Electoral competition–the degree to which challengers and minority parties are able to hold incumbents accountable by mounting credible campaigns–serves as a further indicator of the accessibility and responsiveness of a democratic system to the people. Incumbents at every level of government have historically enjoyed high reelection rates thanks to their ability to deliver valuable constituent services; high starting name identification; access to the media and other in-kind campaign resources; and ability to raise large campaign contributions from influence-seeking individuals and special interest groups.
As the cost of campaigns rises, challengers find it increasingly difficult to raise the level of resources considered necessary to overcome the institutional advantages of incumbents and credibly compete for public office. Although low electoral competition does not necessarily signal a lack of representation, incumbent reelection rates that significantly exceed voter approval of their elected officials may indicates systemic bias towards status quo interests and a less open electoral system. The following analysis covers state and federal elections, as data on electoral competitiveness of New Hampshire’s municipal elections are not uniformly accessible.
5.1 Fundraising Disparities
Incumbent politicians in New Hampshire enjoyed a significant fundraising advantage over non-incumbents in 2014. Governor Maggie Hassan, who ran unchallenged in the Democratic primary, raised $2.8 million in 2014, 20% more than her general election opponent Walt Havenstein, who in turn outspent his primary challenger Andrew Hemingway by a factor of ten to one during the primary. The three executive councilors seeking reelection raised, on average, nearly $60,000 each or six times the amount raised by their opponents. Finally, the twenty state senators running for reelection in 2014 raised almost $100,000 each, on average, or approximately three times the amount raised by their challengers. (39)
Figure 21: Fundraising by Incumbents and Challengers in New Hampshire, 2014 General Election Candidates
Spending by general election candidates in New Hampshire’s 2014 federal races totaled $22 million for U.S. Senate and $2.5 and $4.3 million for U.S. House Districts 1 and 2, respectively, with incumbents outspending challengers by an average factor of two to one. Although high levels of outside spending can tip the money scales in favor of non-incumbents in certain high-profile races like the 1st Congressional District, where former Congressman Frank Guinta unseated incumbent Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, the effect of such spending on incumbent reelection rates in general is not yet known.
Taken together, challengers for state and federal office (excluding state representative) raised 42% of the amount of money raised by incumbents, on average, for a funding competitiveness grade of C where 80-100% fundraising parity by challengers corresponds with A, 60-79% B, 40-59% C, 20-39% D, and less than 20% F.
5.2 Incumbent Reelection Rates
Consistent with the fundraising advantage outlined above, incumbents who sought reelection to state and federal office in New Hampshire were successful most of the time in 2014. In addition to Governor Maggie Hassan and all three executive councilors seeking reelection, 19 out of 20 state senators (95%) and 231 out of 277 state representatives (83%) running were re-elected, for an average incumbent reelection rate of 95% across all four state races. Incumbent Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Congresswoman Annie Kuster were also reelected, while Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter was defeated by former Congressman Frank Guinta, for a reelection rate of 67% among New Hampshire’s congressional delegation in 2014.
The overwhelming rate of incumbent reelection is inconsistent with public approval ratings of 53% and 46% for the governor and legislature, respectively, according to the last Granite State Poll conducted before the 2014 election. (40) All told, the incumbent reelection rate across state and federal races in New Hampshire was 84%; grades are not assigned in the absence of a normative standard for incumbent reelection rates.
Figure 22: Incumbent Reelection Rates in New Hampshire, 2014
5.3 Margins of Victory
Margins of victory in state elections provide another important measure of democratic health, as persistent landslide victories for incumbents or political parties may suggest a lack of democratic accountability or partisan gerrymandering of districts. In 2014, nearly three-quarters of New Hampshire’s state races (excluding state representative) were deemed uncompetitive, with margins of victory greater than ten points. (41)
Only four state senate races (17%) were competitive, while nine candidates won by un-competitive margins of 11-20 points and fully 11 won landslides of greater than 20 points or ran unopposed. Meanwhile, two out of five executive council races (40%) were competitive and the gubernatorial race was won by a competitive four-point margin in 2014.
Figure 23: Electoral Competitiveness in New Hampshire State Races, 2014
New Hampshire’s U.S. senate and two congressional races also came within the competitive threshold with margins of between four and ten points each. Taken together, 30% of state and federal races in New Hampshire, excluding state house, were competitive for a grade of D, where 80-100% competitive races corresponds with A, 60-79% B, 40-59% C, 20-39% D, and less than 20% F.
Summary Report Card: Electoral Competition
(39) Fundraising comparisons for New Hampshire’s 400 state house races were not compiled as representatives serve in multi-member districts of variable size, making comparisons problematic; the overall spending in a typical state house race is significantly lower than other races.
(40) The WMUR Granite State Poll, “Hassan leads Havenstein in New Hampshire Governor’s Race,” The University of New Hampshire Survey Center, 6 Oct 2014, available at: http://cola.unh.edu/sites/cola.unh.edu/files/research_publications/gsp2014_fall_govrace100614.pdf
(41) Because New Hampshire State House districts contain between one and eleven seats each, it is not possible to create a standardized measure of competitiveness across districts.