In defense of the New Hampshire (and other early) primaries

Sec. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and the top nine Republicans running for president held more than 1,139 public events leading up to the primary election in New Hampshire, a state of just over 1.3 million people.

Gov. Chris Christie, who put all his chips on the Granite State, spent the better part of 75 days here before dropping out—shortly after placing sixth. Gov. John Kasich, who rose to national prominence because of his second place finish, spent about 70 days on the trail in New Hampshire. Clinton held 93 public events; Sanders hosted 85.

Why should one of the smallest, least diverse, most rural and grayest states become the political center of the universe every four years? Wouldn’t it be more fair for some of that attention to be spent elsewhere? And why do we have such a messy nominating process?

Because it makes our national elections more fair and informed.

In a recent post, Senior Fellow Elaine Kamarck discussed proposals for national, regional or rotating primaries, allowing other states the coveted “First-in-the-Nation” title. Kamarck smartly notes our presidential nominating system developed haphazardly over more than a hundred years, the result of the interplay between national parties, candidates and the states.

GOP Chairman Reince Preibus, in a recent interview about the process after 2016, said there should be no “sacred cows” when it comes to Republicans deciding on their nominee. When the party meets this summer in Cleveland, delegates will take up an idea, first proposed by Texas GOP chairman Tom Mechler, to remove all four of the “carve-out” states—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada—from the beginning of the primary calendar. It would strip all delegates earned nationally for any candidate who put their name on a ballot in a state that does not follow the nominating calendar prescribed by the party.

What these proposals don’t take into account is the critical role the early states play in a democratic process of electing a president. Early primary states allow candidates, voters and the media an inexpensive, safe place to hold a deep dialogue, beyond soundbites and mass rallies, on issues impacting the entire country.

Tough Questions

In New Hampshire, politics is the state sport. With one of the largest legislatures in the English-speaking world, it is possible to win an elected seat with a few thousand votes and a couple hundred dollars raised from friends and neighbors.

To get a better sense of how seriously Granite Staters take politics, look at the numbers: Earlier this month, about two-thirds of residents bundled up on a freezing February day, just hours after a winter storm swept through the state, to vote. In comparison, just over 50 percent of voters nationwide turned out in the 2012 general election.

On the 100th anniversary of the primary, it is also worth noting that several generations of Granite Staters have now been trained to ask tough questions—no matter how famous the candidate is. As an example, last summer, an opioid epidemic was quietly sweeping most of the Northeast. While it had garnered some local headlines, not many people were talking about it. That was until a makeup artist from Manchester, NH, was asked to work at a forum where 14 Republican presidential candidates were set to speak. While she was doing the host’s makeup, she told the moderator of the forum about her stepchild, who died from an overdose. He decided to ask the candidates about the topic on the spot and, within minutes of sharing one family’s story, the problem was immediately thrust into the national spotlight.

Time after time, candidates said they heard about issues that were not previously on their radar after sitting in a voter’s living room and taking questions from their neighbors. What some may see as a messy, unformulated process is actually one of the truest forms of democracy—where representatives hear directly from the people they govern.

The Field

The first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire also help boost candidates and winnow the field. Candidates like Sanders and Kasich are given the opportunity to gain name recognition the hard way: by introducing themselves to voters, one at a time. In a national primary, there is no workable formula where the independent senator from Vermont would have enough money or air time to run a meaningful campaign. The early states serve as a critical, and (relatively) inexpensive, first test for campaigns. It allows for candidates and ideas to bubble to the national psyche organically, even if the national media or party bosses do not approve.

The early states also do the rest of the country a service by winnowing the field of candidates who do not have a clear message or the ability to organize a political field operation. Imagine a national primary with almost 20 candidates on the ballot—it would be nearly impossible for an election like that to provide either party with consensus on who should represent them.

Sen. Rick Santorum and Gov. Mike Huckabee dropped from the race when conservatives in Iowa did not caucus for them. Carly Fiorina and Christie were out after it became apparent their tell-it-like-it-is style did not jive with Granite Staters. This process naturally allows consensus to build around a handful of candidates before larger states are tasked with voting.


Finally, even the candidates support campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa. The process forces them outside of their bubble and into living rooms, diners, high schools and Rotary club meetings. The primary creates better political leaders who hear directly from voters outside of their home states and come up with answers on the fly, beyond carefully crafted talking points.

Why should we have early states? Because people went to every one of the 1,139 political events in New Hampshire over the last year. Some people went to dozens, in order to ask questions, talk to their friends and family about the candidates and help elect the best possible president, in their opinion. Because two-thirds of registered voters bundled up to vote earlier this month, casting a record breaking 538,094 ballots.

Without the early states, including New Hampshire, presidential elections would be a real mess.