You’ve heard both Clintons say it: New Hampshire isn’t really a fair fight since Sen. Bernie Sanders is from next-door Vermont.
“I think in history, she is attempting to be the only person not an incumbent president ever to win in New Hampshire against someone who’s running from a bordering state,” Bill Clinton said on Monday, a line he’s been using for a while now. For her part, Hillary Clinton noted on Monday that “New Hampshire always favors neighbors.”
This is an obvious and understandable effort to lower the bar, with Sanders leading comfortably in New Hampshire polling and the Clinton team bracing for a potential defeat next Tuesday. But as talking points go, it’s also a bit misleading.
Yes, it’s likely that Sanders’ status as a Vermonter offers him some boost in New Hampshire. But when it comes to New Hampshire, not all border states are created equal. While Vermont and Maine share geographic boundaries with the Granite State, the border state advantage in New Hampshire is really more of a Massachusetts advantage.
There are deep cultural and economic ties between the two states, particularly in population-rich southern New Hampshire, where the border towns are littered with Bay State transplants. A 2008 study found that around one-quarter of New Hampshire residents are originally from Massachusetts, and each day more than 80,000 Granite Staters commute across the border to work. And all of southern New Hampshire – and most of the state’s population – is part of the Boston television market, while Boston radio stations and newspapers enjoy substantial audiences in the Granite State.
This level of cross-pollenation doesn’t exist with Maine and Vermont, the two other states bordering New Hampshire, and it has translated into a significant advantage in the first-in-the-nation primary for candidates from Massachusetts. In the past four decades, four Massachusetts Democrats have run in the New Hampshire primary. Three of them – Michael Dukakis in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992 and John Kerry in 2004 – won, while Ted Kennedy fell short in 1980. And on the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finished a close second in 2008 and won easily in 2012.
All of these men entered the race as familiar names to many New Hampshire voters – and it showed in the early polling from each of their campaigns.
When Kennedy first entered the race in late 1979, a New Hampshire poll put him 40 points ahead of Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president he was challenging. In early 1987, Dukakis was a little-known Massachusetts governor stepping onto the national stage for the first time. But already he was tied in New Hampshire at 32 percent with Gary Hart, who at the time was the overwhelming national front-runner. (Hart had first gained fame by winning the New Hampshire primary in 1984.) Tsongas, a one-term Massachusetts senator with no national profile, nonetheless started with a five-point lead over his nearest New Hampshire competitor in 1991, while Kerry trailed only former Vice President Al Gore in the earliest days of the 2004 cycle. (Gore soon announced he wouldn’t run.) And while Romney ran third in the earliest 2008 polling in the state, he was facing two opponents with national stature, John McCain (the runaway winner of the 2000 New Hampshire primary) and Rudy Giuliani. Even then, Romney still notched 17 percent in the first Granite State poll after his announcement.
In other words, all of these Massachusetts candidates started out with significant support in New Hampshire, before even starting to campaign. But this is not the story with Sanders, who trailed Clinton by 47 points – 62 to 15 percent – in a poll released just after he announced his plans to run. It also wasn’t the case with Howard Dean, another Vermont candidate, who scored just six percent in early New Hampshire polling during the 2004 campaign. (Dean notched that six percent in the same poll that gave Kerry 28 percent.) Both of them only began to move up after they started campaigning, and while Dean’s ascent was rapid, it could just as easily be attributed to his stats as the race’s lone anti-Iraq war voice as his next-door neighbor status.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Vermont media doesn’t enjoy nearly the penetration into New Hampshire that Boston media does and the border area between the two states is lightly populated comparatively. Not many New Hampshire residents get their news from Burlington television stations, but lots of them get it from Boston outlets. This isn’t to say that Sanders hasn’t benefited from his Vermont background. There are some transplanted Vermonters in New Hampshire and there areas of the Connecticut River Valley that are considered “Vermont East.” But he didn’t start with the built-in support that candidates from Massachusetts typically start with in New Hampshire. That he has managed to move from nearly 50 points behind into a commanding lead says far more about the resonance of his message and the demographics of New Hampshire than his Vermont residency.
The Clintons neighbor state talking point also ignores the formidable national profile that Hillary brought to the race. As a former secretary of state, senator and First Lady – and as the winner of the last contested New Hampshire Democratic primary – she started out with far more advantages in New Hampshire than Sanders. Those advantages haven’t held up, and it doesn’t have much to do with the fact that Bernie Sanders is from Vermont.