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Thursday, January 12, 2012

With this one just past, 2016 in the works

Early Wednesday morning, less than a day after the close of the 2012 New Hampshire primary, Steve Duprey boarded a plane for Louisiana with his sights four years ahead.

Just as the presidential candidates leave the state, Duprey, a Concord developer and one of New Hampshire’s two representatives to the Republican National Committee, follows them south, joining hundreds of national committee members in New Orleans to start negotiating the Granite State’s position in the 2016 election cycle.

For generations, New Hampshire voters have led the campaign calendar, holding the country’s first primary and voting directly for candidates since 1952. And they will do so once again in 2016, Duprey assured. But it won’t come without a fight, he said.

The GOP committee, responsible for setting the scheduling rules for the Republican primaries, is sure to hear challenges from other states looking to move up in the primary season, Duprey said. “There are some people on the rules committee who don’t like New Hampshire, but I don’t see a strong impetus to change it,” he said last week.

The Democratic National Committee, which will start its rules process over the coming months, is sure to hear similar complaints from states looking to move up in the primary season, added Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Committee.

“There’s no question that New Hampshire is going to be the first primary. The only question is will it be sanctioned by the national parties,” said Buckley, who sits on the Democratic National Committee’s rules and bylaws committee. “That’s the dance we do every four years.”

Challenges to NH’s primary

New Hampshire legislators have written the first-in-the- nation primary into state law. Chapter 653 of the state election code requires the primary to be held “seven days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election.”

Yet, challenging New Hampshire’s first in the nation status has become something of an election year tradition.

This cycle, for instance, legislators in Florida forced the N.H. primary date into early January when they scheduled their election Jan. 26. And Nevada lawmakers challenged New Hampshire even further, threatening to hold their caucuses as early as Jan. 14.

N.H. Secretary of State William Gardner, the state’s scheduling agent, set the primary date as Jan. 10 only after Nevada relented, holding off until Feb. 4.

“It’s not that we’ve seen more challenges over time. We’ve seen different kind of challenges,” Gardner said. “And we’ve survived them all.”

Changing the country’s course

Traditionally, the N.H. election fell every year on the second Tuesday of March, with little contention, Gardner said. But, in 1968, the game changed.

That year, little-known U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, of Minnesota, led an upstart campaign against incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson. McCarthy finished a close second to Johnson in New Hampshire, leading the president to withdraw from the race, and in doing so, McCarthy reminded the country of the power early primary states can wield.

“That changed everything,” Gardner said. “After that, people across the country asked ‘Why can’t we have the same thing?’ ... They saw this can actually change the course of the country.”

Four years later, in 1972, Florida legislators scheduled their election the same day as the N.H. primary, forcing Granite State lawmakers to move it up one week. And the challenges have continued since, pushing the N.H. primary first into February, and starting in 2008, into January.

The Jan. 8, 2008, primary was actually two days earlier than this year’s election. And, though some analysts feared the early date would limit voter engagement, Gardner notes more voters turned out that day, 529,000, than any primary in state history.

“That was the earliest (election) we ever had, and it was the most voters we ever had,” he said. “If the turnout is a symbol of the vibrancy of the vote ... then it was pretty successful.”

On Tuesday, Gardner was expecting a little more than 300,000 voters to turn out.

Primary in December?

Moving forward, Gardner said he is willing to schedule the primary as early as needed to maintain New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status. “We’ll do what we have to do,” he said.

But analysts don’t expect to see a December primary any time soon.

Voters tend to tune out candidates during the holiday season, according to Wayne L’Esperance, a political science professor at New England College. And an early December primary would leave candidates struggling to raise money and develop a ground organization, added Dean Spiliotes, a professor at Southern New Hampshire University.

“You don’t get the same efficiency campaigning at that time,” said Spiliotes, who writes the blog “I think this will become a frequent cycle. Next time, they’ll reset into February and March.”

Even if the date remains uncertain, however, lawmakers and candidates are committed to preserving New Hampshire’s lead position.

The NH responsibility

Proposals to reform the primary process by instituting a national election or regional votes have quieted for the moment, and most of this year’s leading GOP candidates have pledged their support for the primary.

“New Hampshire is the window through which the rest of the country is able to see, analyze and evaluate the candidates,” Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, said on the campaign trail.

“You fight very, very hard to be first in the nation,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told a Windham audience last week. “You scrap and you claw ... and with that privilege comes a responsibility.”

With its small size, limited media market and well-trained electorate, New Hampshire is responsible for introducing candidates of all backgrounds to the national audience, and the state will retain that duty for years to come, according to analysts, lawmakers and candidates alike.

“The real value of ... New Hampshire is that a candidate with little or no money can do very well here. If we start in Florida or Ohio, you couldn’t run without $20 or $30 million,” said Duprey, one of the state’s RNC representatives.

“We will always have this primary as long as the people in this state have the will to keep it,” added Gardner, the secretary of state. “The day that we don’t (have it), it’s because there was no longer the will, because this primary is for the people.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or