Understanding the NH House Elections of 2012

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.

13 thoughts on “Understanding the NH House Elections of 2012

  1. Do you find any sort of geographic correlation with where the local state house Republicans ran ahead of the Romney-Ryan ticket? Or an ideological correlation based on their voting records (which I believe is being tracked by one of the groups associated with the FSP)?

    1. No, I haven’t done anything nearly that sophisticated, in part because the voting data are in a difficult-to-use format. However, just eyeballing the data made it clear that incumbency helped some Republican reps (just a few). One of the worst incumbent Republican performers was Spec Bowers, a strongly conservative-libertarian native. But perhaps that had something to do with his opponent.

      1. Ah incumbency.

        Gottling previously served as an incumbent, the incumbent Bowers defeated two years ago. So I’m assuming she benefits from some incumbency as well.

    1. Not sure what you mean, Bill. The 2010 election was in a very different environment. The proper baseline for assessing NH House candidates’ relative performance is performance by other candidates in their same districts among the same voters, no?

      1. Agreed. Sadly, this is something that most field/campaign folk totally ignore. You get a lot of campaigns running down ticket from a Presidential race comparing their performance to a historical baseline that’s an average of the last few cycles, including non-Presidential. To paraphrase the President, you didn’t build that. Even at a higher level like Congressional or Senate, the turnout is being driven largely by presidential performance.

  2. I was recently speaking with a Republican former state senator whom I know quite well, and even he made a passing slam against the crazy free-staters in the House. I pressed him for examples, and he could only come up with non-free-stater crazies. We suffered from an “availability cascade”–a few high-profile national incidents (“legitimate rape”) and local overreach (maybe guns in the state house and on college campuses) kept the crazy-GOP meme in the news, facilitated of course by Democratic Party activists.

    In his “GOP should stop being the stupid party” interview with Politico, Bobby Jindal said, “It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments — enough of that.” NH legislators should likewise bear in mind the effect of some of their more creative bills on their parties’ brands.

    The anti-science faction of the Stupid Party didn’t help, the anti-vaxxers and global warming deniers. Neither did the hater faction. The GOP’s problems are many, and it is the libertarian faction that offers a positive, rational message.

  3. You may be asking two different questions here. I am very financially conservative (read cheap), socially liberall, all NH. I am never going to vote for anyone who is using their religion to rule. I am never going to vote for someone who is racist, sexist, or homophobic. I realize these are not Free-State ideals, but they do seem to be Republican ideals. So, the Republican party tends to lose me.

    Cheap as I am, I am willing to recognize the existence of disabilites, the need for education, and the need for a judicial system to protect each other. I am definitely am not saying they are always right, or well run, but they are necessary, but in an improved form. So even though I often agree with Free Staters on less regulation, protection from police (I am from Weare), I feel I need a more moderate choce between no regulation and too much regulation.

    And then, of course, the true Free Staters who came here as part of a plan to take over NH because it is a small state, just really bring out the ornery in me, and I’m not going to vote for them.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Barbara. Most libertarians do recognize a role for government, including the areas you mention. I don’t believe the Free State Project’s intent is to “take over” because NH is a small state. The FSP’s goal is to get 20,000 people to move, which would still be a tiny percentage of the state population. The idea is really to be reinforcements for local libertarians.

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