In early February, two days before the New Hampshire primary, Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, held forth in the gymnasium at Salem High School. Most of the 1,250 people there to hear him talk probably knew how they would vote — even in a state whose voters notoriously wait until the last minute to decide. Certainly some were still shopping, checking off a list of candidates to see and hear like birdwatchers who catalogue sightings of warblers and thrushes.
A few months earlier, Amy Klobuchar talked with about 200 people at Brookstone Park in Derry, a venue for meetings and weddings. Around the same time, her U.S. Senate colleague Corey Booker was holding forth at the Coffee Factory in town, describing his experiences as mayor of Newark for an even smaller group. In both cases, people in southern New Hampshire, with a few who’d drifted over the border, were privileged to get more intimate access to the U.S. senators from Minnesota and New Jersey than is routinely given to people who live in those states.
These events — marquee names, local audiences of varying size — are so routine every four years in New Hampshire that most people don’t give them a second thought. Sometimes, it’s a crowd of Democrats with White House ambition. Other times it’s Republicans, and every once in a while it’s both. Whatever the party, the macro of national politics is squeezed into the micro of the eighth smallest state by population, creating a pressure cooker for the first in a long schedule of presidential primaries.
This beloved tradition is wearing thin among some who question why a state with relatively little diversity should have such an exalted spot in the national order. Complaints grew especially loud as this year’s primary came and went. But taking, or even diminishing, New Hampshire’s turn at the head of the line would be a sin, and not just because of the wounds inflicted to state pride. The New Hampshire primary is an important early test of any would-be president.
In New Hampshire, politics are retail. They are ground-level with major campaigns competing for individual votes as if their candidates were going for a seat on the board of selectmen. The primary is won in school gymnasiums, coffee shops, diners and living rooms. Candidates have to look voters in the eye, shake their hands and listen to what they have to say.
By the time the campaign gets to this point -- with the coming wave of 14 primaries dialed up for “Super Tuesday” — campaigns are different operations. They work at mass scale — advertising, fundraising, polling and putting on events that bring thousands of people together. Campaigns aren’t just for working for single primaries but clusters of them. Even the Buttigieg rally a few weeks ago would be too small a crowd to be an effective use of their time.
Putting candidates through these paces is important. Even if someone has never held office — rare, to be sure, but the current president proves its possibility — mounting a campaign that can compete and win in New Hampshire means something.
At the same time, there’s hope in the drinking water between Portsmouth and Conway, Concord and Derry. Upstart campaigns can win and get the attention and funding needed to compete more broadly. Just ask a former Arkansas governor who didn’t win but did well enough to prove his viability. Nine months later he was elected president. Or the Tennessee senator who did well enough 70 years ago to ruin the plans of an incumbent.
New Hampshire’s open primary, and its ballot available to all voters, dates to 1916. Its status as first came by accident four years later. By the middle of the last century, voters were beginning to choose not just delegates to party conventions but preferences among candidates, lending weight to the state’s vote. Its significance was really forged, however, when Estes Kefauver, senator from Tennessee, visited again and again and again in 1951 and early 1952, shaking every hand that came into view in a campaign that won him the primary. His Democratic opponent, Harry S. Truman, decided not to seek reelection as a result.
New Hampshire law gives the secretary of state power to set a primary that precedes every other state’s, and calls upon him to ensure it remains first — a status that the political parties help protect. Still, there are calls from without to diminish its significance.
It shouldn’t be so. New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary is a ritual as important to the country as it is to the state’s identity. At the very least, when the primary is finally over in New Hampshire, at least we all know who won.