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As Democrats look to alter calendar, poll finds Granite Staters want to keep New Hampshire’s first primary

An "I Voted" sticker.
An "I Voted" sticker.

For as long as anyone can remember, New Hampshire has held the nation’s first primary of the presidential election cycle. But that century-old tradition is in jeopardy now that the Democratic National Committee is looking to shake up the primary calendar, putting more-diverse South Carolina first.

The move is getting bipartisan criticism in New Hampshire, where Republican Governor Chris Sununu says it’s never going to happen. A new Granite State Poll from the University of New Hampshire finds two-thirds of respondents support the state’s first-in-the-nation status, including nearly three-quarters of Republicans and six-in-ten Democrats. And support for it is growing. WAMC’s Ian Pickus spoke with Dr. Andrew Smith, Director of the UNH Survey Center and professor of political science.

What stood out to you in the poll results about how people feel about this early primary?

The biggest thing that stood out to me is that as the Democratic position became more and more evident about changing the nature of the primary cycle, opposition to that and support for the New Hampshire having the first in the nation primary has increased. So, it's increased to a level that it was before Joe Biden was elected and before the there was any sort of rumblings that the primary calendar might be changed. And it's both among Republicans, which isn't too surprising, since they're not impacted by this, but also among Democrats over that time. So, Democrats are becoming more opposed to this plan as it looks to be something that might go into place.

Is the national DNC listening to New Hampshire residents?

Probably not. It's not even really New Hampshire residents that they have to listen to. In New Hampshire, it's state law and has been since 1976, that the state must have its primary at least one week before any other similar contest in the country. So, it's the state law that the DNC has to worry about, although the political ramifications that are being demonstrated in this poll is something that the DNC might have to worry about, because the Hampshire has historically been, at least for the last 20 plus years, a battleground state in the in presidential contests as well as in legislative contest in the house in the Senate. And even though it's only for electoral votes in the presidential elections, as Al Gore had won those four votes in 2000, he would have been president 2000. So, I think that there's always concerned a backlash against the party if something like this is proposed, and it looks like that backlash might happen to New Hampshire.

How did New Hampshire become the first primary?

Well, actually, it was by accident. When the first presidential primaries occurred, was in 2012. New Hampshire was not the first presidential primary then. It had its first primary in 2016 and even that year, it wasn't first, it was tied. It was tied with Indiana, or Minnesota and Indiana had its primary a week before. But by 2020, Minnesota said, you know what, the primary stuff, it doesn't work too well, we're going to move back to a caucus, meaning more of a political gathering of the party itself. And Indiana moved its primary back to May where it has it states primary elections as well. So, New Hampshire was the first in the nation primary and 1920, kind of by accident. And for many, many decades, nobody really cared about the New Hampshire primary.

And the first time it became somewhat historically important was in the 1952 presidential election when Dwight Eisenhower campaigned, he didn't campaign personally in New Hampshire, but he won the New Hampshire primary, which saw up Robert Taft, who was then President of the Senate, the Majority Leader in the Senate among Republicans. He seemed to be the Republican candidate, and he was no longer. So, that was the first time it was important, but really, it was 1968 that the primary became important and that was when, in 1968, Lyndon Johnson had a unexpected challenge from antiwar Democrats and tied essentially in the New Hampshire primary, but he pulled out of the presidential race after that and said that he would just concentrate on the war in Vietnam in Vietnam. So essentially, conceded the president in 1868. So that was when it became important. That's when people really started to pay attention to it. And that's when other states started to say, you know, what? Why should New Hampshire have the first in the nation primary? So, it was an accident that we got it, but once we had it, people here decided that they liked it and decided to keep.

How baked in to the political identity of New Hampshire is that early primary? I mean, we're all used to watching the candidates and some years, there are dozens of them, it seems, going to like every diner in the state and trying to win that early vote. Are people sort of used to having that status?

They are, but I wouldn't overblow how important it is. It's true that you can, if you want to, you can pretty much meet or go see personally every presidential candidate in New Hampshire during the primary cycle. And, frankly, a lot of New Hampshire residents take advantage of that. Our polling has been showing that upwards of 20% of the people have met a candidate personally in the last presidential primary cycle, this was would have been back in 2016 cycle. So, you can do it. But that means that 80% don't. So, there are a lot of people who are like the political junkies who find it very, very important. The political class, for shorthand way of putting this, find that the primary is very, very important. But for a lot of people, it's not as important.

Another way that you can measure its importance is that turnout is extremely high in the New Hampshire primary, it's higher year on year than any other state. And that's an indication that there is a lot of interest in the primary. But it's also an indication that there are hundreds of millions of dollars spent on that campaign to get people to come out and vote. So, it is in the New Hampshire political world, it's definitely important. For the rest of New Hampshire, it's very important in that it brings in a tremendous amount of money and attention to the state. So, it's probably the thing that the state is best known for. People have said, you know, if you go to California, you've got the Golden Gate Bridge. And if you go to New York, you’ve got the Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, etc. To think about New Hampshire? Well, it's the presidential primary that people think about. So, it's, it's important to the state. It’s important to the tourism in the state. It's important that the state's image. It’s important to the political class. But for the general public, it's kind of a fun thing, but not something that they are as concerned about.

I can think of some recent high-profile examples where Hillary Clinton got a jolt to her campaign by defeating Barack Obama there. And then Joe Biden really needed South Carolina to kickstart his campaign. So, how predictive is the New Hampshire primary and who ultimately wins the nomination?

It's not very predictive, and who ultimately wins the nomination. If you think, on the Republican side, Pat Buchanan won in 1996 here and he didn't win the nomination. In 2000, John McCain won and didn't win the nomination. So, on the Republican side, it hasn't been as predictive on the Democratic side. Certainly, Barack Obama did not win here, Bill Clinton didn't win here, Joe Biden recently didn't win here and even Hillary Clinton in 2016 didn't win here. That was the year that she lost very heavily to Bernie Sanders from Vermont. So, it's not as predictable as one would see, but it does mean if you win the New Hampshire primary, you're going to be seen as one of the candidates that is one of the finalists in the game. And the reason for that is it's the momentum and the TV exposure that you get from winning the New Hampshire primary compared to the amount of money that that would cost. It's worth, literally, if not $100 million, close to $100 million in TV advertisement down the road, because for a week after the New Hampshire primary people are going to be doing national and local news casts are going to be doing stories about who won and why and who lost and why they lost. And that's going to set the tone and the narrative for the rest of the campaign.

So, the Democratic Party right now is arguing that South Carolina is more diverse than New Hampshire and should have a more prominent role in the early primaries. But here's a question for you. Why can't we have a national one-day presidential primary for both parties?

It has been proposed. There are a lot of pluses and minuses to all reform packages that are out there and I can’t say that the current cycle with this current way it's done is the best way of doing it. But if there were a national primary, it would essentially preclude any of the rather unknown candidate from having any chance. It would just be the candidate with the most money in the most name recognition and essentially, that would mean the person that is most in step with the party, who's able to get the money and was able to that already has a name recognition. So, it essentially would just be the big-name candidates. You wouldn't have anybody like a Gary Hart in 1984, who could come out of the woodwork, come out of Colorado, and defeat Walter Mondale and almost win the primary, almost win the nomination or, more importantly, Jimmy Carter in 1976, who can come from a governor in Georgia, a known governor of Georgia and become president. So, it's something that would give a national primary would definitely increase the power of the party itself and choosing the nominee, and would reduce the ability of anybody who's a lesser-known person of having any chance of winning the nomination.

I want to return for a second to something you said earlier, which as you pointed out that New Hampshire, you know, we're talking about a purple state, it elects people statewide from both parties. Could this really backfire on Democrats in New Hampshire?

Well, that's always the fear is that the Democrats will say, you know what, we really don't like the party, we're going to turn against the party, and we're going to vote for the Republican candidate for president or Republican candidates for other offices as well. Kind of a backlash against it. That's the fear that Democrats have and because New Hampshire is a fairly closed state, if the Democrats were to say lose 3%-5% of their support, because of the primary, that could be enough to make the difference in who wins, wins the electoral votes from the New Hampshire in the presidential election. So, there's that possibility there. But my sense as a political scientist and as politics work today, is that people generally almost exclusively vote for the R or the D following somebody's name on a ballot. And by the time it would come around to the presidential election itself in November, I imagine a lot of those Democrats, who would be upset about New Hampshire losing its first in the nation status, would rationalize why it's still better to vote for the Democratic candidate for president rather than the Republican.

So, what do you think will happen here?

Well, I think the Democratic Party has made up its mind. It's a committee vote that is recommending this. So, it's not finalized yet. My sense is that they're going to go ahead and do this and large part because it is President Biden's party and President Biden has had bad experiences in New Hampshire. He finished fifth in New Hampshire in 2020. So, they've made up their mind. But the problem I started off with is that New Hampshire has a law that requires it to have the first primary. Now, the Democratic Party could say, well, if New Hampshire as the first primary, we're going to ignore their delegates, we're not going to take them seriously, we're not going to seat them at the convention, which the party can do. But will that mean that the media doesn't cover any candidates who campaign in New Hampshire? Or will candidates refuse to campaign in New Hampshire because of that threat of losing delegates? That's the big question. New Hampshire is not important because of the size of the state, or because of the intellect of the voters here or because of the media attention so much. It's important because the media and candidates think it's important. And if they continue to think it's important, then no matter what the DNC schedule is, New Hampshire will still be important. If candidates don't show up, because they're concerned about retribution from the party, then it won't be important. But remember, this change only applies to the Democratic calendar. The Republicans will still have a primary here in New Hampshire first, regardless of what the Democrats decided to do.

So lastly, how are our leading figures in the burgeoning 2024 race resonating with voters in New Hampshire? What do we know about President Biden's popularity, former President Trump's, that kind of thing?

President Biden is reasonably popular here. It's about a little bit higher than his national popularity, but it's not great. It's in that kind of the danger zone, but it's in the area that he could get himself out of that danger zone of being under 46% by the time that the election comes around. So, I don't think there's much concern right now that there's going to be a challenge to President Biden, but we'll see. You know, obviously, there's documents that have been found in his home and in his office that may cause some concern among Democrats there. On the Republican side, President Trump is losing support in New Hampshire. Governor DeSantis from Florida is becoming more and more popular, and Governor Chris Sununu, who is strongly hinting that he's running for President would do quite well here as well, not surprisingly. So, the other candidates, people have been coming up for visits, Mike Pence has been up here. Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State has been here. Larry Hogan, former governor of Maryland has been here a couple of times. So, there's a lot of the interest starting and it will build up very soon. So, we'll see more and more candidates coming up here. And I think that the front runners right now are certainly Trump still because he's the past president, but DeSantis and Sununu, I think are going to be serious candidates in New Hampshire.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.