SALEM, N.H. (CN) — As Republican politicians prepare to descend on New Hampshire ahead of its pivotal primary 10 months from now, interviews with voters in the conservative-leaning middle-class town of Salem reveal an electorate that is profoundly uninterested in culture wars, deeply worried about the economy and convinced that political leaders are out of touch with real life.
“Politicians need to start listening to the people, and not just the people with the loudest voices,” complained Helen McIntyre.
Issues that dominate the discussion in Washington and on cable news — climate change, Ukraine, President Trump’s indictment, the banking crisis, crime, abortion, race, gender, guns — don’t even register here. Instead there is one overriding concern: the cost of living.
“I mean, you can’t afford anything anymore,” said one voter as she wheeled a shopping cart out of Market Basket, a discount grocery store.
“It’s food,” said another resident, Tiffany Lewis. “Gas prices fluctuate but grocery prices keep going up and they never come down.”
But it’s not just food. “It’s heating oil prices,” said Kevin Begley. “We need to get the pipelines going again.”
And it’s housing prices. “People are making the same money, and you turn around and houses suddenly cost $100,000 more,” said Tyler Bolduc. “People used to buy apartments and now they can’t. Interest rates are through the roof. It’s outrageous.”
A recent statewide poll showed that the cost of housing was the No. 1 issue in the state, cited by 32% of respondents. Nothing else was even close, according to Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
Housing prices may have peaked in much of the country but they’re still going up in the Granite State as people in the nearby Boston area move across the border to escape the even higher prices there, Smith said.
In Salem — the childhood home of the state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu — the median household income is $58,090 and the median home price is $590,250, up a whopping 17.5% in the past year. That means the median home costs more than 10 times the median household income, compared to about four times the median in the U.S. on average.
But voters say inflation affects everything, not just housing. “People say, ‘oh, inflation is up x percent,’” said Bolduc, “but what they don’t understand is that that’s x percent on every single thing you ever buy. It’s out of control, and I’m living it.”
“My 95-year-old mom went bankrupt,” said Charlene Vaykovich. “She outlived her money. My 401(k) is way down and my taxes are way up. It sucks.”
New Hampshire has a reputation as the home of retail politics, where highly engaged voters in living rooms grill would-be presidents about policy minutiae. But a surprising number of residents here have become so alienated and cynical, believing that politicians just don’t care about their problems, that they’ve tuned out politics altogether.
“I just don’t vote anymore,” said one. “I’ve stopped talking about politics,” said another. A third added: “I don’t even watch the news anymore. It makes me too nervous.”
“I used to care about politics,” said Matt Willard, “but so many politicians are great at saying what people want to hear, and then they get into office, and they just benefit themselves. I don’t trust either party. They’re just blowing smoke up people’s chimneys.”
Conservative-leaning voters here appear to have zero interest in the culture-war battles being fought on cable news and social media. Asked about Republican candidates, Renée Sullivan said, “I’m looking for a candidate who can unite people, not just in the Republican party but in the country.”
Added McIntyre: “There’s so much hatred, bigotry and division. We need to be brought together.”
The state has a long history of social libertarianism, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. He notes that Sununu regularly downplays cultural issues and doesn’t believe that such battles should be fought through the government.
New Hampshire is the least religious state in the U.S., according to Smith, whose polls show that, remarkably, Republicans in the state are more pro-choice than Americans are generally.
But there’s one issue that does get residents’ attention here besides the economy — immigration.
“I want to see more immigration, but our current border policy is expensive and unsafe,” said Sandra Rumbaugh.
Sherry Sharkey worried that, “We have a lot of people roaming around, and we don’t know who they are or what they’re doing.”
It might seem odd that the border is such a concern here given that it’s thousands of miles away, but, as Joe Ross complained, “every state is now a border state,” with the Biden administration shipping undocumented people around the country.
Immigration appears to hit a nerve not because of xenophobia but because it crystalizes the concern that politicians are focused on peripheral issues rather than basic economics. “We shouldn’t be the world’s policeman,” said Ross. “We should put the U.S. first.”
Vaykovich, whose mother went bankrupt, said, “We have all these immigrants but we’re not taking care of our own people.”
In Salem, immigration, like everything else, comes down to a pocketbook issue.
“Inflation is too high,” said Ricky MacGyver. “Property taxes are too high. At the end of the day, I just want more money in my pocket.”
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