State House Dome: UNH survey head says polling panels here to stay

Sep. 25—IN THE CLOSING scene of "The Aviator," the 2004 Oscar-winning biopic, Leonardo DiCaprio, as the brilliant but disturbed millionaire Howard Hughes, looks into a bathroom mirror and repeatedly chants, "The way of the future."

That's what University of New Hampshire Survey Center Director Andy Smith says is happening to his industry, which because of costs and innovations in technology is undergoing a change in how it conducts accurate polls.

Smith said his outfit is on the front edge of polling science, using large randomly selected panels of citizens, a subset of which then responds to online surveys.

The declining number of those with landline phones and consumer aids such as call blocking have left many research scientists questioning whether their "old" way of doing polls — random-digit dialing of telephone numbers — is still a valid way of doing business.

This type of polling also has become more expensive, because more numbers must be called to produce a sufficient sample.

"A decade ago a valid sample would cost $30,000, but now that's up to $100,000, and that's really prohibitive for many who would want a survey done," Smith said. "Nationwide response rates are now down to 5% to 8%."

The UNH Survey Center is one of few in the nation that has come up with a representative sample contained within a single state. Gallup, Pew Center for the Press and CNN are among the industry leaders using these panels, though on a regional or nationwide basis, he said.

"We have panels in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and since 2020 we've found them to be even more accurate than our random-digit dialing surveys we tested at the same time," Smith said.

"In the 2020 presidential primary it was our New Hampshire panel that picked up the late surge of (Minnesota Sen.) Amy Klobuchar in the Democratic race."

UNH has a 7,500-person panel in New Hampshire, all randomly selected. A little more than 10% of them respond to an individual poll.

Membership in the panel isn't voluntary. In other words, no one with a pet cause or candidate can infiltrate the panel and take part in any poll, he said.

"You are going to see the entire research survey industry moving this way," Smith said.

Scanlan rejects ranking

A study in the Election Law Journal by three professors concluded New Hampshire was dead last in the country for "ease of voting."

That rating was based on New Hampshire lawmakers' rejection of election reforms passed in many states, including automatic voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting and all-mail voting.

After passing some of those changes, Vermont now trails only Oregon in ease of voting, according to the study.

The rest of New England scored well. Massachusetts was 12th, followed by Maine (15th), Rhode Island (20th) and Connecticut (30th).

To no one's surprise, Secretary of State David Scanlan rejected the conclusion.

"That's a flawed study in my view. The proof is in the pudding. We are consistently the top tier for states with high voter turnout, and that doesn't happen because it is difficult to vote here," Scanlan said.

New Hampshire has set state turnout records in the past two presidential elections.

Scanlan also pointed to changes his office has made since longtime Secretary Bill Gardner retired in November, which include printing all election materials in foreign languages and updating the office's website to make election information easier to obtain.

603 Forward, a left-leaning grass roots organization, applauded the study and urged Scanlan's handpicked Special Committee on Voter Confidence to recommend these changes when it issues a final report this fall.

"This report is an embarrassing consequence of New Hampshire Republicans' obsession with imposing restrictive voting laws in our state," said Matt Mooshian, 603 Forward's advocacy and engagement director. "Secretary of State Dave Scanlan, Governor Sununu, and Republicans in the State House are making it harder for Granite Staters to vote, are preventing the modernization of our election systems."

Scanlan gets GOP turnout guess on target

Scanlan nailed his estimate of the number of voters in the Sept. 13 Republican primary.

He predicted turnout of 149,000 for those races. The final total was 147,501.

In the Democratic primary, however, his prediction of 121,000 was well over the 96,275 votes cast.

Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley said the turnout still was the highest for a state primary in a midterm election since 2014.

In 2020, New Hampshire for the first time legalized no-excuse absentee voting for one election because of COVID.

Nearly a third of voters cast their ballots that way.

In the next election, this year's state primary, voters again were required to affirm they would be out of the state on Election Day or were so disabled they couldn't get to the polls in person.

On Sept. 13, only 5.9% (14,735) voted by absentee. Of those, 8.3% took a Democratic absentee ballot, compared to 4.4% of those voting Republican.

State Senate GOP replacement pick fallout

There was some internal unrest among state Senate Republicans following State Chairman Steve Stepanek's decision to appoint ex-state Rep. Keith Murphy of Manchester to replace state Senate District 16 nominee Rep. Michael Yakubovich, R-Hooksett, who won the primary.

Yakubovich had to withdraw from the race after learning he had become seriously ill and needed "aggressive treatment."

Some wanted Stepanek to go with the runner-up in that primary, Rep. Barbara Griffin, R-Goffstown.

But the two candidates had tangled in the closing days of the race.

Griffin's campaign launched a mailing at Yakubovich over his decision to become an independent and take a Democratic ballot in the 2016 primary after the campaign of his presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, crashed and burned.

The mailing accused Yakubovich of voting for either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Yakubovich said he cast a protest vote for gadfly candidate Vermin Supreme.

In response, Yakubovich supporters launched a website mocking Griffin, who before 2014 was a registered Democrat for several election cycles.

Yakubovich made it clear that if GOP leaders picked Griffin, he would stay in the race and resign if he won, which would force the state to hold a special election.

Stepanek consulted with Sununu, the party's titular head, before making his decision.

Sununu's No. 1 priority is to flip that seat, which incumbent Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester, vacated to run for the Executive Council.

The governor expressed some concern with picking Griffin, who did not win a single town or ward in the primary, including her hometown of Goffstown.

Another State House candidate steps aside

Since the Legislature in 2013 expanded the definition of who can withdraw after a primary win, few have made use of it.

Last week alone there were two, Yakubovich and nine-term state Rep. Gary Hopper, R-Weare, who won another nomination to his seat even though he had informed the public of his terminal cancer diagnosis.

The state GOP picked Lisa Mazur of Goffstown to replace him.

Former speaker comeback

Former House Speaker Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, is seeking a return to the State House after a brief hiatus.

Running as a write-in candidate in the Sept. 13 primary, Chandler won a GOP nomination to one of two seats in Carroll County that cover seven towns in the Mount Washington Valley.

The other GOP winner was Daniel Bacon of Chatham.

They face Democratic State Reps. Chris McAleer of Jackson and Anita Burroughs of Bartlett.

Chandler had served in the House for 18 terms.

He stepped away from the State House for a time in 2006 after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for failing to report proceeds from an annual Corn Roast fundraiser he held for many years.

The House censured him for the transgression, which Chandler blamed on a misinterpretation of the state law.

Chandler has since won several elections to the House and served in various House GOP leadership roles below speaker.

Levasseur State House bid

Manchester Alderman-at-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur is another familiar figure who's emerged as a State House hopeful following the primary.

Levasseur won the GOP nomination for one of three House seats to represent Manchester Wards 2,4,5 and 7.

The outspoken maverick Levasseur has run for the State Senate in the past and lost to Democratic Sen. Lou D'Allesandro.

Libertarians break through on ballots

When you're a third-party candidate outside the mainstream, you have to work that much harder to win.

The effort paid off for Libertarians Nicholas Sarwark of Manchester and Richard Manzo of Goffstown, who managed to get the Democratic nominations for Hillsborough County attorney and treasurer, respectively.

No Democrats ran to oppose current incumbent County Attorneys John Coughlin and County Treasurer David Fredette.

To win a nomination, a write-in candidate has to get at least 35 votes; Sarwark received 1,023 write-ins and Manzo got 993.

Both had been Libertarian Party nominees for the same offices in 2020.

Ground game gears up

Ideological and single-issue groups are organizing aggressive efforts to reach voters where they live.

Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund began a weekend of action as part of its effort to reach 315,000 voters through phone banks and door-to-door canvassing targeted in the southern tier.

Heritage Action, a fiscally conservative organization, announced last week it was spending $1.8 million on voter outreach in New Hampshire and Nevada. This will involve making direct contact with 125,000 voters in the Granite State, officials said.

Kevin Landrigan is State House Bureau Chief for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at klandrigan@unionleader.com.