Rocking the Vote

For longer than almost anyone can remember-since 1920, to be specific-New Hampshire has held its presidential primary before any other state. As a result, this small, relatively obscure state in the heart of New England has taken on a role of mythic proportions in national politics. For decades, presidential hopefuls from all corners of the country have been coming to its snowy hamlets in search of the first win of the primary season. This national ritual is so quintessentially American it conjures images befitting a Norman Rockwell painting. It is at once bizarre, arguably unfair, and oddly heartwarming that this little pocket of America is the testing ground for presidents.

The truth of the matter is, however, that New Hampshire's storied election process is not what it once was. Just ask David Nassar.

Nassar is a political consultant. Last year, he worked as field director for Mark Fernald, the failed Democratic candidate for New Hampshire governor. This was a tough defeat for Democrats, yet when Nassar reexamines it, he looks not to Manchester or Concord, but to the “Black Hole.”

Technically speaking, the Black Hole is a region of New Hampshire encompassing 22 towns in the state's two southeasternmost counties. David Nassar and many other political consultants in New Hampshire refer to this area as the Black Hole because its demographics have changed so dramatically in the last decade that it now exists as a vast, uncharted realm of the state's electorate. Those brave politicians who have ventured into the Black Hole find themselves warped, Flash Gordon-style, into a place resembling not New Hampshire, but . . . Boston.

The Black Hole, to a great extent, is a community of former Boston residents and current Boston commuters who take I-93 to work. These displaced Bostonians are part of the “new” New Hampshire electorate. Between 1994 and 1999, some 207,000 people migrated to New Hampshire, and an estimated 75,000 of them came from Massachusetts-largely from Greater Boston. These expats have settled mainly in the Black Hole, making it a political linchpin in New Hampshire elections. In the 2002 gubernatorial election, the Black Hole accounted for 24 percent of the statewide vote. These are simply not the kind of numbers politicians can ignore. Several presidential candidates are buying ads on Boston television stations in an attempt to tap into the voting power of the Black Hole. “Howard Dean just bought a bunch of time on Boston television,” says Nassar. “It may prove to be a smart move.” (All of this also begs the question: Why is Bostonian John Kerry unable to secure a victory here? “It's absolutely perplexing,” says Nassar.)

It is an odd twist of fate that Bostonians may decide the New Hampshire primary and, quite possibly, the future of the White House. Then again, as this year's Democratic National Convention here in Boston nears, it seems fitting that the key to winning the first primary-and, quite possibly, the nomination-lies in the hands of Bostonians.