winner” theory. Palin is seeking to make herself look more powerful within the party by claiming credit for other people’s successes.

3) The “woo women” theory. Palin has endorsed women candidates against men she might have been expected to prefer: eg Carly Fiorina over Chuck DeVore in California. These endorsements enabled and justified Palin’s recent “Mama Grizzlies” ad. By positioning herself as a champion of women in politics, Palin distracts attention from one important weakness of any Palin candidacy: her unpopularity among women voters…

Whatever Palin’s motives, the conventional wisdom is that Ayotte’s gambit has backfired: That she aligned herself with Palin unnecessarily, and in doing so is caused voters who might otherwise want to lash out at incumbents, or at Democrats, or to send a message to the White House (voting against Hodes would accomplish all of these) to pause and rethink the race.

Enter Dante Scala*, one of the state’s–no, nation’s–top political scientists on matters electoral. In his GraniteProf blog, Scala compared the two most recent NH Senate polls–one by Public Policy Polling, followed shortly thereafter by one from his UNH colleague Andrew Smith–and concluded:

The new UNH Granite State poll, conducted by my colleague Andrew Smith, provides little support for the notion that Sarah Palin’s endorsement last week had some sort of immediate, Kryptonite-like effect on GOP Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte.

But it does hold some measure of good news for Paul Hodes, whose campaign has been anxiously watched by fellow Democrats for signs of life.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Public Policy Polling’s survey suggested Hodes was having problems consolidating his base among New Hampshire liberals. UNH shows just the opposite.

Scala concludes that Palin’s effect has been to consolidate base support on both sides–liberals to Hodes, conservatives to Ayotte. OK, no surprise there. What’s going to be interesting, if future or post-election polling can tease it out, is whether in a state like New Hampshire that’s supposedly chock-full of contrarian, non-partisan moderates the introduction of Palin into the race nationalizes it, and if it does, whether doing so helps or hurts a candidate like Kelly Ayotte.

For that reason alone–not to mention the recent swing of New Hampshire from red to blue, and the fact that this is a predominantly white state so there will be no effect from drop-off or return of Obama’s minority “surge” voters–this is going to be a great race to watch over the next three months. Buckle up.

*Those of you junkies who are already gearing up for the 2012 primaries should get your hands on a copy of Scala’s Stormy Weather, the definitive scholarly book on the New Hampshire primary.