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Why Does New Hampshire Go First?

Why Does New Hampshire Go First?

The Democratic Party is engaged in a roiling debate over the order of its presidential primaries, as a Times Magazine story by Ross Barkan explains.

President Biden and other top Democrats want South Carolina to go first next year. State officials in New Hampshire insist on keeping their first-in-the-nation status and say they will simply move their primary to take place before South Carolina’s. The outcome remains unclear.

Holding the country’s first primary certainly offers big benefits to a state. Presidential candidates make repeated visits. So do political organizers and members of the media, filling hotels and restaurants. A single state’s voters get to shape the national discourse. No wonder New Hampshire is fighting so hard to keep a privilege that it has had since the 1950s.

But there is also an inconvenient question to which New Hampshire officials have failed to offer a persuasive answer: How has the rest of the country benefited from the state’s special status?

New Hampshire’s critics often point out the many ways it does not look like the rest of America. It is one of the country’s whitest, highest-income and most educated states. It is home to ski resorts, lake retreats and boarding schools — but not a single city with more than 125,000 residents.

New Hampshire’s defenders respond that its intimacy allows for a purer version of politics. Candidates talk directly with voters in restaurants and at town meetings, rather than competing mostly through advertisements. As in ancient Greece or the early United States, citizens can take the measure of the people who want to represent them. I have covered the New Hampshire primary, and I too found it charming.

The results are less impressive, though. There is no evidence that New Hampshire’s voters have a talent for picking presidents that other Americans lack. If anything, the state’s record is worse than average, at least on the Democratic side:

  • New Hampshire voted against each of the past three Democratic presidents during their ultimately victorious nomination campaigns: Biden (who finished fifth!) in 2020, Barack Obama in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1992. Not since Jimmy Carter, almost 50 years ago, has an eventual Democratic president won the state.

  • No two-term Democratic presidency has started with a New Hampshire win. In 1992, Clinton did spin his second-place finish as a victory, calling himself “the comeback kid,” but he received less than 25 percent of the vote.

  • The clearest pattern is that New Hampshire prefers Democrats from nearby, regardless of their ideology or national appeal. Every time a major candidate from neighboring Massachusetts or Vermont has run in the past 35 years, that candidate has won New Hampshire: Bernie Sanders in 2020 and 2016, John Kerry in 2004, Paul Tsongas in 1992 and Michael Dukakis in 1988.

The closest thing to a substantive counterargument from New Hampshire officials is that their state is a swing state, unlike South Carolina, which is solidly Republican. If New Hampshire does still go first (as state law dictates) and Biden skips the state’s primary (as his aides have said he would), the primary campaign would be filled with criticisms of him from both Republican candidates running for the 2024 nomination and fringe Democrats challenging Biden like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson.

“The reality is that New Hampshire is going to keep the first-in-the-nation primary,” Ray Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said, “and the question only is whether or not the president is going to put his name on the ballot.”

If he is not on the ballot, the criticism of Biden could theoretically damage his image in the state and hurt his chances when New Hampshirites vote next November in the general election. In a very close national election, New Hampshire might even determine the Electoral College result. But that scenario seems remote. A sitting president is always subject to harsh criticism during the other party’s open primary, and most sitting presidents nonetheless win re-election.

Ultimately, the main beneficiary of New Hampshire’s privileged primary status is New Hampshire, which explains why the state is fighting so hard to keep it. As Ross Barkan, the author of the Times Magazine article, writes, “Democrats there insist that it is their right to go first.”

Related: Biden has his own self-interested motives in pushing for South Carolina, Ross explains. The state — home to many working-class Black voters — rocketed Biden to the front of the Democratic field in 2020 after his losses in New Hampshire and Iowa.

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