Exeter, N.H. — The Republican Party in New England's only "red state" may be going the way of the Old Man of the Mountain, the craggy icon of independence that crumbled a few years back in a rock slide.
In the last election, Democrats took both seats in Congress for the first time in nearly a century and both houses of the legislature for the first time since 1874. Democratic Gov. John Lynch won a second term with a record 74 percent of the vote, and lawmakers recently authorized same-sex civil unions and a smoking ban in bars and restaurants.
The shift, driven by an influx of new residents, injects a new dynamic into the first-in-the-nation presidential primary here Tuesday. In 2000, some 62 percent of New Hampshire's independent voters – who can take part in either party's primary – cast a ballot in the GOP race, lifting Sen. John McCain to victory.
This time, however, the proportions may well be reversed. As many as two-thirds of independents at the polls Tuesday are expected to vote Democratic, shrinking the pool of free-thinking, late-deciding voters responsible for Senator McCain's triumph in 2000 and throwing a windfall to Sen. Barack Obama, who was buoyed by independents in Iowa.
The shifting political landscape is mainly a product of demographics. New Hampshire is the fastest-growing state in New England, growing more than 6 percent since 2000 as the Massachusetts suburbs sprawl northward, baby boomers retire to their second homes, and vibrant high-tech and healthcare industries draw affluent city dwellers from across the country.
Around Dartmouth College in Hanover, gleaming new buildings of startup companies poke out from the woods. Upscale retirement communities with names like RiverWoods are booming. And in cities like Manchester, long-vacant mill buildings have been remade into lofts and office space.
About 145,000 of the newcomers from 2001 to 2006 were of voting age – nearly 15 percent of the electorate. "A lot of people who are going to be voting in this primary weren't even here five years ago," says Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire.
Andrew Smith, a pollster at the university, says, "they're coming from the mid-Atlantic, and they're largely highly educated, liberal Democrats."
Mike Cauble, a hospital administrator, and his wife sold their house outside Boston in 2000 after retiring and moved to a town not far from Lake Winnipesaukee, a magnet for affluent retirees "from away." Mr. Cauble started his town's first Democratic committee and in 2006, he says, his county sent five Democrats to the legislature, up from zero in 2000.
"Our bumper sticker used to read 'Courage is a Carroll County Democrat,' implying you really had to have courage because we really were a minority," he says. "About two years ago, we switched it to 'Pride is a Carroll County Democrat.' "
On Sunday afternoon, Obama came hunting for votes in Exeter, a onetime GOP stronghold and a birthplace of the Republican Party. (The brick building that hosted the fateful meeting 155 years ago still bears a plaque declaring it the site at which "The Republican Party was first so named," but the lower floor is now home to an organic tea shop and yoga studio.)
The state's changing politics is not just the result of population growth. Ellen Johnson, an independent who voted for McCain in the 2000 primary, was one of the hundreds of people who turned out Sunday to hear Obama at Exeter High School. Turned off by what she called the "arrogance" of the Bush administration, Ms. Johnson, a teacher, says she is now considering Obama and Senator Clinton.
The leftward drift of independents like Johnson whittles the comfort zone for McCain, who was in a statistical tie with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney among registered Republicans in a poll released Sunday. But it is a boon to Obama, who leads Clinton by wide margins among independents, though until very recently had trailed her among registered Democrats.
Even so, not everyone is singing a requiem for New Hampshire's GOP. Registered Republicans are now outnumbered by independents, but still hold an edge over Democrats.
Charlie Arlinghaus, a former executive director of the state Republican Party, sees the leftward shift as cyclical and notes that many newcomers from Massachusetts are conservative. A Boston Globe poll of Bay State transplants in 2006 found that the third biggest reason for their move to New Hampshire – after housing costs and taxes – was the complaint that Massachusetts was too liberal.
"I would argue that the political changes are very subtle," Mr. Arlinghaus says. "What has happened more than anything else is that the swing voters have turned entirely Democrat."