The Power of Research: How a Single Data Point Changed the New Hampshire Primary Conversation


If you’ve been paying any attention to the presidential campaign — and I certainly don’t blame you if you haven’t — you’ve probably heard a candidate or two talk about what he or she would do about the “opioid crisis.” Here in New Hampshire, this issue has seldom come up in local races, never mind the national ones. But there’s a very good reason that it’s starting to play a much bigger role in this year’s cycle – research.

A while back, I was at a PRSA Yankee Chapter event in Manchester, New Hampshire, at the St. Anselm College Institute of Politics. There, Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, was asked if he thought data and research ever played a role in politics – given how fast and loose most politicians are with actual facts. His answer was: “Absolutely.”

He gave a great example: The Granite State Poll, sponsored by WMUR-TV and conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, found a surprising jump in people who named drug addiction and specifically opioids as a major issue. Even more surprising, in our very fiscally conservative state, 42% of respondents said the state should be spending more to reduce heroin abuse. Half of NH residents said they knew someone who had abused heroin. (Full survey results are here.)

But it’s what happened next that gets interesting. As they usually do, UNH and WMUR announced the results of the research. The local public radio station did a segment on it, and NH Governor Maggie Hassan, who had just announced her run for incumbent Republican Kelly Ayotte’s Senate seat, started talking about the opioid crisis everywhere she went.

All the usual political maneuverings followed. A bi-partisan task force was convened, laws proposed, federal grants applied for, etc., etc.

At the same time, Maggie Hassan endorsed Hillary Clinton. Shortly thereafter, when Clinton was doing a series of town hall meetings around the state, she asked voters what was on their minds. In those meetings, the issue of drug abuse and opioid addiction kept coming up, reinforcing the Granite State Poll indicating that it was a key issue among NH voters. Soon, the Opioid Crisis, and plans to deal with it, became part of Clinton’s standard stump speech in New Hampshire.

Now that other candidates are spending more time in New Hampshire, they’re all jumping on the bandwagon. Both Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina started talking about their personal experiences with friends and family who suffered from drug issues.

We’re still a few weeks away from finding out whether this pivot to drug issues will help any of the candidates. Nevertheless, it does show how a single data point from a single research report just might influence history. ∞

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Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.