Monday, September 3, 2018

The Donald Trump effect in rural America: An analysis of the 2016 New Hampshire general election

As you may recall, a couple of weeks ago, I posted a link to in-depth tool on the New York Times that allows us to analyze the 2016 election by looking at the results by precinct from different localities around the country. In the midst of doing research for an in-depth analysis using that tool, I found yet another tool. Before the 2016 election, New Hampshire Public Radio posted a database with election results (downloadable in Excel) for every single election in the state going back to the early 70s. The database has been updated with the 2016 results.

As a way to test this database and what it can tell us, I am going to look at the 2016 election. New Hampshire in 2016 was interesting because it featured multiple contentious races in a largely rural state where Donald Trump was often the focus. What effect did the national political culture have on New Hampshire's statewide races?

I will give you some broad takeaways:
  • The Senate race got more votes overall than either the governor's race or Presidential race. 
  • People across New Hampshire, in towns large and small, opted to leave the Presidential race blank and vote for the Senate race.
  • Donald Trump underperformed both Kelly Ayotte and Chris Sununu, the Republican nominees for US Senate and Governor respectively. 
  • While Trump performed best against his fellow Republicans in the more rural parts of New Hampshire, my own regression analysis showed that there is no correlation between voting population of the municipality and likelihood that Trump would outperform Republican opponents. There were still many very rural areas where Trump ran behind Ayotte and Sununu. 
  • Hillary Clinton had less of a discernible pattern. She ran behind Maggie Hassan in Manchester but yet ahead of her in Nashua, for example.
  • Clinton underperformed Maggie Hassan, Democratic nominee for Senate but yet outperformed Colin Van Ostern, Democratic nominee for governor. 
Some takeaways from the Senate vs. Presidential race:
  • Kelly Ayotte received 7,842 more votes than Donald Trump 
  • Maggie Hassan received 6,123 more votes than Hillary Clinton
  • An astounding 6,873 Granite Staters opted to leave the Presidential race blank and vote in the Senate race.
  • There is no correlation between size of community and likelihood of voting in the Presidential election. 
  • Both Ayotte and Hassan outperformed Clinton, who won the state's 4 electoral votes. 
Some takeaways from the Governor vs. Presidential race: 
  • Chris Sununu received 8,250 more votes than Donald Trump 
  • Hillary Clinton received 10,937 more votes than Colin Van Ostern 
  • 7,404 more Granite Staters voted for the Presidential than the Governor's race.
Maggie Hassan was the highest vote getter of all statewide candidates in New Hampshire with Chris Sununu as a close second. If Hassan and Sununu were in a head to head race, Hassan would have won by just 609 votes. Since a few people likely split their ticket and voted for Hassan and Sununu, this is obviously not a perfect head to head.

Interestingly enough, in a Van Ostern/Trump head to head, Trump would have won by 8,201 votes. Of the candidates in the three major races, Van Ostern is the only person whose vote total was lower than Trump's.

Democrats in New Hampshire tried vigorously to tie Kelly Ayotte and Chris Sununu to Donald Trump. Ayotte offered some inadvertent help when she said during an October debate with Hassan that Trump was a good role model for children, a statement that she quickly walked back. However, the damage was done and the Hassan campaign pounced upon that comment.

The release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape just a couple of days later allowed Ayotte to finally declare that she was withdrawing her support and calling for him to drop out of the race. She went on to say that she would not be voting for Trump but would be writing in Mike Pence for President instead. Prior to this declaration, Ayotte had been keeping her distance from Trump, even previously saying that she was "supporting but not endorsing" him. She was also not shy to condemn Trump's missteps. In June, She distanced herself from his derogatory comments towards a judge of Mexican descent.  Ayotte's lukewarm reaction to his candidacy prompted Trump to openly attack her in August by saying, “[y]ou have a Kelly Ayotte who doesn’t want to talk about Trump, but I’m beating her in the polls by a lot. You tell me. Are these people that should be representing us, okay? You tell me.” As you can see from above, Ayotte would ultimately receive more votes than Trump in the general election.

The relationship between Sununu and Trump followed an interesting trajectory. Trump's campaign in New Hampshire began with a feud with Chris's father, former NH governor and Bush 41 chief of staff, John Sununu. In January 2016, Sununu wrote an op-ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader where he asked NH GOP voters to "not drink the Trump Kool-Aid" and attacked Trump as an ideologically inconsistent opportunist. It did not take long for Trump to respond. At a rally soon after, Trump attacked Sununu's time in the Bush White House by saying, "John H. Sununu, has been known, he was fired by Bush. He was fired like a dog. He was fired viciously, and he's such a dumb guy that he didn't even know he was fired[.]" John Sununu responded to those comments by saying that Trump would ruin the Republican Party. He also zeroed in on Trump's ties to Russia, claiming that Trump "brags that he can’t be bought and yet Putin proved the guy is the cheapest political buy in the game ... ten cents worth of flattery and he’s got Trump sucking up his butt.” Chris refused to comment on the feud between his father and Trump, saying that he was focusing only on things that he "could control" and that his focus was on his race for governor.

However, it would ultimately be the Sununus who would prove loyal to Trump. In September, John Sununu endorsed Trump, declaring that he was " the only candidate in this race who can bring bold change to Washington D.C.” Unlike Ayotte, Chris Sununu even stood by Trump, despite his own reservations, after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, a fact that Van Ostern quickly seized upon. In a debate with Van Ostern, Sununu defended his endorsement of Trump, saying that he did so because Hillary Clinton had "lost the public's trust." In an interview with NH1 News however, Sununu said that he was going to focus on his own race and the issues affecting New Hampshire, comments which echoed what he had said back in January.

Sununu and Ayotte are interesting contrasts in style. Chris Sununu refused to directly engage Trump in any kind of antagonistic manner, offering his endorsement but reiterating that he was focusing on his race. Even as Sununu's father feuded with Trump, he avoided directly confronting Trump. Ayotte however kept her distance from Trump throughout the campaign, offering her support but not endorsing him and later declaring that she was not voting of him at all. She was also not afraid to directly condemn Trump, a fact that would draw his ire during the race.

What lessons can we learn from this? Ayotte and Sununu both outperformed Trump, with Sununu even coming within 1,000 votes of having the highest statewide vote total. Many Granite Staters were likely offended by Trump's comments but could not bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton (or even follow Ayotte's lead and write in someone else) so that race was left blank on thousands of ballots. Sununu was undoubtedly aided by his father's popularity in the state, which likely enhanced his vote total, especially against a relative unknown like Van Ostern. Ayotte and Hassan both outperformed their party's nominees so it's difficult to assess the impact that each party's presidential nominee had on that race. It is notable that both Ayotte and Sununu never directly embraced Trumpism, even if their method of distancing themselves from Trump were different. Ayotte preferred to directly confront him whereas Sununu tried to evade directly attacking Trump and pivoted back to talk about his election.

The lesson from this election may ultimately come down to Tip O'Neill's famous expression that "all politics is local." Local political dynamics still matter and transcend national party politics. In fact, one just has to look across the Connecticut River to Vermont to see an example of how a very liberal state can elect a Republican governor. Democrats may themselves see a great example of this in November in Tennessee where popular former governor Phil Bredesen has opted to toss his hat into the ring. Last year, Democrats were able to capture a Senate seat in Alabama when unpopular judge (and accused pedophile) Roy Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones, largely buoyed by larger than expected turnout in rural African American communities in state's Black Belt region.

In rural communities, grassroots politics is still very important. Voters want to know who they're voting for and how they will help their communities. In a state like New Hampshire, which still has town meetings to pass town budgets and conduct town business, this is especially important. Voters want to be engaged and want to feel like the candidate is here to help their community. I concede that it is difficult to fully assess the Trump Effect in this race, at least with the data I have. However, of the 6 statewide candidates in NH, Trump had the 5th highest vote total. Trump's unpopularity in NH seems to have had little impact on Ayotte and Sununu.

Will Trump have a larger impact in 2018? That remains to be seen. Sununu is up for re-election this year, New Hampshire is just one of two states to have 2 year terms their governors. There has been little polling on Sununu's race but what is out there indicates a strong advantage for the incumbent, even in light of Trump's unpopularity. Only one incumbent governor, Craig Benson, has ever lost re-election after their first term so the incumbency advantage is pretty strong for sitting governors. 

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