O nce again, the fate of the state’s first-in-the-nation primary status is being threatened, this time on two fronts.
Those who pay attention to such things know having the first presidential primary every four years means far more to the state than prestige. It’s an economic driver that brings millions of dollars to the economy every fourth fall and winter.
The benefit to the rest of the nation, the argument goes, is that Granite State voters are sophisticated and demanding — that we won’t vote for a candidate unwilling to leave the stage and interact, someone whose hand we can shake and whose eyes we can meet. Thus, New Hampshire serves as a vetting ground for the entire nation, requiring retail politicking, not just sound bites and radio ads.
The 2016 Republican presidential primary dealt the Granite State a blow; Donald Trump held relatively few campaign events here, largely relying on TV and his own social media presence to make his case. And he won. Still, we are New Hampshire, and already candidates are sniffing around, trying to gain 2020 traction.
Yet we are a small state, and one that is not very diverse. What keeps New Hampshire relevant in national politics is that first-pop status, the momentum available from winning early and getting a leg up.
Over the years, the primary has been threatened several times. States such as Arizona, California and South Carolina have tried to muscle in to become the premier primary.
Two things have stopped them. One is a state law mandating the secretary of state set the presidential primary at least a week ahead of any other “similar” event. (Thus, the Iowa caucuses can be held before New Hampshire’s primary. Iowa, in fact, has its own law calling for its caucuses to be held eight days prior to New Hampshire’s primary.) The other is that the Granite State is small enough, and its elections operation nimble enough, to hold off setting that date until as late as the fall prior to the primary.
For decades, Secretary of State Bill Gardner has adeptly wielded those two factors as a cudgel to keep New Hampshire first in line. Now, coming off his strongest challenge yet to retain his office, he will need to act again.
The first threat, the obvious one, is California’s decision to set its primary for March 3. Because of the size of the bounty, the temptation might be to spend time there instead of New Hampshire (or Iowa). The number of convention delegates up for grabs in the primaries is hard to peg, because state’s rules regarding whether their delegates are “pledged” to a candidate differ, but the raw proportions are similar to the electoral college votes: California has 55; New Hampshire 4.
In fact, the danger is greater because California allows early voting about a month ahead of the actual primary date, meaning voters could be casting their votes in early February. Right now, the Democratic National Committee calendar has New Hampshire’s primary slated for Feb. 11, 2020, with Iowa’s caucuses on Feb. 3. Campaigns targeting California might well decide the smaller states aren’t worth losing time in the Golden State.
Thus, Gardner has said he won’t set New Hampshire’s primary date until next fall, leaving him time to gauge the effect of the larger state’s threat. In the past, he’s tossed out the possibility of holding the primary as early as right after the new year, something larger states couldn’t react to. How he deals with the calendar will be important down the road.
Equally important will be how Gardner — a Democrat who’s built his reputation on being nonpartisan — and others handle the very partisan threat emerging in the Republican Party. There’s a movement afoot to ignore common sense and decades of tradition of noninterference in the primary races by changing state party rules to allow the GOP machine to align behind President Trump.
The idea is to allow the party to endorse and donate to Trump’s re-election. It’s an awful idea seemingly born of desperation, and one that state party leaders should shoot down immediately. Beyond the notion that Trump might not even be the expected nominee a year from now, given his legal issues, age and demeanor, it goes against the proposition that the party ought to be above playing favorites.
The party has much more to lose in becoming known for backroom hackery than it has to gain by pushing another four years of Trump. One need look no further back than 2016, on the Democratic side — where the issue of unpledged “superdelegates” and, hacked emails showed, other efforts by the national party to support Hillary Clinton’s campaign — to see the effect on voters of giving the impression the choice has been made for them.
And in the larger sense, the move poses a threat to the state’s valuable primary status. Nothing — not even the lure of delegate-rich California — would damage the image of the New Hampshire presidential primary more than the idea that it doesn’t even matter; that the process is rigged.
Several longtime party heavyweights, including Gov. Chris Sununu and Republican National Committeewoman Juliana Bergeron of Keene, have spoken out against the concept.
Others, including Gardner — to the extent he can offer an opinion — ought to do the same.