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Saturday, January 21, 2012

2012 could mark primary swan song

Guest Editorial

It started with Nixon, or more accurately, with the 1960 televised debate between a handsome and charismatic John F. Kennedy and a sweating Richard Nixon, whose 5 o’clock shadow made him look like a crook.

Technology continued to change presidential election campaigns, and it’s doing so in ways that are likely to soon make New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary irrelevant. Worst of all, there may be nothing New Hampshire can do about its diminished importance but grin and bear it.

The 2012 Republican presidential primary was largely brought to voters by Fox News. The network’s many candidate debates and the scores of appearances it gave some of them gratis did two things.

It meant that candidates no longer had to spend much money, relatively speaking, because they got so much free air time. And it made the face-to-face retail politicking that New Hampshire is famous for nearly obsolete.

Three candidates – Jon Huntsman, who held more than 150 events in the state, Rick Santorum and Buddy Roemer – campaigned in New Hampshire relentlessly. Meanwhile, their rivals, save for Mitt Romney who has a summer home here, appeared in the state sporadically.

Huntsman, after a surge credited in part to his strong performance in the final debate, finished a distant third to Romney and Ron Paul. Santorum, the near-winner of Iowa’s caucus, tied for fourth. Roemer, who failed to be included in the debates, was a footnote.

Even allowing for sour grapes, there’s more than a bit of truth in Roemer’s comment to a Laconia Daily Sun reporter.

“I’ve gained a lot being here, and I don’t put New Hampshire down, but it’s not a strategy that I would recommend to any other candidate ever again,” Roemer said. “The world has changed. It’s Internet driven; it’s television-dominated and politics has adjusted.”

The 2012 candidates met less often with newspaper editorial boards and civic groups, and most held fewer town hall meetings. Such encounters subject politicians to questioning from people who’ve done their homework and place them in situations beyond their control. It’s far safer, and less costly, to reach voters via Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media, and that’s what candidates did.

The changed nature of presidential campaigns marks a loss for New Hampshire voters, who had fewer opportunities to quiz candidates in person and take their measure.

It’s an even bigger loss for the candidates themselves. They grow by hearing citizens out and learning about their lives and challenges; get toughed up by pointed questions from citizens who are neither deferential nor awed by them.

Televised debates, particularly those with multiple candidates and answers measured in seconds, are a poor substitute for town hall meetings. A good debater may not make a good president. A candidate confident on screen may not be comfortable up close with voters from all walks of life.

The debates also mean – as Roemer, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and other candidates who failed to make the director’s cut found – that not every voice gets heard. Lesser-known candidates lose the chance to make their case, and voters are denied ideas that might be worth hearing.

The death of retail politics will make politicians more remote, politics less real and, we suspect, voters less involved, none of which is good for democracy.

Has the grand tradition of the New Hampshire primary come to an end?

The answer could come in 2016.

– Concord Monitor

Editorial Update

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Rep. Charles Bass announced Friday that they will participate in the bipartisan seating arrangements for the president’s State of the Union address Tuesday night (Jan. 20: “What’s the harm in sitting together?”).

Shaheen will sit with Republican Sen. Rob Portman, of Ohio, while Bass will be paired with Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, of Utah.

This will be the second year they have sat with a member of the opposing party for the State of the Union address.