You’ve heard this refrain before, and you’ll hear it until votes are cast in November: The presidential election is all about the economy.
Even though Iowa caucus-goers diverged from the issue and focused on ideology, economic troubles are likely to return to the fore in New Hampshire. And despite the state’s relative economic strength, New Hampshire voters tend to look to national trends as they consider the Republican candidates crisscrossing the state in advance of Tuesday’s primary.
Compared to the nation, New Hampshire—like Iowa—is pretty well-off, economically. The diverse economy of the Granite State shielded it from the worst ravages of the recession. So did its population. The state is home to some of the most educated adults in the nation. Almost one-third have bachelor’s degrees, which cut their odds of unemployment in half. Above-average per capita income also gave the state’s residents a cushion of resources when harder times hit.
On perhaps the most important indicator, unemployment, New Hampshire is doing much better than the nation. The state’s jobless rate is 5.2 percent, closer to Iowa’s 5.7 percent than the national average of 8.6 percent.
But relative prosperity hasn’t shielded New Hampshire’s residents from the fear and uncertainty felt across the United States.
“The Great Recession has certainly put a scare into a lot of New Hampshire voters,” said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
They’re right to worry about the country’s economic woes. National and international economic issues will drive New Hampshire’s recovery in 2012. Concerns over Washington’s economic-policy impasse, the national deficit, and the impact of the European debt crisis on the state’s growing export market have subdued expectations for the election year.
The New England Economic Partnership, a nonprofit organization that provides economic analyses and forecasts, predicts that unemployment in New Hampshire will remain at 5.2 percent next year. The state’s business community forecasts a similar lack of growth. Less than one-third believe economic conditions will improve in 2012, compared with 44 percent who expect them to stay the same, according to an annual survey conducted by the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association in late October.
Concerns over stagnation in 2012 could explain why likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire identified the economy and jobs as the most important issues, according to the most-recent issues poll conducted by Suffolk University. Fifty-one percent rated jobs and the economy as their top concern, followed by 15 percent who cited reducing the national debt.
That’s more than 10 percent higher than the number of likely Iowa caucus-goers who said the economy was the most-important problem facing the country, according to a recent University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll.
“Voters’ priorities are different in Iowa and in New Hampshire,” said Scala. Iowans tend to be "values" voters as New Hampshirites focus on frugality and fiscal prudence, economic values touted by all of the GOP front-runners.
Support for those front-runners is likely to vary along with New Hampshire’s internal economic geography.
Iowa caucus winner Mitt Romney is likely to see the strongest support in the state’s southern tier. Located closer to Boston, the southern part of the state is its economic engine, with suburban residents that are more educated and affluent than their northern counterparts.
“You have a high concentration in New Hampshire of people with high income and also high technology, so [Mitt] Romney speaks to a lot of these people and their future needs,” said Ross Gittell, a professor of management at the Whittemore School of Business & Economics at the University of New Hampshire.
Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, on the other hand, are likely to see deeper support in the north and west, where the economy has traditionally been oriented toward the now-struggling timber and paper industries. “There are really two cultures in the state,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
Santorum’s call for a manufacturing revival may play well in the parts of the state whose residents feel left behind by the recovery, Scala said. The antiestablishment campaign of Paul, who placed third in Iowa, could also find support among those voters.
But the demographics of the state’s split cultures put Romney at the advantage. The richest counties in the south, where Romney has polled more strongly than he has statewide, make up about half of likely primary voters.
“Mitt Romney’s strategy really only has to be to break even in the north region, the north/west region, and the central region,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.
If the former Massachusetts governor can pick up some of the northern and western vote, which he is likely to do, particularly in the small but affluent northern enclave around Dartmouth College, he will be in good shape on Tuesday.