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Dispatches from the Campaign Trail

What is the Value of the New Hampshire “First in the Nation” Primary

Daniel Kuhn, SPA/MPP ’16

The New Hampshire primary has a proud heritage at the nation’s first presidential primary. In fact, the requirement to be the first primary is enshrined in state law, and it has continually fought to ensure it stays that way, by moving up its primary date and lobbying party officials.

In the wake of such symbolism, it begs the question: what is the goal of the New Hampshire primary? Is it to meet voters in diners and town halls, and give them an opportunity to represent the rest of the country by vetting candidates? Or, is it to ensure that a candidate emerges that can win the general election?

Having had the chance to meet with dozens of New Hampshire voters during the primary, they are truly amazing in how seriously they take their duty of vetting the candidates. Some won’t even consider voting unless they’ve spoken face to face with candidates and shaken their hands, even several times. They love to kick the tires, and do so with a professionalism that was truly a sight to see. Many voters, even after they made a decision on whom to vote for, kept going to hear all the candidates because they respect the process so much.

Even if you grant New Hampshirites that compliment, it fails to address the demographic and geographic realities that make the “first in the nation” primary problematic: it doesn’t look like America!

ABC News summed up this reality beautifully. With percentage of white voters on the X-axis, and the percentage of liberal voters on the Y-axis, New Hampshire and Iowa are in the top right corner as the least diverse and most liberal states in the Democratic primary. In the 2016 Republican primary, 96 percent of New Hampshire voters were white, while 93 percent Democratic primary voters were white. This is problem for a country where non-Hispanic whites are estimated to be just 62 percent of the population.

Graphic of Democratic Primary States


New Hampshire is No Crystal Ball

If the goal of primary order is to be predictive of the final outcome, then New Hampshire has a poor record. Of the 9 contested New Hampshire primaries since 1992, the eventual nominee won only four times! Hillary Clinton won the primary in 2008, not Barrack Obama. John McCain won the primary in 2000, not George W. Bush. Bob Dole lost the primary in 1996 to Pat Buchanan, and neither Bill Clinton nor George Bush won New Hampshire in 1992.

This year, the Democratic results need to be discounted, with apologies to Bernie Sanders, because it borders his home state. Still, New Hampshire’s prediction is not looking for the Democratic nominee, as Hillary Clinton has 10 percent more delegates than Sanders and a commanding lead of more than 21 percent when superdelegates are included. It was a good year for Republican New Hampshire advocates, though, as Trump won big, and Kasich and Cruz made up the rest of the top three.

So, who benefits from New Hampshire? New Hampshire does, first and foremost. The prestige and influx of cash into the state every four years is significant, as every hotel room, restaurant and event space is packed. Candidates with ties to the region obviously benefit. Bernie Sanders had a landslide victory in part due to his name recognition, and in part due to it being right in his wheelhouse as an almost entirely white, liberal electorate. A candidate like John Kasich also did very well in New Hampshire, representing a candidate who wouldn’t have had enough money to raise his name recognition if large regional primaries kicked off the primary election, as has been proposed. Of course, simply meeting the voters isn’t anything close to a guarantee. Chris Christie tied Kasich for the most campaign events in New Hampshire with 190, and the third place finisher, Lindsey Graham, with 176, dropped out of the race before Christmas and never got above 1 percent.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Primary states need to be viewed through a much different lens than general election states. States perceived to be solidly conservative can play a critical role in the Democratic primary (like Texas), while states perceived to be moderate swing states (like New Hampshire and Iowa) can have a Democratic electorate that’s out of step with the rest of the party nationally.

Where might a more representative state be found? How about swing states that looks like America. Several such states are clustered near the center of the chart above, like Florida, Virginia, and Michigan. In 2016, 48 percent of Florida’s Democratic primary voters were white. In Virginia, 63 percent of Democratic primary voters were white, while 86 percent of Republicans were white. Finally, in Michigan, 70 percent of Democrats were white, while 93 percent of Republicans were white.

While these states may not necessarily be more predictive, they might be worth placing early on in the primary season as an experiment, and to give a voice to moderate, more representative states.

Snapchat Dispatches from the Campaign Trail

Daniel Kuhn, SPA/MPP ’16, takes to Snapchat as he reports live from New Hampshire

Snapchat on Storify

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