How to Watch the New Hampshire Primary

It's reasonable to expect that 40 percent of all eligible voters might participate in today's New Hampshire primary. In a nation where primary elections routinely draw turnout rates in the teens, that's a pretty remarkable thing.

It's a testament to the seriousness with which New Hampshire residents take their jobs as participants in the first-in-the nation primary. It's something of a civic religion here.

The previous Republican primary attracted 239,793 registered Republicans and independents, not much of a jump from the last open contest in 2000 when 236,802 voted on the GOP side. But in 2008, the action was on the Democratic side. This year the Red Team is the only game in town.

Track the race in real-time >>

As we saw with increased turnout in Iowa, even if Republicans and conservative-leaning independents are feeling a little crabby about their roster of candidates, they're still showing up to have their say.

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While Mitt Romney, frontrunner for four years, seems to be secure in his status as certain winner -- lapping his closest competitor, Rep. Ron Paul in the final pre-primary poll -- second, and maybe even third, matters a lot in a topsy-turvy national contest.

While Paul would benefit from another strong showing, he's got his eye on the convention. His primary task is to take as many of the state's 12 delegates as possible and move on to the next task.

But the others are not playing a numbers game. For the others, this is an exercise in social psychology, buzz generation and expectations. While Romney would be crippled by a loss here, there's almost no margin of victory the he can achieve that won't be automatically discounted by the establishment press.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is looking to be the Rick Santorum of New Hampshire and be the adopted hometown favorite of the state after an intensive focus here.

For Santorum, the task is to stay in the conversation heading into South Carolina. To do that, he must avoid falling to fifth place behind Newt Gingrich. The reverse is true for Gingrich. He must not fall behind Santorum.

As the results start to roll in after most polls close at 7:00 pm, here's what to watch for across the state.

Hillsborough County 

Population: 400,721 

2008 Result: 

Romney --35.1% 

McCain -- 34.9 % 

Huckabee -- 10.4% 

Giuliani -- 8.7% 

Paul -- 7.5% 

Thompson -- 1.1% 

Nearly a third of all votes are likely to be cast in Hillsborough County. It's home to the state's two largest cities, Manchester and Nashua, as well as many of the tax refugees from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

That's good news for Romney who is well known from his time as Massachusetts governor. He won Hillsborough in 2008 and it would be a very encouraging sign for him if he saw an increase in support here. This is where Romney will hope to deliver a knockout punch to Huntsman, but, also a place where more affluent, moderate voters might be open to some of the former ambassador to China's ideas.

But with a lot of blue-collar Catholic voters, Hillsborough County will also be key to Santorum's effort to avoid a fifth-place finish.

Rockingham County 

Population: 295,223 

2008 Result: 

Romney -- 36.8% 

McCain -- 35.8% 

Huckabee -- 9% 

Giuliani -- 8.8% 

Paul -- 6.4% 

Thompson -- 1.1% 

Seaside beauty spots and a business boom have made Rockingham County a favorite destination from new New Hampshire residents. Rockingham, particularly the towns of Portsmouth and Salem, is part of a revitalization on the southern coast of the state.

It could also prove electorally unpredictable. While Romney will benefit from the same advantages he enjoys in neighboring Hillsborough, look for Paul and Huntsman to do well with the growing number of independents here.

Merrimack County 

Population: 146,445 

2008 Result: 

McCain -- 38.7% 

Romney -- 27.0% 

Huckabee -- 12.6% 

Giuliani -- 9.1% 

Paul -- 8.3% 

Thompson -- 1.0% 

Anchored by New Hampshire's third-largest city and capital, Concord, Merrimack County is a political power player.

It tends to reflect the overall result of the state, and as New Hampshire's own Carl Cameron has pointed out, has two towns, Pembroke and Boscawen, that have picked the eventual winner of the state in every election since the Granite State achieved its preeminent primary status in 1952.

Being in the heart of the state, Merrimack is a microcosm of the rest of the state. John McCain won handily here in 2008 and Romney underperformed. But Ron Paul's showing here was also better than the rest of the state and could be a big boost to his chances.

Remember -- there are a lot of conservatives in Merrimack County. If Gingrich is going to break out of the pack of Not Romneys, he would need to score here.

Strafford County 

Population: 123,423 

2008 Result: 

McCain -- 37.5% 

Romney -- 25.5% 

Huckabee -- 14.1% 

Giuliani -- 8.9% 

Paul -- 8.6% 

Thompson -- 1.1% 

Strafford County, home to the University of New Hampshire in Durham and more of the southern coast region, is heavily Democratic, which makes it extra interesting for this year's Republican primary.

Aside from being the home base for a lot of Ron Paul's college supporters, it's also a place where disaffected Obama 2008 voters might show their support for Huntsman. You'll get a good sense of how liberal independents are trending when the vote comes in here.

Grafton County 

Population: 89,118 

2008 Result: 

McCain -- 45% 

Romney -- 20.2% 

Huckabee -- 12.6% 

Paul -- 10% 

Giuliani -- 7.4% 

Thompson -- 1.6% 

Grafton County on the Vermont border is home to Dartmouth College and the most scenic spots in the White Mountains. There are lots of vacation homes and resorts in the area. This is Robert Frost country, all the way

The northern, more rural portion of the county tends to be more Republican while the area around Dartmouth tends to be more Democratic, but on the whole, liberals reign here.

John McCain had his strongest showing here of any county in the state in 2008 and one of Romney's worst. These are very independent minded folks. Watch to see how Paul and Huntsman are splitting the vote here and you may see the trend for the rest of the state.

Belknap County 


2008 Result: 

McCain -- 36.8% 

Romney -- 31.5% 

Huckabee -- 11.1% 

Giuliani -- 8.1% 

Paul -- 7.1% 

Thompson -- 1.6% 

Located on scenic Lake Winnipesaukee, Belknap County is the Republican heartland of New Hampshire.

In 2008, it reflected, almost to the decimal, the outcome of the overall vote in the state. The city of Lanconia is generally on the money, and one of Campaign Carl's eternal bellwethers, Sanabornton, is here too.

Pay close attention to the vote here.

Cheshire County 

Population: 77,117 

2008 Result: 

McCain -- 36.7% 

Romney --26.5% 

Huckabee -- 15.1% 

Paul -- 8.7% 

Giuliani -- 7.1% 

Thompson -- 1.4% 

There aren't many Republicans in Cheshire County and its largest city, Keene. But there are a bunch of libertarians.

Democrats tend to dominate politics, thanks in part to the faculties Keene State College and Antioch University, but the Free State Project, which urges libertarians to move to New Hampshire to take over state politics, has a footprint there.

Watch for Ron Paul to improve his showing here, but also look for Santorum's presence in Cheshire. Social conservatives rewarded Mike Huckabee with his best showing in the state here.

Carroll County 

Population: 47,818 

2008 Result: 

McCain -- 39.1% 

Romney -- 31.9% 

Huckabee -- 10% 

Paul -- 7.9% 

Giuliani -- 7.2% 

Thompson -- 1.6% 

A rural, mountainous stretch along the Maine border, Carroll County is rugged country. Many New Hampshire residents trek here to ski at Cranmore Mountain and Attitash.

Though traditionally rock-ribbed in its Republicanism, Carroll went for the Democratic nominee for president in 2008 for the first time since 1912.

Sullivan County 

Population: 43,472 

2008 Result: 

McCain -- 40% 

Romney -- 24.7% 

Huckabee -- 14.1% 

Paul -- 7.6% 

Giuliani -- 8.5% 

Thompson -- 1.4% 

Sullivan County tends to politically behave like its neighbors in the Connecticut River Valley, Grafton and Cheshire Counties - very Democratic in general elections.

There are very few votes to be had in the Republican primary, but it is another place where liberal-leaning independents may make their mark on the Republican race. If Huntsman is doing well, he should do well here.

Coos County 

Population: 33,055 

2008 Result: 

McCain -- 39.9% 

Romney --18.7% 

Huckabee -- 17.5% 

Paul -- 8.1% 

Giuliani -- 9.5% 

Thompson -- 1.4% 

Way up north in the state's panhandle, Coos County is sparsely populated and economically stunted. The paper industry once provided a core of good paying jobs, but the region now can count only nature tourism as a breadwinner.

The biggest town, Berlin, boasts just over 10,000 residents.

Remember, they pronounce both "o"s in the county -- like Kew-uhs.