observations and opinion
Why does a tiny state made of granite, get to choose so many Presidents?
The world may ponder in puzzlement why tonight’s New Hampshire Primary is so important in American politics. New Hampshire is a small state which in no way demographically matches the rest of the United States. It is whiter, richer, better educated and ancient, as a polity. So it is easy to sneer, as people often do, at the weight given the decision in New Hampshire.
But the quadrennial primary process in the Granite State has something going for it almost unique in modern U.S. politics: it is intimate. Candidates literally “move in” with the voters for weeks or longer. There are direct conversations, town halls by the dozen, relentless local press attention. The registered party voters get deeply involved; the registered independents get to vote in whichever party’s primary they choose, so they matter.
What New Hampshire does is genuinely test candidates, through a gauntlet of real voters. The process is deeply democratic (in the non-partisan sense of the word). And it is effective. By assessing the candidates and then sending its recommendation onward to the rest of America, New Hampshire has consistently called it right. Since 1952, in every contested primary but one, the person placing first or second on the ballot – in both parties – has gone on to be the party’s nominee.
The exception to that was a fluke: 1968, when Senator Ed Muskie launched an insurgent challenge to President Lyndon Johnson. The incumbent LBJ barely won, but then famously decided not to run again. The national Democratic contest was then joined by the two most formidable figures standing in the wings: Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. RFK’s murder ended the contest that June. Humphrey went on to barely lose the election to Richard Nixon, in a three-way split with George Wallace eating traditional Southern Democratic vote.
But other than that, among the Democrats in contested primaries, the first place finisher got nominated (2004 Kerry, 2000 Gore, 1988 Dukakis, 1984 Mondale, 1980 Carter, 1976 Carter, 1960 Kennedy) or the second place finisher did (2008 Obama, 1992 Clinton, 1972 McGovern, 1956 Stevenson).
On the GOP side, the story is the same: New Hampshire gold medalists nominated after a contested primary were Romney 2012, McCain 2008, GHW Bush 1992, GHW Bush 1988, Reagan 1980, Ford 1976, Nixon 1968, Eisenhower 1952. Runners up ultimately nominated were GW Bush 2000, Dole 1996, Goldwater 1964.
Not every candidate sent out from New Hampshire to run for President was a stellar choice: Goldwater, Mondale, Dukakis, Dole, Gore and Kerry were all, in one fashion or another, hopeless. But even if they sometimes sent America lemons, New Hampshirites had at least squeezed them thoroughly before buying.
Live Free or Die.