The New Hampshire Union Leader originally published this column on October 12, 2012:
New Hampshire candidates have endured three consecutive wave elections. In 2006, 2008 and 2010, partisan blowouts left weak candidates of both parties and ideologues no one had heard of swept into office, while quality candidates of both parties running in winnable districts were washed out to sea, innocent victims who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There are no such excuses this time. University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith’s decision to release a “do over” survey on the presidential race this week has to be interpreted as a tacit admission that he couldn’t stand by his earlier data showing a 15-point lead for President Obama in New Hampshire. The new survey shows a six-point gap, and many of the new surveys were conducted prior to the President’s zombiesque performance in the first debate. The only post-debate public poll is from Rasmussen Reports, which has the race tied at 48 in New Hampshire.
With the presidential race likely to be decided by five points or fewer in New Hampshire, down-ballot candidates of both parties are going to win or lose on their own merits, and that’s good for the state. There will be far fewer accidental winners this year, legislative majorities will likely be modest, and fiscal and social policy should lurch less than it has recently.
It doesn’t take much to create a wave, but it takes a lot to overcome one. Just as tides move incrementally and can deceptively appear to be retreating even as they are really building, wave elections are started by as few as one in 33 voters.
Imagine a town, East Haystack, that has just 99 voters. The top-of-the-ticket candidate carries East Haystack, 52-47, or by five points. For down-ballot candidates of the other party to win, he needs to get three voters — just one in 33 overall — to change their behavior mid-ballot, split their tickets, and vote for the down-ballot candidate of the other party. If they do that, the down ballot candidate will win, 50-49. If they fail, you have a wave.
Just one in 33 voters? How hard can that be? Turns out, it’s very hard. It means getting one in 18 people who voted for, say, Democrat Barack Obama at the top of the ticket to then vote for the Republican running for state Senate down ballot. Here’s a political paradox: In an era when party affiliation is weakening and more and more voters describe themselves as independent, ticket-splitting is declining.
The result is waves. In 2006, antipathy toward the George W. Bush administration provided a gale-force tailwind to Gov. John Lynch, who won reelection by a staggering 48 points, with 74 percent of the vote. New Hampshire Democrats took control of the state Legislature and defeated both incumbent congressmen.
Bush fatigue had hardly abated in 2008 when candidate Barack Obama carried New Hampshire by nine points. Down-ballot Republicans had to run at least five points ahead of the top of the ticket, on average, to get elected. That’s very hard even for the highest quality candidates to do, as illustrated by U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu’s defeat that year. Democrats held their legislative majorities.
A spirited campaign by Republican John Stephen in 2010, backed by an anti-Obama wave, kept Gov. Lynch’s margin of victory to just 7.5 percent in 2010, and that changed everything. Now down-ballot Republicans had to run just four points ahead of the gubernatorial candidate to win. Aided by hurricane-force tailwinds, Republicans captured three quarters of the Legislature and both congressional seats. Kelly Ayotte won the U.S. Senate race by 23 points.
There are a small number of candidates who defy the gravitational pull at the top-of-the ticket and the tides that it creates. Democratic state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro routinely out-runs his party’s ticket, as has Republican state Sen. Bob Odell in Sullivan County.
The challenge for down-ballot candidates of both parties in the closing 25 days of this campaign: Finding those one-in-33 voters within their districts that they need to win to overcome a five-point margin of victory by either President Obama or Mitt Romney. This time, it’s up to them.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at email@example.com