Experts are divided on Free-Staters impact
By DEAN ABBOTT
As members of the Free State Project prepare to move to the Granite State, local observers say the group’s effect could be minimal, but one University of New Hampshire expert says it’s important not to underestimate their potential.
The Free State Project announced on Wednesday that New Hampshire had been selected as the organization’s target state through a process in which members chose among several states on a variety of criteria.
The Free State Project is a political movement attempting to convince 20,000 limited government activists to move to New Hampshire with the intent of influencing public policy.
The project’s Web site, www.freestateproject.org, describes the political position of many of its members. "Most FSP members support policies such as the abolition of all income taxes, elimination of regulatory bureaucracies, repeal of most gun control laws, repeal of most drug prohibition laws, and wide-scale privatization."
Some experts said that in light of New Hampshire’s growing population, 20,000 activists are unlikely to have enough political muscle to enact the policies they support. The University of New Hampshire Survey Center estimates the current population as roughly 1.3 million people. By 2010 the population will likely grow by about 100,000 people to number around 1.4 million.
Michelle Dumas of Somersworth, who serves the group as a New Hampshire media coordinator, said none of the group’s members are required to move to New Hampshire until the group reaches a membership total of 20,000, a goal they hope to reach by 2006.
Once the group reaches 20,000 members, participants will have an additional five years to settle their affairs and move to New Hampshire. This means that none of the members are required to show up in the state until 2011.
Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett center for public policy in Concord, said that a group of 20,000 activists is not likely to have a serious influence on the state’s political scene in the next eight to 10 years. "They want to move up 20,000 people and we have around 1.2 million already, so it won’t be a dramatic effect. One of the traditions of New Hampshire is that people like to be left alone. If that’s what these people want, this is a good place for them; if they’re looking to take over a state, they should pick one with a smaller population."
James Pindell, who watches New Hampshire politics for the Web site PoliticsNH.com, also said the proportion of Free Staters to the rest of the population could minimize the group’s impact. "It’s brilliant for them to pick New Hampshire. There are a lot of towns where they could have a lot of influence, but if their goal is to take over state government, that’s another story. They’re going to need a lot more people," he said.
Pindell used last fall’s gubernatorial election as an example of how the group’s effect as a voting block could turn out to be inconsequential. "If you added 20,000 people into last fall’s elections, Republicans still would have won by a wide margin. If we project out 10 or 12 years, (we’ll see that) if they couldn’t affect anything when the population was 1.3 million, they’re certainly not going to have much statewide influence when it’s 1.5 or 1.6 million."
Arlinghaus also remains skeptical about how many Free Staters will actually come through on their pledge to move because of the effort required to find new homes and jobs. "To uproot yourself," he said, "you have to quit your job, get a new job and a new house. They’ll have to find jobs. Now, New Hampshire’s going to lead the nation out of this economic downturn, but (still) that’s a lot of job growth."
Though 20,000 activists may not be enough to radically change state politics, Free State Project Vice President Elizabeth McKinstry said the number is enough to help accomplish the group’s goals. "Twenty thousand is not enough to take over New Hampshire but that has never been our goal. What we want to do is open the political dialogue. It’s enough people to say ‘We want to hear some different ideas. We want to try some new things,’" she said.
Dave Corbin, a University of New Hampshire political science instructor, said the Free Staters could accomplish many of their goals even if only a fraction of the proposed 20,000 moved here. Those who are analyzing the potential effects of the group on the basis of numbers alone are not looking at the situation deeply enough, he said.
"Let’s say only 4,000 of them move here. You wouldn’t just say ‘What’s 4,000? That’s only a drop in the electoral bucket.’ That’s not looking at the situation properly," he said
"When you talk about those people who are politically active in New Hampshire, you’re only talking about 5,000 people, those are the people political candidates target. If you have (only) 1,000 people (from the Free State Project) coming here to make a difference, they will," Corbin said.
Corbin pointed out how important activists are to any political campaign as an index of the influence Free Staters could eventually achieve. Each individual activist represents not just one person, but all the people they will persuade. "Any time you have a campaign and you have an activist, you know you have 20 or 30 times the number of votes as activists," he said.
Activists for any cause tend to replicate themselves, Corbin said. "You have to look at activists exponentially. Every activist has an exponential value, because, as someone who believes in your message, they’re going to go out and multiply it over and over," he said.
Corbin said that these grassroots activists have helped Howard Dean rise to the level of political success he has enjoyed in recent months because they "are on the ground. They are the ones who host coffees and direct people to the Web site to show people what they are really arguing."
In terms of this kind of ground-level activism, Corbin said, the Free Staters could achieve real influence.
"(Even) 4,000 people in a state the size of New Hampshire is a lot of people if they have signed on to a campaign to spread libertarian ideas. They could do a lot. I can’t tell you how many are going to come and what effect they’re going to have when they get here, but I will say that even 1,000 people who are politically motivated and willing to work, can have a great deal of political success," Corbin said.
The greatest challenge to the Free Stater’s success could come from their own philosophy which cherishes individualism and independence, Corbin said. "If they get here and are willing to work for it, they could have a political effect, but if they hide themselves in the woods of Coos and Grafton counties and practice a ‘leave me alone philosophy,’ they’ll be about as politically effective as moose."