Don’t Be So Quick to Declare the New Hampshire Primary Dead
Senator Bernie Sanders greets supporters after winning New Hampshire's Democratic primary on February 11, 2020 in Manchester. Credit - Salwan Georges—The Washington Post via Getty Images
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In August of 2007, leaders from the “big three” of the presidential primary calendar—Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina—convened to show their detractors that they meant business. In New Hampshire’s State House in Concord, the delegations came together to present a united front against those vying to upend what they viewed as the natural order of things. An ultimatum was soon released. Iowa would keep its lead-off caucuses, followed a week later with New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, then South Carolina’s first-in-the-South contest, thank you very much. Consequences be damned.
Having listened to those presentations as an Associated Press reporter who lived just nine blocks away from the Concord State House—and having seen the indifference to anything happening beyond the borders of those three privileged states in town hall meetings and grocery store aisles alike—I knew this was anything but a bluff. The cranky yankees who ran Concord weren’t likely to be spooked by outsiders’ threats. The 2008 calendar would ultimately begin, as always, with Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
And the crowded field of candidates that cycle—from Hillary Clinton to Dennis Kuchich, from John McCain to Fred Thompson—all suspected that would be the ultimate outcome, having built operations to match.
Fast forward to 2022, and every political strategist is bracing for a major shake-up of the next primary calendar. National Democrats are moving ahead with their plans to fire the starting pistol in South Carolina, with Nevada and New Hampshire following a few days later. Iowa, meanwhile, would get booted back in the pack, partly as penance for its blown tech experiment of a caucus in 2020. The Midwest crown would instead go to Michigan, while Georgia would move ahead to reflect that state’s growing importance as a swing state.
But even if it no longer has Iowa and South Carolina in its corner, the assumption that New Hampshire will eventually accept its fate as one of dozens of middle-of-the-pack primary states is misunderstanding the situation. Despite the threat of being stripped of its delegates and candidates being punished for even stepping foot there, New Hampshire is ready to once again refuse to go along. The state’s willingness to buck national Democrats is as much rooted in recent tradition as law. New Hampshire traces its lineage as an early presidential primary state to 1916, and a 1976 state law requires the state to have its primary a week ahead of any other “similar contest,” generally read as a presidential primary. (Iowa, having been a caucus then, was deemed a non-competitor.) Disregarding that requirement would be tantamount to the secretary of state—the top elections official in New Hampshire—breaking the law.
Which means these two facts can simultaneously be true: New Hampshire can still go first; New Hampshire’s value may be purely symbolic.
The arguments against New Hampshire are as familiar as they are old. New Hampshire—like Iowa—is a racially homogenous state. There’s no point pretending otherwise. Its largest city, Manchester, is among the state’s more varied; 82% is white, a full 10 points more diverse than the state as a whole. Still, the 115,000-resident Manchester is about one-quarter the size of Atlanta proper, one-fifth the size of Detroit, and a little less than half the size of even Des Moines. As Scott Conroy’s delightful treatise on the state’s electoral history—Vote First or Die: The New Hampshire Primary: America’s Discerning, Magnificent, and Absurd Road to the White House—details, The Boston Globe’s Mike Barnicle spent the lead-up to the 1984 primary on a crusade against the state’s vaunted first-in-the-nation status, joking at one point that it was “a truck stop, not a state.” It would continue his entire career.
As much as its defenders will claim the “diversity of ideas” held by its residents as an important reason to campaign there, a perhaps more persuasive case can be made with cash: it doesn’t take a ton to eke out a win in a state as small as New Hampshire, giving upstarts a better shot of making an impression. New Hampshire has, at most, two major media markets, while staying competitive in South Carolina means contending with as many as seven. McCain was flat broke in the summer of 2007 when he put all his eggs into New Hampshire, relying on veterans halls for cheap venues, friends for rides in the backs of SUVs, and volunteer press aides to wrangle reporters who arrived to write his campaign obituary. Elbow grease helped him win there, much like it helped Bill Clinton come in second place in 1992 and claim the title of The Comeback Kid.
Yet, there remains the practical matter. New Hampshire voters are unlikely to support ditching their first standing, which would require the backing of a majority of the state’s lawmakers, not just its Democrats. Asked in June of this year about the requirement, a full 55% of Granite Staters said they supported the state law, and only 4% opposed it. Among Democrats, that figure stands at 56% support and 9% opposed, while 61% of Republicans support it and just 1% opposing it, according to the well-respected University of New Hampshire Survey Center Granite State Poll. Put simply: there isn’t the political will among voters to bend to the DNC’s wishes. It’s why the entire congressional delegation quickly rejected the plan, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen was skipping Monday night’s Congressional Ball at the White House in protest.
Moving up South Carolina has the backing of President Joe Biden, whose own campaign was bolstered by the Palmetto State in 2020, after placing a distant fifth in New Hampshire after finishing fourth in Iowa.
Yet New Hampshire is still a crucial state for Democrats. Its four electoral votes grow even more powerful as states like Ohio slip out of reach for Democrats, and angering the party’s base there could be a long-term folly. It’s why the DNC blinked with Michigan and Florida in 2008, after all. Both states violated the DNC rules in 2008 by holding early primaries and saw their delegations cut to zero. But in the months that followed, their delegations were first restored to half of their original allotment, and then to full strength by the time the convention arrived.
Granite Staters are betting the DNC flinches again, all the while preparing for the crush of candidates to route itself through New England, even if the national party would much prefer a detour.
Still, that pact with Iowa and South Carolina 15 years ago helped them stay atop the field ahead of the 2008 reshuffle that added Nevada to the mix. Now, it looks like South Carolina could get top billing, with Nevada and New Hampshire sharing the undercard role. With Iowa on track to be replaced with Michigan, and Georgia rising, the mutual support seems a thing of the past. Until or unless, of course, the residents of the Live Free or Die state remind Democrats that they’re pretty indifferent to national trends or the prospect of going it alone without DNC applause. They’re a hearty—and stubborn—bunch, after all.
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