New Hampshire is not about to knuckle under on primary
Back in the 1960s the cry “Hell no, we won’t go” echoed off the ivy-covered walls of universities and colleges during anti-war demonstrations.
Today Democratic office holders, officials, activists and party members are yelling “Hell no, we won’t go” to the Democratic National Committee over a decision to change the dates for its presidential selection process.
Late this week, the national party’s rules and bylaws committee approved a presidential selection schedule that usurps New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status for its presidential primary. The only two “no” votes were from New Hampshire and Iowa.
Under their plan, South Carolina would have the first-in-the-nation honor while New Hampshire and – are you kidding — Nevada would share the second presidential primary day, followed by Georgia and Michigan.
Democrats have discussed for years having a more diversified voter base in the early selecting states, but never had much traction.
The change had its genesis two years ago when South Carolina helped salvage President Joe Biden’s campaign, and is now being rewarded.
In New Hampshire, Biden finished down in the pack in a primary won by US Sen. Bernie Sanders by a large margin, as he did four years earlier over Hillary Clinton.
The new plan was blasted by high-profile Democrats who said New Hampshire will continue to follow its statute which says New Hampshire has to have the first presidential primary in the country.
A change in the primary schedule was expected after Iowa couldn’t finalize its caucus totals for weeks two years ago, which many viewed as the third strike for Iowa.
But New Hampshire’s political hierarchy of both parties has always had a hands-off approach not favoring the frontrunner or the power brokers’ choice.
The New Hampshire primary is sold as retail politics at its best, with town halls for voters to question the candidates, Main Street walks and house parties, not speeches from airport tarmacs and large advertising budgets and celebrity events.
Instead New Hampshire had house parties where a cub reporter could sit on the back deck of a home in New London and talk baseball with George HW Bush for half an hour before the guest showed up, or looked up to see Illinois Congressman John Anderson come unannounced into an office or shared a men’s bathroom at the University of New Hampshire’s Memorial Union Building with presidential candidates Vance Hartke and George McGovern.
But honestly the New Hampshire primary hasn’t been the retail extravaganza it once was when Jimmy Carter came up from Georgia with little name recognition, spent three months here, won the primary and went on to be president.
Ronald Reagan changed that during his 1980 campaign of large rallies, and buses of national reporters making a few stops in the state and then leaving to go to spend the night in Massachusetts. Candidates were limited to what they could spend based on a state’s population.
Main Street walks were not in Reagan’s campaign plan, but major television advertising was and keeping the field crowded
And who could forget the presidential debate in Nashua when George HW Bush had hoped to have a one-on-one showdown with Reagan who insisted all the candidates participate. Reagan told then Nashua Telegraph editor Jon Breen, “I paid for this microphone Mr. Green,” when he tried to cut him off and limit who could be on the stage.
Reporters have and continue to quiz candidates in the back of the Secretary of State’s Office when they sign up to run in the primary, hearing Lindsey Graham say “I am not a second-tier candidate,” when he was relegated to the lower tier of debaters or George W Bush and his entourage acting like cocky frat boys or Steve Forbes bristling at questions he should have had no trouble with.
Over the years, the New Hampshire primary has bucked what the political bigwigs scripted.
In 1968 a little-known Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy did well enough to convince then Democratic President Lyndon Johnson not to run for re-election with the growingly unpopular war in Vietnam raging.
The same year the primary allowed once demoralized Richard Nixon to reclaim the Republican mantle.
The 1972 primary saw the solid frontrunner in the Democratic primary stumble after the Union Leader published what turned out to be a Nixon dirty trick letter about a statement made by Edmund Muskie’s wife.
The little-known US Sen. from South Dakota, McGovern, finished a strong second while Muskie failed to break the 50 percent threshold pundits believed he needed and soon pulled out of the race.
In 1984, a scandal failed to stop Colorado US Sen. Gary Hart as he upset former Vice President Walter Mondale. Hart’s campaign was run by Jeanne Shaheen who had also been key to Carter’s victory.
Pat Buchanan ran in the New Hampshire primary twice, first in 1992 when he garnered 37 percent of the vote against Republican incumbent George HW Bush, and some said showed Democrats the president’s soft white underbelly.
Four years later, Buchanan won, defeating the prohibitive favorite Senate Majority Bob Dole, who would eventually be the nominee.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton finished a strong second to local favorite Massachusetts US Sen Paul Tsongas, and would go on to win the Democratic nomination and defeat Bush in the general election with the help of independent candidate Ross Perot.
In 2000, Republican Arizona US Sen John McCain embarrassed a much better-funded George W Bush. Eight years later, McCain would resurrect his faltering campaign in New Hampshire and go on to defeat local favorite Mitt Romney, and become his party’s standard bearer.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fought all the way to the end of the 2008 nominating process, but Hillary won the New Hampshire primary after Obama had a convincing victory against her in Iowa.
Hillary would clear the field eight years later, but lose to Donald Trump, who emerged from a crowded field to become his party’s nominee.
The New Hampshire Presidential Primary has a rich history and the state’s voters are engaged and turn out in record numbers.
Times change and with computer targeting and sophisticated
advertising and political campaigns, maybe there are better ways to pick who will be the nominees for President, but moving the deck chairs on a sinking ship does not bring systemic change, it brings political payoffs.
In the end, it will be the candidates who will decide where New Hampshire fits into the selection process.
If they decide New Hampshire is important, they will return whenever the New Hampshire Secretary of State schedules the primary, and the Republican and Democratic primaries will be on the same day.
Looking back over the primary’s last century with its vaulted place in line, the vast majority of candidates the New Hampshire voters chosen have served the country well.
They may not be the candidates those in smoked-filled rooms would choose, but that is what makes the New Hampshire presidential primary and others like it so important on the road to finding our next leaders.
Garry Rayno may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.