Hold it, Pundits
New Hampshire Voters Aren’t ‘Flinty’
February 8, 2016
By Keith O’Brien
Every four years, right on time, it’s word of the week.
New Hampshire voters are flinty, have a “flinty reputation,” are “flinty live-free-or-die citizens,” “flinty mothers” and “flinty contrarians,” “flinty New Englanders” speaking with “flinty accents” and squinting with “flinty eyes” everywhere in the “flinty Granite State.”
The adjective shows up nearly 500 times in news stories in roughly the last two decades describing New Hampshire and its primary. The practice dates back to at least 1968 when described the state, on primary eve, as “full of flinty Yankees.” And in this election cycle, reporters are back at it again.
, this week, described the state as “notoriously flinty.” Both and have used the word—“these flinty Yankees,” “flinty voters”—at least twice in recent weeks. —full disclosure—has used the word at least once. The pundits, not wanting to be , have gotten into the game. In November, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews described New Hampshire as “this great, gritty, flinty” place. And the actual candidates for president can’t help themselves, either. “New Hampshire residents are a little more flinty,” Gov. Chris Christie, from New Jersey, said back in August. “A little more pushy.”
There is, however, at least one problem with the word: Whatever flinty means, exactly—and that’s its own debate—it’s not clear at all that the word actually applies to New Hampshire anymore. It’s shorthand—a simple way to categorize voters, maybe—but it’s not necessarily true.
Reporters, pundits and candidates who fall back on the word are just getting things wrong—apparently really wrong, in the case of state that, according to polls, is overwhelmingly supporting a fancy-suited, big-jet-flying New Yorker in Donald Trump. And for candidates trying to notch a win in the all-important New Hampshire primary, buying into that “flinty” myth can have real costs. See Alexander, Lamar; candidate from 1996, who showed up here in a flannel shirt, doing his best simulation of a tough old Yankee, and being laughed out.
“He didn’t fare so well,” said Andrew Smith—a professor, pollster, and director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center—recalling Alexander’s third-place finish to Republican Pat Buchanan. “People around the state were asking: ‘Why’s this guy going around wearing flannel?’”
Maybe, once, a long time ago, the word fit. And certainly, in remote parts of the mountains of New Hampshire, it might still. But people who live here can’t help but wonder: What’s so flinty about New Hampshire, anymore?
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Whether in New Hampshire or not, people have been calling other people “flinty” for hundreds of years. Since at least the 1500s, it’s been used as an adjective—flinty—with both practical usage related to stone (the farmer’s field is flinty) and metaphorical applications related to people. “If his heart be so stony, so flinty,” the Oxford English Dictionary notes, documenting a written reference from 1536.
“It’s not necessarily a positive thing,” said explained Tim Pulju, a senior lecturer of linguistics and classics at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “It’s kind of hard-hearted, or just hard—difficult to deal with, stubborn. But those things can also be seen as positive, and New Hampshire-ites may have taken something that could’ve been thought of as negative and regarded it as positive, turned it into something self-complimentary.”
But is it true? This is a question I began asking myself recently, not only as a journalist, but as a resident of New Hampshire. I moved here last summer—my second stint in New England. And, until I started reading news accounts about the primary, I never thought of my new neighbors as flinty. Turns out, I’m not alone. Smith—the pollster at UNH—doesn’t see anything flinty about New Hampshire, either.
“It’s absolutely misplaced,” Smith told me. “This state is largely highly educated, upper income, suburban people that live in the greater Boston area. Many of them work in Massachusetts—and most haven’t lived in New Hampshire for very long.”
In a new report, Smith and two colleagues reveal that 30 percent of voters who will cast ballots in next week’s primary were either too young to vote in 2008 or are new to the state entirely. And the latter category in New Hampshire—people like me—is especially large, when compared to other states. New Hampshire has the sixth lowest percentage of native-born residents of any US state.
All these transplants have brought big changes to this little state over time. According to US Census figures, comparing 1990 to last year, New Hampshire is better educated, more diverse (21 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home), and far less likely to work in traditional industries like manufacturing. As for that independent streak? While it’s true, Smith said, that 44 percent of New Hampshire voters are registered as undeclared, the vast majority of those identify with one party, leaving in the end just a small pot of those so-called flinty mavericks, allegedly living in the snowy woods of New Hampshire.
“Any campaign needs to be careful about assumptions being made about the electorate,” Smith said. “And if you assume the electorate is the flinty New Hampshire caricature, you could run the risk of being the Lamar Alexander of this cycle.”
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Like any overused description, there’s at least some truth in it, even if it’s only self-image. Katie Wheeler—a Hillary Clinton supporter who served 14 years in New Hampshire’s statehouse—said many people here take pride in being tough. “It takes a lot to move us,” she said, especially during primary season. “You have to look at it, taste it, and feel it—before you believe it.”
And media analysts understand why reporters might return to the term again and again. “New Hampshire is a really complicated thing to explain for the national press,” said Matt Sienkiewicz, an assistant professor of communication at Boston College, teaching courses on how meaning gets made through media. Describing the state as flinty, he said, helps quickly explain the people and sets the scene. “You can kind of picture an old man trudging through the snow,” Sienkiewicz said. “And there are a lot of old men in New Hampshire who trudge through snow—certainly.”
But the New Hampshire voter is also increasingly a soccer mom in Bedford, a hipster in Portsmouth, a professor in Durham, and a retiree—on the beach, in the White Mountains, or on one of the state’s 780 lakes and ponds. “They’re wealthy people from New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts who are building second homes,” Smith told me. “And they’re retiring to those nice homes. The people who live in $3 million homes on Lake Winnipesaukee aren’t particularly flinty.”
At campaign events this week, voters—from both parties—looked at me askance when I mentioned the whole notion of flintiness. And the events themselves could hardly be described as flinty, at times. A Trump rally Tuesday night at a private athletic club in suburban Milford featured gas torches, a spotlight in the sky, and an outdoor grill, selling cheeseburgers for $6. “I don’t know where they get the word flinty,” said Herb Klein, one voter attending the event. “New Hampshire is all granite.”
A hundred yards away, in the parking lot, three dozen high school kids were protesting the candidate’s appearance, waving signs and chanting “Deport Trump.” “Do you think we’re giving off positive energy?” Claire Foley, the protest organizer, asked me. She’s a high school senior and a Bernie Sanders supporter. “We’re trying to make it about love,” she explained, “not hate.”
Some Trump voters, of course, didn’t see it that way. “They’ve been flipping us off,” said Lyndsey Schiavone, a protester at Foley’s side. But the two voting blocs, Trump and Sanders, could agree at least on one point: flinty didn’t resonate. “I’ve never even heard that word,” Foley said. And the same was true at least one blue-collar haunt—an American Legion hall in Epping—where Gov. Chris Christie met with voters that morning.
As Christie answered questions for about 90 minutes inside the Legion hall’s small room with a drop ceiling, I walked across the hall to the bar. Inside, it smelled of cigarette smoke, beer, and men—and I set out to find the flintiest looking one among them. To me, he appeared to be sitting at the bar: Graying and bearded, wearing a black and orange Harley Davidson sweater and a ball cap. John DuBois was clearly known to the bartender as he placed his order: a Bud Light, with a shot of whiskey on the side.
If there was ever a flinty voter, it sure looked like him: 65 and retired, a New Hampshire native, I soon learned, and a US Navy veteran, having drink with friends, at lunchtime, on a weekday. But DuBois wasn’t seeing it. “Hard?” he asked. “In what way?”
Then, without missing a beat, he asked me: “Can I buy you a drink?”