Let New Hampshire Go First

[ Posted Thursday, January 26th, 2023 – 17:17 UTC ]

At President Joe Biden's urging, the Democratic National Committee has picked a big and (in my opinion) a completely unnecessary fight with the state of New Hampshire. Last year, when the party met to decide which states would go first in the presidential primary calendar, Biden blindsided just about everyone with his own preferred schedule. Earlier, the party had announced there would be a free-for-all for states to apply for early primary slots, which was largely seen as a convenient way to demote Iowa from the early states, for multiple reasons (the largest being how incompetent they had been in 2020). This conventional wisdom held that one or perhaps even two other additional states would be elevated to the ranks of the early-voting states, again for multiple reasons. But few predicted that New Hampshire would be affected. This proved to be wrong, as Biden released his preferred schedule: South Carolina would be the "first in the nation" state, followed by Nevada and New Hampshire three days later (both voting on the same day). Yesterday, the party met again and instead of locking in Biden's new schedule, gave two states until June to comply with the new setup -- New Hampshire and Georgia (which was newly elevated into the ranks of early-voting states).

This is a largely symbolic and also a completely avoidable fight. What real difference is it going to make to the primaries if New Hampshire goes first or second? Why did Biden decided to pick this fight when it is going to continue to be a gigantic and distracting headache over the course of the next two years?

The reasoning behind a major shakeup of the primary calendar does make sense, I should mention. Iowa basically had four big strikes against it: (1) how badly they screwed up in not only 2020 but also in previous primary cycles, when it came to counting their votes and reporting the winners in a timely fashion, (2) the fact that they still hold caucuses, which are not only cumbersome and time-consuming but by their nature exclude many voters from participating (especially those with work schedules that cannot allow spending two or three hours talking politics in the middle of a work week), (3) their demographic makeup, which is overwhelmingly White, and (4) the fact that Iowa can no longer be considered even a purple state -- it is just not competitive in the general election since it is pretty much guaranteed to vote Republican, at this point. That's a lot of reasons, obviously, and all of them are valid to differing degrees.

When the Democratic Party announced the impending shakeup of the primary calendar, they invited all the states to apply for early-voting slots. They compiled a list of priorities that they would be considering. These included a diverse demographic makeup (which included both racial/ethnic considerations as well as urban/rural and other factors), viability in the general election (so that all the time and money spent campaigning there in the primaries wouldn't be seen as a total waste, when the general election rolled around), geographic factors (to cover as many different regions of the country as possible), and a few others.

New Hampshire made the cut for the early-voting states, even though it is not a perfect match to this list of priorities. It is in New England, which would otherwise be unrepresented in the early states, it is a very small state with both rural and urban areas, and it is indeed winnable for Democrats in the general election. But it is, much like Iowa, overwhelmingly White. In the 2000 Census, New Hampshire's makeup was 96 percent White. That's gotten a little more diverse now, but the latest figures still show it is 89.8 percent White, with only 1.8 percent Black and 4.0 percent Hispanic. Not the most diverse state around, obviously.

New Hampshire, however, has two things going for it that other states don't. The first is its tiny size and the second is its long history of taking the primary season very seriously indeed. New Hampshire ranks 46th in terms of geographic area (only Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, and New Jersey are smaller), and 41st in terms of population. This makes "retail politics" the only real way any candidate has to get their message out to Granite State voters. Candidates must spend lots of time in the state and travel to all its corners, appearing at many small venues (think "New England-style town meeting") where the voters have the chance to personally interact with them. This was always more true in New Hampshire than in any other state. Iowa also liked to style itself as a "retail politics" state, but Iowa has 99 counties -- New Hampshire only has 10. The traditional joke about a New Hampshire primary voter is: "Well, I haven't made my mind up, I've only met all the candidates two or three times each." Nowhere else in the entire country is that personal touch so critical.

New Hampshire is proud of it's "first-in-the-nation primary," and has been for over 100 years. They even passed a state law which locked this status in. While allowing a state with a selection process other than a primary to go first (which allowed Iowa's caucuses to the be the first vote), it dictates that the New Hampshire secretary of state schedule the state's primaries one week before any other state's primary is held. That is how proud they are of their status. No other state has a law which hinges the scheduling of primaries on what other states do.

New Hampshire is a truly purple state. Currently, this means that all of the politicians it has elected to national government (both members of the U.S. Senate and both members of the House of Representatives) are Democrats, while Republicans control the governor's office and both chambers of their state legislature. The state is always seen as somewhat of a tossup in the presidential general election as well, although Democrats seem to have an edge there too (the last time New Hampshire voted Republican was in the year 2000).

But having the state government in the hands of Republicans means that Democrats have to appeal to them in order to get the primary date changed. And that would be "if they were even on board with the change" -- which New Hampshire Democrats definitely are not. Even if all the Democrats in the state somehow decided that Joe Biden was right and that their century-long "first in the nation" primary status needed a demotion, the Republicans could still refuse to act. Which sets up an impossible situation for the Democratic Party's demand that New Hampshire go second instead of first. It should be noted that this is also the case in Georgia, which has never been an early-voting state -- with Republicans in control of the state government, it may be impossible for Georgia to hold an early Democratic primary. But in Georgia, there is no long historical tradition of doing so, meaning that Georgia Democrats would be happy to go along with their new spot in the calendar. Which is simply not the case in New Hampshire. At this point, the Democratic National Committee has given both of these states until June 3rd to somehow make the necessary changes -- which they were supposed to have actually committed to by now (the June date is an extension of the deadline, in other words).

So what is likely to happen? New Hampshire is quite likely to set their primary date in accordance with their state law -- one week before any other state's primary election takes place, as usual. If everything else goes the way Biden wants it to, this would mean one week before South Carolina votes. This will spark a backlash and threats from the Democratic Party, as has happened previously (remember Michigan, in the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?). The party will threaten that New Hampshire's delegates won't be seated or allowed to vote at the national convention, which would absolutely negate whatever their citizens decide in the primary vote. Candidates who actively campaign in New Hampshire may be "sanctioned" by the national party, which could mean all sorts of vindictive things. It will be a huge headache and an embarrassing intraparty fight that (once again) is simply not necessary.

To be blunt, New Hampshire is so small that the chances of their delegates providing the winning margin of votes at the national convention is vanishingly small. Even Michigan -- a state much larger in population and national delegates -- wouldn't have mattered in the tally for the Obama/Clinton race. So who really cares whether New Hampshire goes first or not? It will not be determinative, except as it traditionally always has been -- whoever wins New Hampshire will gain momentum and bragging rights heading into the other early primaries. And yes, this will happen in a state that is overwhelmingly White -- but a state so insignificantly tiny that any delegates won there will be easy for any non-winner to make up in other states.

New Hampshire's value to the primary process is their smallness. Candidates don't have to raise and spend a bazillion dollars on television advertising to do well there. They can travel around the state and personally speak to just about every voter interested in the Democratic primary -- some of them multiple times. That simply is not possible elsewhere. And it serves as an enormous check on the influence of money in our political system. That is the value of letting New Hampshire go first.

Joe Biden was wrong to pick this fight in the first place. The Democratic Party was wrong to unquestioningly follow his lead. It might have been impossible to achieve even if all the New Hampshire Democrats had been on board with the idea (which they are most definitely not). This whole fight is counterproductive and self-destructive for the party, for no real reason at all. It will be a gigantic storyline at the very start of the primary season, and Democrats are simply not going to come out of it looking good. If Joe Biden skips campaigning in New Hampshire, it opens the doors for some crank candidate to "win" a state that won't even count at the convention (indeed, the story today that Marianne Williamson is eyeing New Hampshire was what prompted me to write this today -- sample quote, just in case you've forgotten how truly flaky she is: "If I run, there are forces within the Democratic Party who would be trying to invisibilize me"). Is that really the outcome Democrats want to see happen?

Biden and the D.N.C. should admit that this was a stupid idea. Or, at the very least, use the fact that state Republicans won't allow it to save face and back down. They should take this chance to avoid a meaningless public display of divisiveness, at the very start of the 2024 primary process.

Let retail politics work as it always has -- as an important check on the importance of money in politics. Let New Hampshire go first.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


9 Comments on “Let New Hampshire Go First”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    This column changed my mind on New Hampshire always going first. That retail politics over mega bucks makes for a filter of the candidates. So let them go first. whothehell.

    Sure is a mighty white State, though — and this is a white guy observing that.

  2. [2] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    I also doubt that seasoned politician Joe wasn’t fully aware of the unlikelihood of Repug State Legislators going along. Perhaps this was more of a distraction of little consequence.

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    This reminds me of the SNL skit about Vermont.

  4. [4] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Lizabeth, before you once again go and try to justify Putin’s naked imperialism, “Joe Biden & NATO left Vlad no choice so it has to be the WEST’S fault,” kindly invest 10:24 out of your life to watch
    Beau talks about Russia.

    Honestly, Joe did everything he could to stop this war and if Putin wants to toss a tactical nuke at Ukraine we the US have made it clear to Vlad Vladomirivich that the only one to twenty seven nukes we shoot back will ensure your Rooskie Hero that he and his family will NOT survive this foolishness.

    Stop being a fuckhead Putin apologist it ain’t cool to boss around other countries.

  5. [5] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Yep, we can drop a bunch of megatons right in Vlad’s lap.

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Lizabeth, before you once again go and try to justify Putin’s naked imperialism ...

    You must be stoned out of your freakin' mind.

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Honestly,Joe did everything he could to stop this war...

    Not even close.

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Stop being a fuckhead Putin apologist it ain’t cool to boss around other countries.

    Okay, just saw this.

    It's been mostly enjoyable, Caddy, but we are officially done.

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Right, well, I guess we are both guilty of over-reaction, aren't we ... by tomorrow, I will have forgotten all about it and there'll be no hard feelings.

    Just don't call me a - ah, you know what - again, deal?

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