One of the unfortunate habits of political journalists is the tendency to seize on unexamined if intuitively plausible explanations for otherwise puzzling developments. This seems to be happening with respect to a new Suffolk poll of the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary contest, which shows left-for-dead Jon Huntsman ahead of national front-runner Rick Perry (though both are far behind Mitt Romney) by a 10-8 margin.
That is indeed interesting. There are a number of possible explanations. One is that Huntsman has focused his entire campaign on NH, while Perry has barely been there and didn’t even announce until last month. Another is that Mitt Romney has focused disproportionately on NH for many months and is better-liked by self-identified conservatives there than in many states, undercutting some of Perry’s natural base. Another is that New Hampshire conservatives are less likely to be Protestant evangelicals than in many places, again reducing Perry’s natural appeal. Still another is that this poll is just an outlier (it’s a poll of just 400 voters by an outfit with an uneven rep for accuracy; a Magellan Strategies poll of NH in mid-August put Perry at 18% and Huntsman at 3%).
But you are already hearing more about another explanation that sounds sorta kinda plausible: people in the Granite State just don’t like southerners. Here’s how it’s put by Yahoo’s Rachel Rose Hartman:
Historically, Southern politicians have not fared well in the state, especially when pitted against a local favorite from New England. Bill Clinton, for example, lost the Democratic primary in New Hampshire in 1992 to Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts.
This alleged geographical prejudice was sometimes advanced to explain why John Edwards didn’t do well in NH in either 2004 or 2008, or why John McCain beat front-runner George W. Bush there in 2000.
Problem is: a more thorough examination of the NH primary’s history shows southerners actually doing pretty damn well.
Among Democrats, there have been twelve seriously contested NH primaries since the event first emerged as significant in 1952. Southerners have won half of them. And in two others, no southerners ran serious campaigns in NH.
Sure, Clinton lost to local fave Paul Tsongas in 1992, as Hartman notes. But Clinton was not an incumbent; had just been hit with the Gennifer Flowers and “draft” scandals; and had a strategy based on a quick comeback in Georgia after a likely loss in NH. The real “loser” in NH in 1992 was Bob Kerrey, whose campaign collapsed after a bad showing there, but no one is suggesting people in New Hampshire are prejudiced against midwesterners, are they? And then there is the rather significant counter-example of 1980, when Jimmy Carter trounced the ultimate regional favorite, Ted Kennedy.
So is this anti-southern prejudice centered among Republicans, despite Hartman’s reference to Clinton and Tsongas? Hard to say. There have only been nine competitive Republican NH primaries, and candidates hailing from a former Confederate state ran competitive campaigns in only six of them, winning two (Bush 41 in 1988 and 1992). If it is to be objected that Poppy was really a regional favorite because the Bushes are from CT, then we are down to just three NH primaries where southerners ran and lost, and none of the losers (Howard Baker in 1980, Lamar Alexander in 1992 and Mike Huckabee in 2008) were national front-runners.
The bottom line is that there’s actually very little evidence that a drawl is some sort of deal-killer in NH, and the abundance of alternative reasons for a southern candidate being relatively weak there means that the geographical rationalization really ought not to be cited at all, unless we are making very long lists of possible factors. Okay?