Oct. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Most states would look enviously at a 5.3 percent unemployment rate. By New Hampshire’s standards, times are still tough.
“Everybody is nervous,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market research group based in Concord. “Everybody is not sure if things are getting better or getting worse, and they feel like we need to do better than we are doing now.”
That such anxiety permeates even a state where the jobless rate is less than half that of other battlegrounds like Nevada, South Carolina and Florida underscores how thoroughly the economy is eclipsing other issues in the presidential campaign.
So far, that’s helped former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who has made New Hampshire the cornerstone of his bid for the Republican nomination and dominates polls in the state, the site of the party’s first primary.
Concern about the economy will be raised at a debate tomorrow sponsored by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The debate, featuring Romney and seven other Republican presidential candidates, will be the first of the 2012 campaign to focus solely on the economy. The session will be broadcast on Bloomberg Television, Bloomberg Radio, WBIN-TV in New Hampshire and on Bloomberg.com and WashingtonPost.com.
New Hampshire’s August unemployment rate of 5.3 percent was almost 4 points below the national average of 9.1 percent. Only North Dakota, Nebraska and South Dakota had lower rates.
Among the five states now scheduled to start the Republican nominating season, New Hampshire has the lowest jobless rate. Iowa, where the caucuses will begin the process in December or early January, had the eighth-lowest rate in the nation for August, at 6.1 percent.
Republicans are more likely to confront greater economic anxiety in South Carolina, Nevada and Florida, where the August rates were 11.1 percent, 13.4 percent and 10.7 percent.
“We have done fairly well weathering the recession,” said Adrienne Rupp, vice president of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire. “We are hearing from businesses that they are seeing more activity and thinking about starting to hire employees.”
Still, New Hampshire’s unemployment rate has ticked up in recent months, from 4.8 percent in May. Before mid-2008, the state’s rate was typically around 3.5 percent.
And it lost about 16,000 jobs to China from 2001 through 2008, proportionally more than any other state, according to a study by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute.
“We didn’t get hit as hard,” said Dennis Delay, an economist at the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, a nonpartisan research group based in Concord. “But relative to New Hampshire’s historical rate of unemployment, it’s still higher than we are used to seeing.”
It’s too high for Steve Millett’s liking.
“It’s not looking very good right now,” said Millett, 41, a telephone company lineman from the town of Jefferson who was shopping over the weekend at the Mall of New Hampshire. “People are pinching pennies and business is slower.”
Arlinghaus of the Bartlett Center said New Hampshire voters may be less volatile than those in more economically troubled states.
“There is possibly less anger here than there is in some places, but I think some of that has to do with the Tea Party movement not being a new thing here,” he said. “The notion of government reform and economic issues has always been strong here, so it doesn’t seem as different from previous years. These issues have been at the forefront in New Hampshire for decades.”
Monique Lindquist, 39, a hospital human resources worker who lives in Goffstown, said she frequently sees the damage unemployment has done to job applicants.
“I see other people who have been looking for work a long time,” she said.
New Hampshire’s population, now 1.3 million, grew 6.5 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. That was less than the national gain of 9.7 percent. Yet Delay, the economist, said the state benefits from tens of thousands of commuters who live in New Hampshire and travel to jobs in the Boston area.
There are only about 30 publicly traded companies domiciled in the state, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. They had a combined market value of $7.3 billion at the end of trading Oct. 7, less than that of Hormel Foods Corp. of Minnesota.
Delay said smaller companies are attracted to the state’s educated workers and relatively low costs, which he said includes one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation. New Hampshire’s state and local tax burden is about 8 percent of income, ranking it 44th in the U.S., according to the Washington-based Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.
“The manufacturers that we still have here have adapted,” he said. “We don’t have large physical plants and large companies that are located here.”
The state’s companies, such as Lisbon-based New England Wire Technologies, tend to make components that go into things, rather than final products, Delay said.
“It makes you a little lighter on your feet,” he said of the state’s diversified economy, which also includes business services, education and tourism.
Many of those who work in that low-tax, diversified economy have shown an affinity for Romney, from neighboring Massachusetts. His backers say Romney’s business experience, which includes working as the head of the private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC, gives him a boost.
“They know Romney,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general and a supporter. “They like his background and feel he is credible.”
A Granite State Poll, sponsored by WMUR-TV and conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, that was released Oct. 7 showed Romney leading among the state’s Republicans, with support from 37 percent; businessman Herman Cain came in second with 12 percent. The poll, conducted Sept. 26 through Oct. 6, had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.3 percentage points.
Rath said New Hampshire’s unemployment rate “looks better than it feels,” adding that there are many “underemployed” workers in the state.
“What you have here is a high degree of angst,” he said. “There is a great concern here that this president, for whatever reason, has not been able to direct this economy in a positive direction.”
‘Kind of Stalled’
President Barack Obama won New Hampshire and its four electoral votes in 2008, although his popularity has fallen since then.
Two-thirds of New Hampshire adults disapprove of Obama’s job performance on the economy, according to a Sept. 25-29 poll by American Research Group Inc., of Manchester. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
David Fink, 47, a welder who lives in Manchester, said the depressed housing market has kept him from refinancing his home because he doesn’t have enough equity and it isn’t worth as much as it used to be.
“It seems kind of stalled,” he said of the housing market. “It keeps me from doing the things I would like to do.”
--Editors: Mark McQuillan, Robin Meszoly
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