Presidential Politics And Election Returns
Last Updated July 25, 2003
Since 1920, New Hampshire has held the first-in-the-nation primary, and since 1952, when candidates' names were first put on the ballot, it has had extraordinary influence on the presidential selection process--a fact that will surely strike future political scientists as bizarre. To be sure, there are arguments for having early contests in small states that provide a venue for ''retail politics,'' in which candidates meet voters in person, listen and talk to them, exchange ideas and allow them to gauge their character. In-person contact was one of the things that saved Bill Clinton in 1992, after the Gennifer Flowers charges, and John McCain's jam-packed town meetings showed a moving rapport between candidate and voter. New Hampshire is small enough physically (unlike Iowa) that candidates can efficiently meet voters; everything except the lightly populated North Country is within an hour's drive of Manchester, and for all the state's abstract dislike of government, New Hampshire does an excellent job of keeping its roads clear of snow. New Hampshire's retail politics offers little-known candidates the ability to propel themselves into the national spotlight, though over the last 20 years none of those candidates--Gary Hart in 1984, Paul Tsongas and Patrick Buchanan in 1992, McCain in 2000--has gone on to win their party's nominations. The last to do so were George McGovern and Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.
In any case, New Hampshire retains its first-in-the-nation status not on its merits but because of threats. Democrats tried in the 1970s to confine primaries to a ''window'' period in which New Hampshire would have competition. But New Hampshire, with its outlaw tradition, insisted it would hold its primary before the window if necessary, confident that candidates and reporters would pay it heed even if its tiny delegation were threatened with not being seated at the national convention. Republicans made no such rules, but in 1996 let Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and New Hampshire Governor Steve Merrill, both Republicans, threaten voter retaliation against candidates who took part in caucuses or primaries held before their states' or even during the week afterwards. Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen continued the tradition in December 1998, demanding candidates take a pledge not to participate in such contests. In 2000 the Democrats imposed a five-week window of no contests after New Hampshire, which made Al Gore's 50%-46% victory here decisive; Bill Bradley's candidacy effectively died through inattention before he could reach Super Tuesday. Fortunately for George W. Bush, the laissez faire Republicans did not restrict other states as much as the rule-bound Democrats, and he could recover 19 days later in South Carolina. John McCain's smashing 49%-30% victory here knocked the wind out of the Bush campaign for about a week, but it turned out to be a template not for contests in other states, but for other contests in New England. Only there did registered and self-identified Republicans, as in New Hampshire, prefer McCain to Bush, and in Arizona (his home state) and Michigan (where 20% of voters were self-identified Democrats and 35% self-identified independents) was McCain able to duplicate his New Hampshire victory beyond the bounds of New England. In 2003, the Michigan Democratic Party, led by Senator Carl Levin, attempted to challenge New Hampshire's first-in-the nation status by moving the 2004 Michigan Democratic caucuses to the same January date as New Hampshire's; after a noisy debate, the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee backed down and voted to hold their caucuses in February.
A word should be said about New Hampshire media. The Manchester Union Leader has one of the nation's sharpest conservative tongues. Its editorials, even now after the deaths of William Loeb and his widow Nackey, scold Republicans who stray from its gospel. Its insistence that politicians take the anti-tax pledge for years set the course for New Hampshire state politics and government. But the Union Leader cannot automatically deliver votes on primary day--its great favorite, Patrick Buchanan, won just 27% of the vote in 1996--and its news coverage is more objective than that of many left-leaning national media outlets. New Hampshire's other great medium has been Manchester's WMUR-TV, Channel 9, which also provides tons of information to a winter-bound audience. Channel 9's rule is to cover every candidate every day he or she is in New Hampshire, allowing each to present views and make arguments without the overlay of opinionated commentary that national network reporters use; in 2000 the new WNDS, Channel 50, also based in New Hampshire, provided similar coverage.
New Hampshire is still one of the few states with more registered Republicans than Democrats--a fact of some significance for 2004, when Democrats anticipate a seriously contested primary and Republicans, for the first time in 20 years, no contest at all. Many New Hampshire voters don't bother to register in a party, and only 26% of all voters are registered Democrats. It is possible to register as a Democrat on primary day, but still this is a relatively small electorate, and one probably tilted well to the left of the political spectrum. The Democratic bastions of the state are not its two largest cities, Manchester and Nashua, which usually vote Republican, but the state capital of Concord and clusters of towns around universities--the area around Durham (the University of New Hampshire) and Dover in southeast New Hampshire, the area around Keene (Keene State College) in the southwest and the area around Hanover (Dartmouth University). Once upon a time the typical Democratic primary voters here was a textile mill worker; now she is more likely to be an assistant professor.
Where New Hampshire proved crucial in 2000 was, surprisingly, in the general election. In 2000 New Hampshire and Maine were the two Northeastern states which the Bush and Gore campaigns targeted and where the candidates made forays from Middle America to campaign in. The result was exceedingly close, but outside of recount range: Bush won 48%-47%, with a popular vote margin of 7,211 votes, just a bit larger than the 6,395 votes by which Al Gore beat Bill Bradley. How Gore won that close primary and how Bush won that close general election--something few national reporters covered closely--turned out to be more crucial than how John McCain, thronged by congenial reporters on his Straight Talk Express, established the rapport which gave him his impressive primary victory.
|2000 Presidential Vote|
|2000 Republican Primary|
|2000 Democratic Primary|
|1996 Presidential Vote|
For 1992 and 1996 presidential results in New Hampshire, please see the Almanac 2000 online.
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