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Three Democrats Have A Big Built-In Advantage in New Hampshire

The New Hampshire primary is one of the biggest prizes of the 2020 presidential campaign. Every candidate would like to win it, but four may have a built-in advantage: They already have a lot in common with Granite State voters because they’re from just next door.

This year, four presidential candidates hail from a state that borders New Hampshire: Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the Democratic side and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld on the Republican side. And candidates from right next door have historically overperformed in the New Hampshire primary compared with how they did nationally.

Going back to the start of the modern primary system in 1972, I identified nine “major”1 candidates who have run in the New Hampshire primary and who were from either New Hampshire or the neighboring states of Maine, Massachusetts or Vermont. (It turns out none of the candidates from New Hampshire met our “major” threshold, so we’re talking exclusively about neighboring candidates from here on out.) Of the nine, six finished in first place, and three finished in second. In other words, when politicians from neighboring states contest the New Hampshire primary, they win it 67 percent of the time, and impressively, they have always finished in the top two.

Home cooking helps in the New Hampshire primary

Nine “major” presidential candidates from New Hampshire or neighboring states who have run in the New Hampshire primary since 1972

NH Primary Result
Year Party Candidate Home State Vote Share Finish
1972 D Ed Muskie Maine 46% 1st
1980 D Ted Kennedy Massachusetts 37 2nd
1988 D Michael Dukakis Massachusetts 36 1st
1992 D Paul Tsongas Massachusetts 33 1st
2004 D John Kerry Massachusetts 38 1st
2004 D Howard Dean Vermont 26 2nd
2008 R Mitt Romney Massachusetts 32 2nd
2012 R Mitt Romney Massachusetts 39 1st
2016 D Bernie Sanders Vermont 60 1st

“Major” candidates were those included in national polls

Sources: CQ Press, New Hampshire secretary of state

Needless to say, that’s a remarkable batting average.

So what could be happening here? One possible explanation is that these candidates just happened to be stronger overall. There’s evidence for that — their national polling average usually hovered around 20 points.2 But all nine still outperformed that national polling average in the New Hampshire primary — by a lot, actually (19 points, on average). This was also reflected in their New Hampshire polling average in the 30 days leading up to the primary — all nine candidates we looked at consistently polled higher in New Hampshire than they did nationally. Meanwhile, candidates not from the area overperformed in New Hampshire by just 1 point, on average.

That suggests that these neighboring candidates did indeed have special appeal in the Granite State. One plausible theory to explain why is that fellow New Englanders share a cultural and political identity with New Hampshirites — things like its colonial heritage, reverence for town government and love for Dunkin’ and the Red Sox. A Californian or a Floridian may simply find it harder to relate.

New England is also physically small, with six states packed into an area smaller than South Dakota. The New Hampshire border is roughly a 30-minute drive from Boston, an hour from Portland, Maine, and an hour and a half from Burlington, Vermont, making it easy and cheap for candidates from those places to campaign in the Granite State. For the same reason, it’s often easier for these candidates to build relationships with New Hampshire elites; some have even plugged into the state’s fundraising or volunteer network years earlier to boost their nascent political careers.

There’s also plenty of data that shows how New Hampshire is economically and socially integrated with its neighbors. For instance, census data shows that most New Hampshire residents are transplants from other states or countries, with neighboring Massachusetts the most common state of origin. According to 2017 estimates from the American Community Survey, 25 percent of New Hampshire residents were born in Massachusetts.3 Additionally, 16 percent of New Hampshire workers aged 16 or higher work out of state, most of them in Massachusetts.

Finally, all of New Hampshire is covered by an out-of-state broadcast media market. That’s important because, when Maine, Massachusetts or Vermont politicians are featured on their local news, they also get exposure across the border. Again, Massachusetts enjoys the biggest piece of the pie: 84 percent of New Hampshire’s population gets Boston TV stations. The rest are in either the Portland or Burlington media markets.

For all these reasons, New Hampshire primary voters are likely to have more familiarity with presidential candidates from neighboring states, but especially Massachusetts. And in fact, most of the politicians in our table hail from the Bay State, including the three who used their New Hampshire victory as a springboard to the nomination: Michael Dukakis in 1988, John Kerry in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2012. New Hampshire’s prime spot on the primary calendar may even be one of the reasons that Massachusetts has produced a disproportionate number of presidential candidates (although keep in mind that our sample size is pretty small).

And it’s quite possible that 2020 will be another good year for local candidates in New Hampshire, with Sanders and Warren among the top contenders for the Democratic nomination. Then again, with a field this large, it’s hard to know what will happen; the streak of candidates from neighboring states always finishing in the top two in New Hampshire might finally come to an end. (In fact, with three next-door candidates currently in the race, it has to — unless one of them drops out before the primary.) Moulton seems the likeliest to not finish in the top two, although none of the three should take anything for granted. And while Weld may technically finish second to President Trump in New Hampshire, he seems destined to lose by a wide margin — home-field advantage can only take you so far. Bad teams still lose at home, and some political forces remain too strong to overcome.

From ABC News:

‘We have a weak commander-in-chief’ in Trump: 2020 candidate Moulton

Geoffrey Skelley contributed research.


  1. I am not using the definition we developed this year to determine whether a presidential candidate is “major.” Instead, I am defining “major” to mean that a candidate was serious enough that they were included in national polling at the time. This led to the exclusion of at least 30 quixotic candidates from the four states. I also did not count write-in candidates. Lastly, I did not include George H.W. Bush, whom one of my sources listed as a Mainer in 1988, because most sources consider Texas to be his home state.

  2. Based on all polls conducted in the 30 days before the New Hampshire primary in a given year.

  3. Three percent of New Hampshire residents were born in Maine, and 2 percent in Vermont.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.