As someone who grew up in the D.C. suburbs but lived briefly in New England and worked several New Hampshire primaries, I’ve been dissatisfied with the pundits who think they “know” New Hampshire. They don’t. Here’s my mini-guide to the New Hampshire psyche:
“Live free or die”: Could any state have a more in-your-face motto on its license plate than “Live free or die”? It’s also a clue to how many of New Hampshire’s residents view their relationship with the government. About 20 years ago, a friend of mine who’s from New Hampshire shocked me when he complained about how the federal government was imposing rules on drinking and driving back home. “I like to have one beer when I drive,” he said. “Why can’t I do that?” Lest you think my friend was a New Hampshire hillbilly, you should know that he went to college at Dartmouth and law school at Harvard, is fluent in Japanese and practices law in New York City. Back in the day, there was Granite State resistance to the federal imposition of motorcycle helmet laws too. Final note: campaign workers NEVER distribute sample ballots at New Hampshire polling places because the state’s voters don’t like to be told how to vote (the workers hold signs and wave instead).
New Hampshire is not Vermont: Vermont may be New Hampshire’s upside-down twin on the map, but that’s where the resemblance ends. New Hampshire’s flinty culture prevents those thirty-something Upper East Side hedge fund managers from establishing their organic goat cheese hobby farms east of the Connecticut River. Likewise, it’s not a coincidence that Ben and Jerry’s got its start in Vermont instead of nearby New Hampshire.
It’s not Massachusetts either: New Hampshire has a state-owned liquor store located next to the New Hampshire welcome center on I-95. Why? To make it easy for people from high-tax Massachusetts (and the stray Canadian) to buy booze cheap. Note that a state-owned liquor store being involved doesn’t seem to arouse any cognitive dissonance among the “live free or die” crowd.
Everybody’s got a political network: Getting elected to state or local government in New Hampshire is not limited to the usual “political class” of lawyers or union activists, largely because of the huge number of members in the lower house of the state legislature (400) and the fact that state legislators receive very little pay (only $100 per legislative day plus per diem). And with just 3,000 residents per state representative, there’s a lot of interaction between elected officials and residents. Talk to someone in New Hampshire, and chances are excellent that either he has been elected to some position at some time or his family member or neighbor has. It’s retail politics at a granular level.
Daniel Webster, not Franklin Pierce: Although Pierce was the only New Hampshirite to reach the ranks of the presidency (in 1852), he’s basically shrugged off by his fellow citizens. For example, the state legislature didn’t bother with erecting a statue of Pierce until 1913. Daniel Webster, the fiery orator, is the state’s favorite son, even though Webster split his time in Washington representing New Hampshire (as a congressman) and, later, Massachusetts (as a senator). Interestingly, Webster opposed the annexation of Texas (Rick Perry, take note) and rejected a chance at the vice presidency in 1848 by declaring, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.”
Old Man of the Mountain: This was a grim-looking, iconic rock formation located in northern New Hampshire, just off I-93. It collapsed in 2003, but it remains on the state’s license plate and folks are happy to keep it that way — perhaps because it expresses their general mood.
In the coming days, keep this guide handy so you can be ready to laugh at those D.C. talking heads who pompously predict the outcome in New Hampshire on January 10. Trust me, they are clueless about those irascible Granite Staters.