Is New Hampshire Fit to Pick a President?

Posted: Jan 10, 2012 12:01 AM

NASHUA, N.H. -- Is New Hampshire too white, too old and too godless to play a key role in selecting the next president?

"The rap on Iowa: It doesn't represent the rest of the country -- too white, too evangelical, too rural," NBC's Andrea Mitchell famously said shortly before the Jan. 3 caucuses. Other critics called Iowa too old.

If such concerns about Iowa are legitimate, then so are concerns about New Hampshire. For example, the first-in-the-nation primary state is actually whiter than Iowa. According to the 2010 census, New Hampshire is 93.9 percent white, 2.8 percent Hispanic and 1.1 percent black, while Iowa is a virtual rainbow at 91.3 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic and 2.9 percent black.

As far as age is concerned, both states have higher-than-national-average numbers of residents above retirement age. In New Hampshire, 13.5 percent of the population is 65 or older; in Iowa, it's 14.9 percent. Not a lot of difference.

As far as rural is concerned, yes, Iowa is full of farms. But New Hampshire isn't exactly a great urban center. In fact, the primary and caucus path does not lead to any really big cities until the Florida primary on Jan. 31.

Then there is religion. During the run-up to Iowa, pundits talked endlessly about Iowa's evangelical Christians. Are they too conservative to pick a president? Are their views on social issues too extreme? Are they really representative of the country as a whole?

Many of the questions were ill-informed. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey," Iowa is, in fact, slightly less evangelical than the rest of the country: 24 percent of Iowans are evangelicals, while 26 percent of Americans are.

Iowa does have a higher percentage of mainline Protestants than the rest of the country. So when one combines the evangelical and mainline strands, Iowa is more Protestant (54 percent) than the rest of the country, which is 44 percent combined evangelical and mainline.

And New Hampshire? Its combined number is 34 percent, meaning the state is less Protestant than the rest of the country by about the same margin that Iowa is more Protestant. Will pundits see that as a problem?

There is one big difference between the two states, and that is the number of people who have no religious affiliation. According to Pew, about 15 percent of Iowans say they have no affiliation -- nearly right on the national average of 16 percent. But in New Hampshire, 26 percent have no religious affiliation -- well above the national average.

So is New Hampshire just too godless to pick a president? Of course not. States differ in their balance of faith and non-faith, and when you add up the early voting states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Nevada -- you get a pretty good mix. New Hampshire is as qualified as any to make a political statement. But it will be interesting to see if commentators who fretted about Iowa's religiosity will be equally concerned about New Hampshire's non-religiosity.

In the heat of a campaign, it's difficult to speak with much subtlety about the role religion plays in voting. The entrance polls measure religion very crudely, says John C. Green, professor of politics at the University of Akron and a top authority on evangelicals in politics. A lot of the evangelicals in Iowa may belong to mainline Protestant churches or even be Catholic.

Many such distinctions were lost in the punditry. Also, the statistics above describe each state's entire population, not just its most politically active residents. Which means that, yes, lots of political activists are evangelicals. But lots of evangelicals aren't active in politics.

Finally, there was a lot of bias in the pundits' descriptions of Iowa and conservatives in general. A number of commentators are alarmed to see conservative evangelicals in great numbers playing a key role in politics, and out of that concern, they ask whether Iowa is too evangelical. New Hampshire is a little more moderate, so the religion question doesn't occur to them.

Also, most pundits live in the Northeast or in Washington, so New Hampshire seems almost in the neighborhood. Really, what's the problem?

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