NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — Some 47 of the last 56 governors of this state have been Republicans. For six decades, every major-party nominee for statewide office has pledged not to support a sales or income tax. For 340 years, New Hampshire has delegated major powers — pardons, contracts, nominations — to a body called the Executive Council that has few analogues in the other 49 states. This is the only state that has never numbered highway exits by miles.
The more things change elsewhere, the more they remain the same here.
Until now. Just six weeks before this quirky state — rich in scenic byways, cheap in government spending — takes center stage in presidential politics by conducting the first primary in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, New Hampshire is overrun with White House candidates who are promising change, some of it dramatic.
But a state where political candidates used to print placards that had taglines boasting they were “Honest. Hard-working. Conservative” is itself undergoing change.
A state that voted Republican in 28 of the 34 elections between 1856 and 1988 — between GOP nominees John C. Fremont and George H.W. Bush — has given its electoral votes to a Democrat in six of the last seven presidential elections. A state that once was so isolated that homeowners in Grafton County in northwestern New Hampshire got only one television station now are awash in cable TV and internet information. The state that once lived by colonial-era Blue Laws that shuttered businesses on Sundays is a veritable vanity fair of commerce, with factory outlets in this community open only one hour less on Sundays than on Mondays.
A state Robert Frost — who boasted “I suppose I’ve slept in more towns in New Hampshire than you’ve ever heard of” — saw as a center of what his New Hampshire-born biographer Lawrance Thompson listed as its “cities and towns and villages and mountains and lakes” now conducts almost all of its presidential politics in its cities, leaving its towns, villages, mountains and lakes playing a role only as scenic background.
Those towns and villages and mountains and lakes remain, and it is still possible, especially in February primary season, to have the sort of experience Frost celebrated in the poem “Good Hours”:
I had for my winter evening walk
No one at all with whom to talk,
But I had the cottages in a row
Up to their shining eyes in snow.
But the state that sits at the geographical center of New England and that invented Old Home Week — an 1899 gubernatorial invitation from Frank West Rollins for the state’s natives to return to their jagged homeland that helped seal New Hampshire’s identity of Yankee farmers living in neat communities with green town commons and white-steepled churches — no longer is almost entirely populated by people of English and French Canadian extraction. (Many of the latter flooded into the state in the late 19th century to work in textile mills along the Merrimack, Salmon Falls and Connecticut rivers.) Today only 42% of New Hampshire residents were born here, a rate of in-state native population far less than that for the New England region (58%) or for the country as a whole (59%).
Jere Daniell, the revered retired Dartmouth historian, raconteur and master of all things New Hampshire, once argued that the geological curiosity known as the Old Man of the Mountain — an outcropping that looked eerily like the old Yankee of New Hampshire myth celebrated by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Daniel Webster — was “a revealing fusion of landscape and persona in the Granite State.” The Old Man endures on road signs and on the state’s license plates, but it crumbled to the ground nearly 17 years ago.
These changes are more than the fact that state game wardens no longer pay a 25-cent bounty for each porcupine nose — the notion of counting noses has an entirely different meaning at primary time — or the fact that the shoe, textile and wood-product industries that dominated the state’s economy in 1850 disappeared more than a half century ago. The late Hugh Gregg, who served between 1953 and 1955, once told me, in a reference to his years as governor: “The economy back then was a lot like the way it had been a century earlier. There was no new industry. The state was pretty remote. Auto travel was very difficult.”
None of that is true today. Nor are the cultural characteristics of the state. Only a committed nostalgist knows that Claremont, on the Connecticut, once had an opera house and a Roseland dance hall where Tommy Dorsey played regularly. Mr. Dorsey, whose signature tune was “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” died 26 years before Pete Buttigieg was born.
Two decades ago New Hampshire ranked 15th among the states in the percentage of its population with a college degree (27%). Today it ranks second, with 36% of its residents possessing a bachelor’s degree or higher. That education-heavy profile is only growing more distinct; between 2013 and 2017, according to a report released in November by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, 16,000 people with a bachelor’s degree or higher moved here while 11,500 without a BA left the state. “Even during the worst of the  recession,” the report said, “New Hampshire had a net gain of migrants with a college degree or more, but the state’s gain has accelerated in the post-recessionary period.”
Even the factor that poses the greatest danger to New Hampshire’s favored place at the front of the parade of primaries — the perennial complaint that the state lacks diversity and thus is an improper place for such prominence — is changing, though only modestly. While only 6% of the state’s population is foreign-born, far less than the 13% nationwide, the minority population has doubled since the beginning of the new century, now reaching 136,000 people, about a tenth of the population. But growth among minorities accounted for two-thirds of the entire increase in the state’s population.
So when the presidential candidates talk about new ideas in this old state, they are not trying to persuade the population. They are trying to appeal to the population. That, above all, makes politics distinctive in this election year.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.