On Wednesday, October 25th, 2020, Andrew Smith, the Director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center and Professor of Practice in the UNH Department of Political Science spoke with Dartmouth students and community members for the Rockefeller Center’s seventh Rocky Watch event of the term. Rocky Watch is a weekly series of live broadcasts that foster a virtual common space for community discussion in this time of social distancing and remote learning.
Professor Smith’s lecture discussed the 2020 elections, with a focus on important races in New Hampshire and their potential to cause a “sea change” in New Hampshire politics.
Professor Smith began the talk with an assessment of the state of American politics. He observes that in the past 20 years the United States has seen a marked increase in partisanship and “no holds barred political conflict.” There are only around “half a dozen competitive battleground states” remaining in the U.S. and polarization has led to a bitterly divided, gridlocked government. Smith characterizes the 2020 presidential election as being a “replay” of the 2016 election in the sense that neither President Trump nor Vice President Biden, like Sec. Clinton, are popular.
COVID-19, Smith believes, has been a major shock to the American political system. “Donald Trump had a really strong chance of being reelected” prior to the COVID pandemic, Smith asserts. However, “perceptions of [Trump’s] handling of COVID are not good nationally,” and this has helped to give Biden a +9% lead nationally.
After discussing national politics, Smith proceeded to examine the impact that New Hampshire could have on the 2020 presidential elections. New Hampshire, Smith concedes, is a small state with only 4 electoral votes. Unsurprisingly, when it comes to evaluating the importance of New Hampshire in the general election, this prompts many to ask: “why bother?’ However, with the Democratic and Republican Parties close to evenly matched nationally, New Hampshire’s 4 electoral votes have had a decisive impact on presidential elections. “Everybody fears 2000,” Smith says, when President Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore in New Hampshire by 7,200 votes. Victory in New Hampshire allowed Bush to barely win the election, with 271 electoral votes.
New Hampshire’s state elections present a complicated picture. Smith explains that the state’s economy has been improving and that it has been trending towards democrats “for decades, but [it is] still close.” Republican Governor Chris Sununu and Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen are both popular in the state, while President Trump is “even more” unpopular in New Hampshire than he is nationally. The campaign of Corky Messner, Sen. Shaheen’s opponent, has floundered in recent months and several of its “top people have just resigned.” With that in mind, Shaheen has a strong chance of being reelected.
Governor Sununu has an approval rating of about 70% due to his competent handling of the coronavirus outbreak. His opponent, Dan Feltes, has cut into Sununu’s lead but has struggled to make himself known across the state. With Sununu’s support standing “at 62%,” he is poised to win reelection.
What is most interesting to Smith, however, are the races in the NH state legislature and the NH Executive Council. “You want to win majorities in your legislatures in years that end with zero,” Smith says. This is because those are the years “that the census comes out and you draw the districts for the next ten years.” New Hampshire republicans controlled the legislature in both 2000 and 2010, allowing them to district the state in a way that gave them a structural advantage in elections. Presently, democrats need “53-54% of the popular vote” to win majorities in the NH state legislature. If democrats win the NH state legislature in 2020, however, they will draw the districts in a way that will be unfavorable for republicans. This could create a “sea change” in New Hampshire politics, tilting the state towards democrats for the next decade.
Finally, Smith discussed one of the greatest challenges he has faced polling the 2020 election: the ‘shy Trump voter’. The ‘shy Trump voter’ is a widely observed phenomenon of Trump supporters being unwilling to discuss their support of the President with pollsters. Smith examines this issue through the “lens of sociological theory and public opinion.” In German elections, for example, research indicates that if voters perceive their candidate as less popular they will be less likely to “talk about that candidate at a cocktail party,” “put on a bumper sticker” promoting that candidate, and, of course, “talk with the pollster” about their support for that candidate. President Trump, who has never had a net positive national favorability rating, may be experiencing that effect in polling. This may understate Trump’s support in polls.
Smith has tried to measure the ‘shy Trump voter’ effect in the NH electorate through polling voters on their level of comfort with visibly supporting their preferred candidate through yard signs and other paraphernalia. Interestingly, he has found that Trump voters are less likely to feel comfortable showing support for the President.
Building on this, in a recent poll Smith conducted asking NH residents to name the candidate they believe their neighbors support, a majority said President Trump. Interestingly, Biden was found to have a “12-percentage point lead” over Trump in the same poll.
Written by Ben Vagle ’22, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs
Rocky Talk Podcast w/ Andrew Smith: Apple Podcasts and Spotify.