God is Secondary in New Hampshire Primary

This story was originally published by Medill News Service on February 9, 2016. I covered the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary in January/February, reporting mainly on the republican candidates’ religious rhetoric and their reception among voters. 

MANCHESTER, NH—Tom Rettberg reflects the historical nature of New Hampshire voters—a fickle electorate notoriously tough to impress.

Standing in a crowded gymnasium waiting to hear Marco Rubio speak, Rettberg, an undecided voter from Weare, NH, described how he has spent months creating a comprehensive spreadsheet ranking each candidate in the Republican primary field. He’s evaluating the candidates on issues like economics, potential Supreme Court appointments, immigration, and national security.

Though he is a self-described Christian, Rettberg said his spreadsheet features no columns ranking the candidates’ religion or matters of faith.

He notes he has great respect for candidates who demonstrate their faith on the campaign trail, but said it’s “not a high priority” when he considers the many factors influencing his decision.

Voters like Rettberg mark a key distinction between New Hampshire and Iowa, where last week Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won the caucuses, albeit controversially, by appealing to evangelical Christians.

New Hampshire boasts a vastly different political, economic, and social landscape than Iowa, and historically voters here do not make decisions based on religious preferences.

“Iowa Republican winners don’t matter here,” said Dale Kuehne, a professor of political science at St. Anselm College and former director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

Kuehne, who also is an ordained minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church, noted that “if the most Christian candidate wins New Hampshire, it won’t be because they are Christian.”

Christie Supporters at St. Anselm
Supporters of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie rally on the campus of St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH before Saturday night’s debate. (Jay Bouchard/MEDILL)

A Feb. 4 Gallup poll reported that New Hampshire ranks as the “least religious” state in the United States. According to the poll, only 20 percent of respondents consider themselves “very religious,” and 55 percent identify themselves “nonreligious.”

In contrast, 39 percent of respondents in Iowa considered themselves “very religious,” and only 32 percent identified as “nonreligious.”

According to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of adults in New Hampshire are affiliated with Christian churches, 26 percent of whom are Catholic.

What distinguishes New Hampshire from other states, though, is that among the religious voters, typically most aren’t looking for candidates who mirror their own faith.

“Many people in New Hampshire don’t like the idea of religion as a political commodity,” said the Rev. Jerome Day, pastor of St. Raphael’s Parish in Manchester and member of the St. Anselm Monastery.

“I would hope that people would have faith in mind as they vote,” Day said, “but it’s a well-known axiom that New Hampshire voters vote with their pocketbooks.”

Kuehne described an important class in the state he calls “blue-collar Catholics,”—voters who, while religious, make decisions based on economic interests and other issues rather than voting their religion.

Thelma Poitras, a Catholic Cruz backer from Goshen, NH, is among this class. She is a public school teacher and her husband has struggled to find steady work since the 2008 financial crisis. She said that she goes to church every Sunday and that her faith is very important to her. But she added that her attraction to Cruz is rooted in his loyalty to the Constitution and his fiscal conservatism.

“Economics is more important [in this election] to me than religion,” she said at a Cruz rally before Saturday night’s debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester.

While Cruz’s faith impresses her, Poitras said that she would support him regardless of his religious authenticity.

Kuehne noted that blue-collar Catholics like Poitras make New Hampshire a particularly hard state in which to predict political outcomes. This class of voters often scrutinizes candidates in a way evangelical voters don’t and this is one of the reasons New Hampshire is typically a swing state.

“The swing vote is often the blue-collar Catholic vote,” Kuehne said. “Evangelicals don’t swing.”

Marco Rubio NH
Marco Rubio addresses a lively crowd at Hood Middle School in Derry, NH on Friday Jan. 5. (Jay Bouchard/MEDILL)

Kuehne’s observation is supported by historical precedent. In 2012, Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, won the Iowa caucus but only managed a fourth place tie in New Hampshire. In 2008, Mike Huckabee, a Protestant minister, won in Iowa but finished a disappointing third in the Granite State. Neither went on to claim the Republican nomination.

According to a recent WMUR/CNN poll, Ted Cruz may join Huckabee and Santorum as the latest Iowa republican winner who fails to gain momentum in New Hampshire. He’s currently polling in third place, behind frontrunner Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

But despite disappointing poll numbers, Cruz has not been shy about demonstrating his faith to New Hampshire voters. In a town hall meeting in Peterborough on Sunday, Cruz recited Old Testament scripture and asked voters to “lift the country up in prayer,” the same lines he used a week ago at his rallies in Iowa.

When Cruz recited 2 Chronicles 7:14 at a rally in Davenport, IA last weekend, nearly everyone in the crowded church recited with him the lines from memory. But in Peterborough on Sunday, nobody joined in as Cruz quoted the same verse, which calls on Christians to humble themselves and seek God’s healing.

Furthermore, when Cruz mentioned religion the day before the primary in Raymond, NH, two anti-religious protesters staged an exorcism with cardboard crosses before being removed from the event, according to Vermont public radio.

While Cruz has not significantly altered his campaign strategy in New Hampshire, religious ambivalence and recent polls point to the key difference between the first-in-the-nation primary and the first-in-the-nation caucus.

In Iowa, overtly Christian candidates find traction among evangelical voters, but in New Hampshire, where the voters are more skeptical, less religious, and likely to swing, candidates like Cruz often are disappointed come election day.

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