Economy the issue for N.H. voters
In poll, most favor higher taxes, not cuts, to address deficit; Romney has big lead
New Hampshire voters overwhelmingly see unemployment and the budget deficit as the biggest economic challenges the nation faces, but as they prepare to play their pivotal role in choosing the next president, they stand squarely opposed to some of the favored solutions of Republican candidates seeking their support.
With seven GOP contenders gathering to debate for the first time in New Hampshire tomorrow night, a Globe poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center confirmed that Mitt Romney continues to hold a commanding lead over his Republican rivals, although the great majority of likely voters said they remain undecided.
But it is the slow-to-recover economy, more than the emerging primary race, that is uppermost in the minds of New Hampshire voters.
In the Globe poll, more likely voters (42 percent) said the economy was still in a downturn than said it had started to recover (23 percent).
This pessimism is especially striking in a state that has the third-lowest unemployment rate in the nation, but it reflects the fact that in the households of 35 percent of those polled at least one person had been unemployed in the past two years. Only 15 percent of those polled said they are better off financially than they were four years ago.
“Given that New Hampshire is in much better economic shape than almost any other state, it’s surprising that concern about economic issues is very high,’’ said Andrew E. Smith, the director of the university’s survey center.
Also striking are the remedies that poll respondents said they would prefer to deal with these problems — responses that run counter to the rollback of social program spending and tax cuts that most candidates in the emerging Republican field now advocate.
Despite the state’s antitax reputation, most poll respondents said they would prefer to reduce the deficit by raising taxes on the wealthy, rather than eliminating federal agencies or cutting spending on Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.
Even among likely Republican primary voters, only 39 percent supported cutting Medicaid, and fewer than 30 percent supported cutting Medicare and Social Security.
Those figures underscore the political downside of the sweeping changes in Medicaid and Medicare proposed by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, Smith said. The Republican-led House passed the Ryan plan.
“It’s not a politically popular process, and that points out the problem both parties are going to have, long term, in figuring out how to settle the debt,’’ he said. “There are a lot of very unpopular decisions that are going to have to be made.’’
The telephone poll of 954 randomly selected New Hampshire adults was taken from June 1 to 8 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
The survey found Romney is, at this early stage, easily outpacing other Republican presidential candidates. The clear leader among Granite State voters since 2009, he has the support of 41 percent of likely GOP primary voters, far ahead of his nearest potential competitor, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is at 9 percent and has not decided whether to enter the race.
All the other candidates are in the single digits. But the first-in-the-nation primary remains highly unsettled: 76 percent of likely Republican voters said they are still making up their minds.
“Mitt Romney is the clear favorite, and no real second place has emerged to challenge Romney, as yet,’’ Smith said. “But the big factor is that the great majority of voters are nowhere near deciding who they are voting for. So he doesn’t have it in the bag, but I believe it’s Romney’s to lose right now.’’
Texas Representative Ron Paul has the support of 6 percent of likely GOP voters in New Hampshire, followed by Sarah Palin, who is at 5 percent and has not decided whether to run. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite, is at 4 percent, tied with Herman Cain, a former pizza chain CEO.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, is at 3 percent, tied with Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, and Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor. Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, drew less than 1 percent in the poll.
Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Paul, Pawlenty, Romney, and Santorum will take part in the televised debate at 8 p.m. tomorrow in Manchester.Romney is the only candidate to have gained traction in the state so far.
“It will be Romney, if nobody else steps up,’’ said Donald Bolstridge, a 60-year-old retired paper delivery truck driver from Milton, who responded to the poll. “I mean, who else you got? There’s a lot of talk, but I don’t see their credentials and any solutions to the problems. Romney’s handled some tough situations, and he’s climbed his way out of them.’’
Bolstridge, a registered Republican who said he lost $3,000 in retirement savings in the last two years, implored the entire presidential field to focus on the economy.
“As far as social issues, we’ve got to worry about that later on,’’ he said. “There’s no time to be playing games with abortion. We’re in real serious trouble.’’
New Hampshire had the highest primary-voter turnout of any state in 2008, 53.6 percent. Interest in the 2012 race has dipped since the mid-term elections in November, but will likely rise as the election draws near. Republicans said they are more interested in the race than they were at this point in 2007.
High turnout in the primary, Smith said, means GOP candidates cannot appeal solely to committed activists, who tend to be more conservative than the electorate as a whole. That could benefit Romney, a relative moderate who has been downplaying social issues.
“The advantage that Romney has is, he is a moderate Northeast Republican running in a state where the Republicans are moderate Northeast Republicans,’’ Smith said.
The poll indicates President Obama is in a challenging political position in New Hampshire, which he lost narrowly in the 2008 Democratic primary but won in the general election. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed approved of his job performance, up slightly from April, but down from a high of 66 percent in February 2009, shortly after he took office.
Bob Colgate, a 68-year-old unenrolled voter from Jaffrey, voted for Obama in 2008. But Colgate, who owns a company that builds log homes, said he is looking at Romney in 2012.
“For me, a lot of it comes down to the economy, in that I’m not sure my business can survive,’’ he said. “There are just very few people building any single-family houses in the area.’’
Colgate said, however, he is not sold on the former Massachusetts governor.
“It seems there are a lot of people that have concerns about him, so I need to know more about why they’re so negative on him,’’ he said. “He strikes me as an honest guy and a straight shooter, but there are a lot of people who wouldn’t even consider him.’’
Health care, which has emerged as a tricky issue for Romney, is a top concern for only 8 percent of New Hampshire’s likely voters.
But a majority, 57 percent, said they do not think everyone should be required to buy health insurance. Such a mandate is a central feature of the health care law Romney drove to passage in Massachusetts and the national law signed by Obama.
A plurality of those polled, 45 percent, viewed the national health overhaul unfavorably. More said they believe it should be repealed (46 percent) than retained (39 percent).
And they see the economy through a sharply partisan lens: 57 percent of likely Republican voters said they think the economy is in a downturn, a view shared by only 23 percent of likely Democratic voters.
Gas prices, though not a major economic worry, are beginning to squeeze, according to the poll. More than half said prices, which average $3.78 per gallon in the state, have become a financial hardship.
Only 3 percent cited the ongoing wars as their top concern, but more than half, 57 percent, said they are dissatisfied with the standing of the United States in the world.
The death of Osama bin Laden, the poll indicated, has not greatly affected views about the timetable for pulling troops out of Afghanistan. Most polled said the killing of the terrorist leader would not allow the United States to accelerate its withdrawal.
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.