As you cross into New Hampshire from Massachusetts, the customary Buckle Up For Safety sign greets you at the border. It's really more of a suggestion. The bottom of the sign reads, "Common Sense For All," not "It's The Law," as you see in virtually every other state in the nation.
That's because for decades now New Hampshire has resisted tremendous pressure from the federal government to enact a mandatory seatbelt law. You don't have to have car insurance, either. And for you bikers coming to visit, helmets off at the state line, if you like.
This allusive little piece of armchair psychology is designed to shrink all those talking heads as we near New Hampshire's first in the nation presidential primary. You see, many spin-doctors will pretend to understand Granite Staters over the next two months. By and large they will be well off the mark.
"As a group, they are fiscally conservative and socially liberal," reports Slate magazine of New Hampshire voters. Wrong. As a group, we're not social liberals. We're social libertarians. The difference is yawning.
By way of illustration, imagine some activity reasonably common among a specific population. Now imagine the consequences of said activity carry the risk of pain, suffering, frustration, or just annoyance.
The liberal will kick into regulatory overdrive and try to ban such an activity. The libertarian, bless his icy little heart, will shrug his shoulders as if to say, "You probably shouldn't do that anymore."
Got mangled in a car accident? That's why they make seat belts. Lost your shirt in a liability settlement? Probably should have carried car insurance. Smashed your coconut falling off your motorcycle? They make helmets for those things, you know.
The miscalculations come from the right, as well. Fred Barnes warns Howard Dean in a recent edition of The Weekly Standard, "New Hampshire voters take a perverse pleasure in knocking off frontrunners." Not true. First of all, there's nothing perverse about wanting to smack the smirk off a smarmy, Green Mountain midget like Dean. Second, we've got nothing against frontrunners. We just really, really hate being told what to do.
So when the entire GOP establishment came up to New Hampshire and told us we had to vote for Bob Dole, we voted for Pat Buchanan instead. When the same collection of party bosses came back four years later to tell us to vote for George W. Bush, we voted for John McCain.
During the 1996 Republican primary for governor, popular Congressman Bill Zeliff had more money, more name recognition, and more establishment support than his opponent Ovide Lamontaigne, whom Zeliff had defeated in a head-to-head primary for Congress four years prior. Ten days shy of the primary, Zeliff and his opinion leader echo chamber waved a survey in the air and declared the nomination a fait accompli. You can guess who won the primary.
Remember Bill Clinton in early 1992? Clinton the draft dodger. Clinton the womanizer. Clinton the liar, the pot smoker, the hippie. While he didn't win the primary, his strong second place finish earned him the moniker the Comeback Kid.
This trend has already hurt Senator John Kerry, the early frontrunner in New Hampshire. Kerry picked up a full head of steam behind the political operation of former Governor Jeanne Shaheen. But he built his expectations way too high. And he is now suffering greatly for it. Political observers wait to see if the trend continues with the current frontrunner Howard Dean.
But there is another dynamic at work that may protect Dean from the fate of Dole, Bush, and Kerry. New Hampshire Democrats are among the most repressed people on earth. Republicans control every single elective office in the state … okay, so the Dems have a few seats in the state legislature, but very few.
For a brief moment in the sun, they had the Governor's office. But this joy was fleeting when Jeanne Shaheen chose her own political fortunes over her fellow Democrats' longed-for utopian dun, the income tax. (Yeah, we don't have an income tax either … in fact, we have the lowest tax burden per capita in the country.) Shaheen, like her Republican predecessors, consistently threatened to veto the income tax, effectively keeping it far away from her desk. (Which didn't keep the voters from going for John Sununu instead in 2002 when she ran for Senate.)
So the Democrats are angry. Perhaps not as angry as the professional pamphleteers in perpetual protest against whatever George W. Bush happens to be doing on any given day, but close. This helps Dean, whose "last angry man" shtick finds welcome cheers in Concord, Portsmouth, and Hanover.
So does Dean's lead show any signs at all of eroding? No, not according to the numbers anyway. In fact, he seems to grow in strength with every attack launched at him by his rivals. But his early pugnacity has evolved into cocksure arrogance, and this will hurt him. His latest sound bite has it that all he needs to win the presidency is the Gore states plus New Hampshire. Don't count those chickens yet, Howard. Not a single vote has been cast in Dixville Notch.
And if Dean does fall victim to New Hampshire's attitude problem, who will profit? Last week, I listened to a talk by Tom Rath, Republican National Committeeman for New Hampshire and lay expert on the New Hampshire primary. According to the data he sees, John Edwards of all people has the greatest room for growth. If things turn ugly, Edwards' relatively high favorability and low unfavorability will make him a magnet for Democrat voters. I'm not sure I buy it, but the theory is sound.
The bottom line is, Dean looks like a sure winner. And that's a bad place to be two months shy of the New Hampshire primary.
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