John Lappie: Elections Expert in a Politics-Loving State

The horserace aspect of politics—who’s ahead, who’s catching up—is often of greatest interest to the general public. Professor John Lappie’s students share that excitement, but also delve deeper into candidate motivations and process outcomes.

A member of the political science faculty who studies elections for a living, Lappie is now in his third year at Plymouth State. Some of his students believe that getting elected is all that politicians care about, but he reminds them that the election is only the first step. “The whole point of getting elected is so you can govern.”

“Students learn that politics is complicated and that there are trade-offs that politicians are making when they are running for office,” he says. “If there was a silver bullet that could solve all of our problems, they would have used it by now.”

Budgets provide good examples of the frequently inconsistent public attitudes that elected officials must navigate. While budget-cutters may rail against the nation’s mounting debt, a great deal of the red ink results from spending on very popular programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Defense. “Many people think the government just wastes money on pork barrel projects, but most seem to like the pork barrel that their own politicians are obtaining,” Lappie says.

Lappie’s lifelong interest in politics was modeled by his parents, both of whom played significant roles in local affairs in Connecticut. Lappie’s father was on the town council and became the town party chair, and his mother chaired the school board. Their son got involved early on as videographer of town council meetings.

Prior to joining PSU, Lappie was a researcher from 2015–2018 at Rice University’s Center for Local Elections in American Politics (LEAP), and he remains a LEAP affiliate. His study of election results data stood him in good stead when a New Hampshire reporter asked him what towns might serve as election bellwethers. “I didn’t know off the top of my head, but I knew where to look, and I was able to get back with the answer an hour later.” He responded that Laconia and a ward in Concord were the places to keep an eye on.

February’s presidential primary and November’s general election created strong demand for Lappie’s skills, and he provided analysis and commentary for the Boston Herald, New Hampshire Public Radio, and WCAX-TV, among other media outlets.

Lappie teaches several courses, including a special topics offering on local politics. “All politics is local,” famously maintained former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil, and the aphorism continues to find expression in the Granite State, where heavyweight candidates spend millions to endear themselves to a small fraction of the national population. New Hampshire holds a special place in the American political firmament, with its outsized impact stemming largely from hosting the nation’s first presidential primary. “Candidates have to spend a lot of time trying to appeal to New Hampshire issues and New Hampshire voters, which makes us very influential,” says Lappie.

The result is that New Hampshire provides an exceptional setting for college students to learn about the political process. “I tell my students it’s unusual to walk into the HUB and see presidential candidates hanging out,” says Lappie. He encourages them to take advantage of the unique opportunities that they have, such as the ability to personally meet, greet, and size up prominent individuals whom they are passionate about.