This piece was originally intended as an op-ed for the Union-Leader. However, they did not pick it up. Therefore, I’m running it here.
Why did Republicans do poorly in the last state elections in New Hampshire? There is no shortage of theories, but what has been lacking is any attempt to test those theories on the evidence.
One of the most popular claims, from both Democrats and parts of the Republican establishment, is that the Republican legislature of 2011-12, particularly the state house under Speaker Bill O’Brien, was overly conservative or libertarian. Here’s what former Republican state chair Fergus Cullen had to say in the Union-Leader right after the election (“Will NH Republicans learn the lessons from Tuesday?,” November 8, 2012): “The drag on the ticket was the motley crew of insular Tea Partiers, Free Staters, birthers, Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists, and borderline anarchists calling themselves Libertarians who dominated the Republican majority in the Legislature, led recklessly by soon-to-be ex-Speaker Bill O’Brien.”
Is that true? If it were, then Republican candidates for state house would have done worse than the Romney-Ryan ticket at the top, as some share of voters decided to punish alleged “extremist” state house candidates while still voting for the moderate-conservative Republican presidential ticket. Did that actually happen?
In a word: no. But don’t take my word for it: look at the final data posted by the Secretary of State. Statewide, Republicans received 1,084,642 votes for state house candidates, 51.3% of the total – a majority! By contrast, Romney-Ryan received only 46.4% of the presidential vote in New Hampshire. Gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne won only 42.5% of the vote.
These figures might be misleading, however, because New Hampshire has many multimember and floterial districts, so some voters end up casting more votes than others for state house, depending on where they live. A better approach is to focus on single-member, non-floterial house districts, comparing votes for state house and presidential candidates in just those districts.
When we do this, looking only at the 49 house races statewide in which one Democrat and one Republican competed, we find that GOP candidates received, on average, 44.0% of the two-party state house vote in those districts. In those same districts, the GOP presidential ticket received only 42.9% of the two-party presidential vote.
Thus, Republican state house candidates ran slightly ahead of the presidential ticket, in some cases well ahead. For instance, in Carroll 1, the Republican house candidate ran ahead of Romney-Ryan by 21.2 percentage points. Coos 4, Sullivan 7, Grafton 6, Sullivan 8, and Cheshire 3 are other districts in which the Republican state house candidate ran at least five percentage points ahead of the top of the ticket. By contrast, Sullivan 2, Stratford 7, and Stratford 12 are the only districts in which Republican state house candidates ran more than five points behind the top of the ticket.
So why did Republicans lose the state house? Because of the national political environment, which favored a modestly popular incumbent Democratic president. Political scientist Steven Rogers has found that presidential approval is the most important determinant of the president’s party’s state legislative candidates’ success. (The ominous implications of this fact for democratic accountability at the state level are a topic for another day.) Republicans everywhere were swimming against the tide. They narrowly kept the state senate in New Hampshire only because state senate districts were gerrymandered in their favor.
Whatever voters were doing on November 6, they weren’t punishing the Republican state house. Fergus Cullen’s smear of New Hampshire’s respected, hard-working libertarian legislators like Jenn Coffey, Carol and Dan McGuire, and Mark Warden – who, if anything, are pulling the party in the direction it needs to go to win in New Hampshire – is totally unmoored from reality.