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Newcomers And Economics Change New Hampshire's Political Geography

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Dean Feldman, Arun Biswas and Ryan Johnson have made it a point to attend Upper Valley appearances by a number of candidates.

Like Vermont, New Hampshire’s political landscape has changed over the years. And while the state now has a larger proportion of voters who hold more liberal views, there are still strong conservative areas.

Among the crowd that turned out on a rainy morning last week to see Republican candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a downtown Lebanon pub was Ryan Johnson, who’s been sizing up the GOP field.

“The two that are at the top of my list right now are [Ohio Gov. John] Kasich and [former Florida Gov. Jeb] Bush,” Johnson explained as he waited for Christie’s bus to arrive.

He’s ruled out the candidates from the other party.

“Bernie’s too much of a socialist for me. I can’t get behind Hillary,” says Johnson, whose political tastes seem well suited to Christie’s pitch to the moderate Republicans he’s trying to woo here.

Johnson and a group of his friends have made it a point to see as many of the candidates as they can, often posing for photos with them.

They says they’re interested in hearing what the candidates have to say. But Dean Feldman of Etna, another member of the group, senses a strong liberal tide in the Upper Valley. 

“I think you have a lot of Bernie voters in this area,” he says.

New Hampshire’s most reliable Republican area is the north, including Coos County along the upper Connecticut River. But as the river moves south, the towns along it show up bluest on the state’s political map, with the home of Dartmouth College at the epicenter.

"We used to have big unions in Manchester and Nashua. Those were solidly Democratic. Now they're sort up for grabs." - Neil Levesque, New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College

“Traditionally, Hanover, New Hampshire is the most liberal town in New Hampshire,” says Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College.

Politics in some Upper Valley towns used to be more conservative.

Roger Carroll, who grew up in the area, remembers a time when all of the state representatives from Lebanon were Republicans.

Carroll, who is editor of the Nashua Telegraph, says as housing prices around Hanover went up, the surrounding towns changed politically.

“As people who have come to work at the college or Dartmouth Hitchcock and tended to lean a little more liberal, find that they can’t afford to buy in Hanover, they end up going further out,” he says.

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Credit Steve Zind / VPR
Republican candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at a downtown pub in Lebanon, N.H. New Hampshire's largest voting block belongs to neither party; they're Independents who could vote in either primary.

The Upper Valley isn’t the only place that has gone through a political metamorphosis in recent decades.

“We used to have big unions in Manchester and Nashua. Those were solidly Democratic. Now they’re sort up for grabs,” says Levesque, referring to New Hampshire’s two largest cities.

According to a recent study by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy, the state has one of the most mobile populations in the nation. Fewer than half the residents were born in the state.

“Those towns along the border of Massachusetts, where people have moved up from Massachusetts, ironically, are the solid Republican towns,” says Levesque.

"This is, I think, the first primary I can remember where people don’t even know which primary they're voting in." - Roger Carroll, Nashua Telegraph editor

The University of New Hampshire study says 30 percent of the potential voters in the primary election were either too young to vote in 2008 or didn’t reside in the state.

And while different areas of the state may be colored red or blue, New Hampshire’s largest voting block belongs to neither party – they’re independents who could vote in either primary.

Carroll says Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are creating a unique situation for independent voters this year.

“This is, I think, the first primary I can remember where people don’t even know which primary they’re voting in. They’re torn between, ‘Do I vote in the Republican primary because there’s a big field?’ or, ‘Do I vote, because of the Sanders effect, in the Democratic primary?'” he says.

Carroll says because so many of New Hampshire’s independent voters are still undecided – even about which party’s primary they’ll vote in – polls and past voting trends may not be accurate predictors of Tuesday night’s results.

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