A New Hampshire Primary Primer

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It's primary time!!

Right about now, New Hampshire is an Amsterdam for political hopheads, like the California couple vacationing there not for the ski slopes but just to get their fix of political insanity.

Candidates, both serious and spurious, are crisscrossing the state in an effort to capture the hearts and minds of the more than 500,000 expected voters who will help decide their future "“ John Edwards, who just squeaked past rival Sen. Hillary Clinton to nab the silver in Iowa, is campaigning HuckabeeNH1.jpgfor 36 hours straight in a kind of message marathon. And Republican Mike Huckabee, whose win in Iowa was driven by the state's voting evangelical Christian base and possibly the power of prayer, seems to be relying on the power of Chuck Norris in New Hampshire, trotting the Bearded One out for every conceivable event.

Oh and they are not alone in their hand-shaking and baby-kissing (or making babies cry "“ best headline so far: "Obama makes baby cry").

The candidates are going to have to pull out all the stops (and Chuck Norris) to have a hope in New Hampshire this year. But the real question on everyone's mind (ok, my mind) is exactly how did New Hampshire, a state with little to recommend it besides trees and skiing and nature and stuff, get to be so important in the old political arena?

First, a primary primer

voting_booth.jpg A primary is an election in which voters tell their state's party delegates which candidate to nominate at the party's national convention. Most states that have primaries have binding ones, which mean the state's delegates to the conventions have to cast their vote the candidate their state chooses. A primary is different from a caucus. In a caucus, registered voters of the same party all get together in a room and chitchat about who they want to nominate. Delegates to the convention are selected; the delegates' votes are then divvied up between the candidates based on the number of supporters each candidate eventually wins (read Stacy's report from last week explaining the Iowa Caucus).

Back to primaries: there are basically two kinds of primaries, closed and open. A closed primary means that voting for a candidate to nominate is only open to members of that party. Independents aren't welcome. An open primary means that any registered voter can vote in whichever party's primary they choose.

New Hampshire is the first statewide primary in the country, in which voters cast their ballot for the candidates they believe should receive their state's nomination in each party. It's also open, so everybody's invited.

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Indiana is kicking itself now

New Hampshire's original primary date was supposed to have been the third Tuesday in May of 1916, but was changed to fall on the same day as the monthly town hall meeting, on the second Tuesday. Legislators didn't want to pay to light up the Town Hall twice in one month and Granite Staters are nothing if not frugal. Back then, New Hampshire actually wasn't the first in the country "“ that honor went to Indiana, which, possibly not realizing what it had, switched to a later date in the next primary year. That left pole position number one open for little New Hampshire to seize, which it did, and fiercely.

Granite State legislators may have seen something the rest of the states didn't: the potential for a small state with very little clout to become extremely politically relevant every four years, when it counts the most. It seems to have worked "“ scores of states, especially in this most contentious of elections, have tried to move their caucuses and primaries up to compete with Iowa's caucus and New Hampshire's primary. And each time a state tries, New Hampshire simply moves its primary up.

protect-our-primary-home.gifIt didn't take very long at all for New Hampshire to not only realize the kind of political power they wield in being first, but also to incorporate it deeply into their state identity. In 1975, after several states tried to jockey for the first position, the New Hampshire legislature moved to hold their primary on the Tuesday preceding any other New England state. Two years later, they upped the ante by writing into law that their primary has to occur on the Tuesday before any other state's primary.

And it's not just being first that counts "“ New Hampshire wants to be at least a full week before anyone else: In 1992, Delaware, another small state looking to increase its political clout, started holding its primaries on the Saturday following New Hampshire's. In response, in 1996, New Hampshire decided that it would have to hold its primary a full week before "any other similar election." But Delaware wouldn't budge, so New Hampshire, still miffed, said Delaware's primary didn't constitute a similar election. In the end, New Hampshire won: Out of respect for New Hampshire voters, most Republican candidates that year did not file for the Delaware primary and neither did Democratic incumbent, President Bill Clinton. Delaware gave up and now its primary is on Feb. 5.

How important is it really?

tsongas.jpgHistorically, New Hampshire has been respected as a proving ground for politicians, especially given the extremely high turnout among New Hampshire voters, who take the primary very seriously. Both Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson ended their respective re-election bids after performing poorly in New Hampshire, seeing it as a sign of things to come. But New Hampshire's accuracy isn't totally absolute, though it had been for a good 40 years. In 1992, Bill Clinton actually came in second to Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire, but went on to gain the Democratic nomination and be president for eight years; he was the first president since 1952 who hadn't won in New Hampshire. In the 2000 primary, Republican Sen. John McCain won the primary, beating George Bush, only to lose momentum everywhere else.

In any case, most pundits are saying New Hampshire is the place where the candidates must make their mark in order to stay politically viable. But the truth is, only time and primaries and caucuses in the 49 other states in the Union will tell.

Any Granite Staters voting today? Care to file a live report?

Linda Rodriguez is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Her last article looked at the history of celebrity political endorsements.

January 8, 2008 - 4:26am
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