New Hampshire voters: A window on the loosening partisan grip nationwide?

The Granite State's decades-long 'purpling' could offer insights into a broader trend that dissociates political engagement from party affiliation.

Steven Porter/Staff
A woman and child leave a polling site in Manchester, N.H., on Tuesday morning, as swing-state voters cast ballots.

Joel Iwaskiewicz stands outside his designated polling place Tuesday morning, hoping to cast a swing-state ballot on his way into work. But a long line of voters stretches out the front door and down a sidewalk, winding between parked cars in the lot behind St. Pius X Catholic Church where he waits.

Mr. Iwaskiewicz counts himself among New Hampshire's independent voters.

"I think New Hampshire is a uniquely dynamic state in that you’ve got some really old-school conservative values," Iwaskiewicz tells The Christian Science Monitor. "You look at the 'Live Free or Die' state motto, and there’s something you could think of as deeply Libertarian there. But then I think you also have a very progressive vision for education, for civil rights, and you see New Hampshire kind of pushing at the forefront of movements in both of those areas as well."

Despite all the attention from presidential candidates during this campaign, polls show that New Hampshire voters closely split over who they will choose. This uncertain outcome can be attributed to a decades-long purpling of the state's voting trends – with more voters registered as independents than with either of the two major parties. On this election day, the state also offers a window on a broader nationwide trend – mirrored on both the left and the right – that dissociates political engagement from party affiliation.

Both campaigns have avidly wooed independents like Iwaskiewicz in the campaign's final days.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton held a rally in Manchester on Sunday, followed by Republican nominee Donald Trump on Monday, who declared, "It all began for me in New Hampshire" – a reference to the state's first-in-the-nation primary, which Mr. Trump won in February.

Pre-election polls showed Trump in a dead heat with Mrs. Clinton for New Hampshire's four electoral votes. Clinton – who lost the state's primary by a significant margin to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of neighboring Vermont – retains her lead in nationwide projections, so the relatively modest prize of the Granite State could be a must-win for Trump if he hopes to stack up enough electoral votes nationally to mount a viable challenge to Clinton's lead.

Iwaskiewicz says he'll vote Mrs. Clinton for president and Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, for US Senate to replace Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte – a vote in a key race that could help win the Democrats a majority in the Senate. While down-ballot candidates nationwide have been campaigning in the shadows of those running for the White House, political scholars say voters' presidential choices may not align with their picks for Congress, the governorship, and other offices.

"This is not a straight-ticket state any longer," Frank Cohen, an associate professor of political science at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., tells the Monitor.

Not since the late 1980s has New Hampshire been considered "bedrock Republican" territory, he says, explaining that the state's elections have seesawed back and forth between Republican and Democratic control in recent decades.

As demographics have shifted, New Hampshire voters have drifted toward the center, he says.

"In this state, I think it’s still important for Republicans and Democrats to come across as moderates," Dr. Cohen explains, suggesting that New Hampshire politics are far less polarized than the national level. Officially, 44 percent of N.H. voters are registered independent, compared to 30 percent Republicans and 26 percent Democrats.

Even voters who formally declare an affiliation with one major party or the other say they strive to reach a decision about each race without being swayed exclusively by partisanship.

"I think it’s more how we feel personally and what they can do for us," Noel Cassen says after she and her boyfriend, Tyler Brouillard, cast their ballots in Manchester. Both voted for Trump at the top of the ticket and some Democrats below.

Ms. Cassen tells the Monitor she had considered voting for Clinton as recently as a few days ago, but ultimately decided Trump would have a better shot at shaking things up in Washington.

Rising populism and a shift away from party loyalty has happened on both ends of the political spectrum in this election cycle, as the Monitor's Harry Bruinius reported last month, highlighting Black Lives Matter activists:

For all the national attention it often gets, the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement’s politics of disruption, ironically, often overlap with some of the values of the right: decentralizing power and focussing on local, rather than national solutions.

The movement maintains a deep commitment to the integrity of local chapters, rejecting top-down leadership. In conversations, many activists call theirs a “leaderfull” movement of equals – a legacy of the Occupy Wall Street movement. They organize intentionally at a local level, without visible national figureheads or charismatic leaders to represent them.

Back in Manchester and across town, Sheryl Putney, a registered Democrat, says she has always split her ballot. "It doesn’t matter whether they say they’re Republican or they’re Democrat or they’re independent," she says. "I always go by the best candidate."

Tuesday marks the first time she has ever voted for Democrats exclusively, straight down the ballot – after assessing that each was the best candidate in their respective race, Ms. Putney adds.

While it is common for voters to claim they are less influenced than their peers by partisan politics, some scholars say the generalization conveys at least a bit of truth in this swing state.

"New Hampshire voters are very sophisticated and tend to be pretty independent, and they actually pay a lot more attention to politics than other parts of the country," Dr. Mary Malone, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, tells the Monitor.

Cohen, at Franklin Pierce University, attributes that to the state's long-standing tradition of holding the first primaries of each election cycle.

"These folks are used to retail politics," Cohen says. "It’s a small state. They’ve seen these candidates speak. They’ve seen lots of appearances. They’re pretty conscientious voters."

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