A Complicated Map To Victory: The New Hampshire Towns To Watch On Primary Day

Feb 10, 2020

Four years ago, the dynamics of the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary were elemental. Voters were either in with establishment frontrunner Hillary Clinton, or they joined forces with the outsider, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. In the end, the “outs” had it: Sanders won in a landslide, sweeping every county in the state by double-digit margins.

Sen. Bernie Sanders delivers his victory speech at Concord High School after a landslide win in the 2016 New Hampshire Democratic Primary
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

This time, the map to victory in New Hampshire may be more complicated for Sanders and his wide array of competitors.

No one expects the winner of this multi-candidate contest to win an outright majority.  During the past 30 years, winners of multi-candidate New Hampshire primaries typically have carried 30 to 40 percent of the vote.

For all the candidates -- fresh faces such as Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang, and familiar ones like Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren -- the path to victory (or at least an impressive showing) will depend on winning one or more smaller contests within the Granite State, across a variety of geographic and socioeconomic settings. 

As vote counts stream in from New Hampshire cities and towns on Primary Day, here are the areas that will prove decisive, and may even give us a hint of what’s to come in future Democratic primaries and November’s general election. 

Manchester and Nashua

Approximately one in eight primary votes will be cast in either Manchester (shown in photo) or Nashua, New Hampshire's two largest cities.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Approximately one out of eight primary voters likely will come from New Hampshire’s two largest cities, both of which are located along Interstate 93 in Hillsborough County. These two cities are more racially diverse than the rest of the state, and their residents hold a mix of blue-collar and white-collar occupations.

Twenty years ago, Al Gore depended on strong showings in Nashua and Manchester's working-class neighborhoods to fend off insurgent challenger Bill Bradley.

If Biden can repeat Gore’s success, he will do well in places like Manchester’s West Side (Wards 10 and 11), which State Sen. Lou D'Allesandro (a prominent Biden supporter) has represented for decades.

More affluent Democrats can be found both in Manchester’s First Ward and Nashua’s Ward 1. Results from here will give us a hint as to whether college-educated Democrats rallied behind one candidate or remained divided among several. 

Affluent Southern Tier suburbs

Voters in the affluent Manchester suburb of Bedford line up to register at the polls on Election Day, 2018
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Drive out of Manchester or Nashua, and you'll soon find yourself in one of a series of prosperous towns in Hillsborough and Rockingham counties, filled with well-educated, white-collar professionals.

Republicans expect to carry many of these areas in November’s general election, but Democrats live here too. The town of Bedford, for example, cast nearly twice as many Democratic primary votes in 2016 as the northern city of Berlin.

Four years ago, Sanders posted relatively poor results in Bedford and other affluent towns such as Amherst, Hollis and Windham. (You can add to that list Bow in Merrimack County and Exeter in Rockingham County). These places will give us a hint of whether upscale Democrats think Sanders is an acceptable nominee. 

Bernie’s backyard

New England presidential candidates tend to perform very well in their Granite State “backyard,” and Sanders was no exception to the rule in 2016. Sanders carried especially high percentages of primary voters up and down the Connecticut River Valley, along the Vermont border, from Cheshire County north to Grafton County.

This is a rural region, but unlike most of rural America, it’s a source of Democratic strength in general elections. It includes “college towns” such as Keene (home of Keene State College), Plymouth (Plymouth State University) and Hanover (Dartmouth College). But Sanders also did well in small rural towns such as Cornish and Walpole. (Story continues below map.)

MAP: Click on each town to see Bernie Sanders' vote share in the 2016 N.H. Primary

In the middle of this area sits the small city of Claremont. Barack Obama carried Claremont in the 2008 and 2012 general elections, but in 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton here. Observers seeking signs of white working-class opinion should look here, as well as Rochester and Somersworth on the other side of the state, and Berlin, in the North Country.

Claremont, where Barack Obama won in both 2008 and 2012, went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Credit NHPR Staff

If Sanders succeeds in winning back-to-back New Hampshire primaries, it might be tempting to dismiss his victory as a typical showing for a New England candidate. A deeper dive into voting returns from Granite State cities and towns, however, may offer us some clues as to the breadth and depth of Sanders’ support among (mainly white) Democrats, across socioeconomic divisions such as wealth and educational attainment. 

A Sanders victory that depends heavily on Vermont border counties, college towns and other areas dominated by progressives might yield little long-run momentum as the nomination contest moves to more diverse states.

But if Sanders is able to draw support from a wider cross-section of the Granite State, a New Hampshire win would be an early sign that he is building a more formidable army of supporters. 

Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire and a faculty fellow at UNH’s Carsey School of Public Policy , has observed the primary firsthand since 2000. He tweets @graniteprof .