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Though The Republican Base Has Shifted South, N.H. Primary Keeps A Role05:47
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When Republican candidates are not in New Hampshire, they often show off their socially conservative credentials. Not so much in the Granite State. Here, GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, a Texas senator, speaks at the Republican Leadership Summit on April 18 in Nashua, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP)
When Republican candidates are not in New Hampshire, they often show off their socially conservative credentials. Not so much in the Granite State. Here, GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, a Texas senator, speaks at the Republican Leadership Summit on April 18 in Nashua, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

The 2016 presidential election is a big birthday for the New Hampshire primary, as it turns 100.

The state's first presidential primary was held in 1916, when old-school Yankee Republicans dominated New England. Since then, the GOP has shifted South. And modern New Hampshire Republicans are far more socially progressive than their fellow Republican kin across the country.

As the national GOP brand has evolved, what's the role of the New Hampshire GOP presidential primary in 2016?

A Different Emphasis Elsewhere

When Republican candidates are not in New Hampshire, they often fervently show off their conservative credentials.

"When I was the solicitor general of Texas, I was proud to defend the Ten Commandments monument on the state capitol grounds,” Ted Cruz told a crowd last month at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference.

Jeb Bush, usually more religiously tepid, was just as eager.

“We should not push aside those that do believe in traditional marriage. I, for one, believe it's important,” he told the same Washington conference.

And his fellow Floridian presidential candidate, Marco Rubio, expressed a similar message. “You cannot have strong families with a government that strong-arms parents and our faith,” he told the conference, to applause.

But catch Cruz, Bush or Rubio in New Hampshire, and they're likely to talk about the economy, ISIS and Obamacare.

When Republican presidential candidates swing through New Hampshire, social issues are on the back burner.

In Iowa, Carly Fiorina seems to be trying to make abortion a major campaign issue. But at a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire, she only mentioned abortion when a voter directly asked her about it. Here she is in Derry, N.H. on May 26. (Jim Cole/AP)
In Iowa, Carly Fiorina seems to be trying to make abortion a major campaign issue. But at a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire, she only mentioned abortion when a voter directly asked her about it. Here she is in Derry, N.H. on May 26. (Jim Cole/AP)

Take Carly Fiorina. In Iowa, she seems to be trying to make abortion a major campaign issue. But at a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire, she only mentioned abortion when a voter directly asked her about it.

That voter was Andrea Alexander, and she says a candidate's abortion position is a litmus test for many of her friends. "The Republicans have to nail that,” Alexander said. “If you're anti-Roe v. Wade, goodbye."

Alexander personally disagrees with Fiorina's opposition to abortion rights, but she says she'll still vote for Fiorina. "She's my new Mitt Romney," Alexander said, laughing. "'It's about the economy, stupid.' "

How New Hampshire Republicans Differ

"Republicans here aren't going to be upset if a candidate has a position on either gay marriage or abortion that is out of step with theirs. They just don't want to hear them talk about it,” said University of New Hampshire political scientist Andy Smith. "They're more than happy to have the candidate hold whatever position they feel is important, but just don't try to get me to change my mind and make me vote for you because of that position."

Polls suggest New Hampshire is one of the least religious states in the country, second only to Vermont. And nearly half of Republican primary voters approve of same-sex marriage, another poll found. They're also more supportive of abortion rights than the country as a whole.

Smith says the discrepancy between New Hampshire Republican values and national Republican values creates tension, and so GOP candidates steer clear of social issues on the New Hampshire campaign trail.

"Great example of that: Ben Carson was here. And Carson got his political start largely being involved in evangelical groups ... very popular among social conservative groups within the Republican Party,” Smith explained. “He came and talked [here] and didn't talk once about abortion.”

"[Ben Carson] came and talked [here] and didn’t talk once about abortion," said University of New Hampshire political scientist Andy Smith. Here, the candidate speaks at Manchester Community College, on May 10. (Mary Schwalm/AP)
"[Ben Carson] came and talked [here] and didn’t talk once about abortion," said University of New Hampshire political scientist Andy Smith. Here, the candidate speaks at Manchester Community College, on May 10. (Mary Schwalm/AP)

“Why talk about [abortion]?" asked Dough Scamman rhetorically. "It's the law and it's a done deal, and it's not gonna get repealed.” Scamman is a veteran state lawmaker, sort of like GOP royalty in the Granite State.

"New Hampshire is a place that looks at people, how do we think they're gonna govern, not so much how they're going to tell us how we live our lives,” said Scamman, who considers himself middle-of-the-road, but still a staunch Republican. He continued to explain that New Hampshire voters do not want to hear people preach at them. "I think people want to know that the president is going to be able to lead this country in reducing expenditures, balancing the budget, and being fiscally responsible."

An Outlier — But One With Predictive Power

Smith, the UNH political scientist, points out that for a good chunk of the 20th century, New England -- and New Hampshire, in particular -- was Republican territory.

"That's not that the voters in New Hampshire have changed, it's really that the Republican Party has changed -- a lot,” Smith said.

Republicans in other parts of the country tend to think of New Hampshire as an outlier, he added. But, if it is an outlier, it's an outlier with a strangely predictive power.

"Typically if you win New Hampshire as a Republican, you win the nomination,” Smith said.

That pattern seems counter-intuitive. The national party has shifted away from New England, but New Hampshire still seems to have an outsized impact on picking the GOP nominee.

Smith explains the apparent contradiction this way: “Because it's early in the process and because it has high turnout, after New Hampshire, the moderate wing of the party is winnowed down to one candidate typically."

And then, Smith says, by the time the primary cycle moves to South Carolina, the GOP battle has shrunk to that one moderate, mainstream Republican and a few social conservatives.

Chris Galdieri, a politics professor at St. Anselm's College in Manchester, has another theory. He says the New Hampshire primary remains important because it's not just about New Hampshire -- it's a microcosm of a general election.

“A lot of Republicans are going to be paying attention to not just who says the right things, but who do I think has the best chance of getting elected,” he said.

And, Galdieri says the money and the power brokers tend to pay attention too, aligning themselves with the winner of the New Hampshire primary.

He says New Hampshire's elevated role is sort of an accident of history. But the accident means that even in 2016, the old-fashioned New Hampshire strain of GOP politics carries more weight than you would expect in the modern Republican Party.

This article was originally published on July 28, 2015.

This segment aired on July 28, 2015.

Asma Khalid Twitter Reporter
Asma Khalid formerly led WBUR's BostonomiX, a biz/tech team covering the innovation economy.

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