Monday, January 22, 2024

The Relevance of the New Hampshire Primary

On Tuesday, voters across New Hampshire will head to the polls to cast their ballot in the first official primary of the 2024 election season. 

New Hampshire Democrats are holding their primary in defiance of the Democratic National Committee's decision to move the first primary to South Carolina. For all intents and purposes, the New Hampshire primary will not count for the Democrats, and incumbent President Joe Biden isn't even on the ballot. For reasons we'll discuss later, this isn't entirely the fault of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. 

The Republicans are holding a contested primary, with former President Donald Trump seeking to become the first candidate since Grover Cleveland to receive a major party nomination in three consecutive elections and the first President since Cleveland to serve two non-consecutive terms. Trump's most notable challenger is former South Carolina governor and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who finished third in the Iowa Caucuses behind Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis (who quit the race mere minutes before I started writing this piece). Trump is the odds-on favorite - but Haley is mounting a strong campaign in New Hampshire. A Haley win in New Hampshire is plausible, even if unlikely. 

....But does any of this matter in 2024? 

The "First in the Nation" New Hampshire primary has long been a staple of the nominating process. For decades, candidates, their campaigns, and the media have decamped to New Hampshire for months on end, campaigning for the hearts and minds of voters across the Granite State. New Hampshire is a small state, both in population and geography. Candidates have historically taken advantage of this by holding smaller events, even going to people's homes to personally appeal to voters and their neighbors. It is not uncommon to see candidates marching in small-town parades.

And voters have historically rewarded this personal outreach. New Hampshire has revived previously thought-dead campaigns and placed candidates on the path to their party's nomination. Any follower of New Hampshire primary lore is familiar with Jimmy Carter's 1976 primary victory, which was powered by Carter (and his campaign volunteers from Georgia), who vigorously went to every corner of the state. There's also John McCain's victory in 2008 and Bill Clinton's stronger-than-expected performance in the 1992 primary (who earned Clinton the moniker "The Comeback Kid"). There are other examples of candidates over-performing in New Hampshire against establishment candidates, even if they failed to win the nomination (McCain and Bill Bradley in 2000 and Pat Buchanan in 1992 are two examples that come to mind immediately). 

The First in the Nation primary is so embedded within New Hampshire's political culture that its very existence is codified in state law. New Hampshire state law provides that, "[t]he presidential primary election shall be held on the second Tuesday in March or on a date selected by the secretary of state which is 7 days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election, whichever is earlier, of each year when a president of the United States is to be elected or the year previous." Given the existing state law, New Hampshire Democrats had no choice but to defy the DNC and hold their primary as scheduled. 

For those of us who care about rural issues, the New Hampshire primary holds a special significance. New Hampshire has a higher-than-average percentage of its population living in rural areas and is bordered by two of the four states with a majority rural population (Vermont and Maine). These facts have positioned the New Hampshire primary as a suitable venue for candidates to learn more about issues that uniquely impact rural spaces, which is important for candidates who may represent or govern predominantly urban constituencies. 

The Emergence of Trump 

However, the emergence of Donald Trump has challenged many of our assumptions about the New Hampshire primary. He won the 2016 primary despite engaging in a negligible amount of retail politics. He held large rallies, not house parties. He didn't march in small-town parades, and he did not go to people's homes. He didn't hold town halls, didn't take questions from voters, or open himself up to the traditional vetting process that New Hampshire has long prided itself on having. 

While John Kasich's strong second place (by far his best performance in 2016) indicated that some voters still rewarded personal outreach and engagement, Trump's victory challenged many conventional assumptions about how to be successful in New Hampshire.

The emergence of social media and the increased access to voters that it provided played a huge role in Trump's victory and the upending of the New Hampshire primary's "norms." Through social media, Trump and his surrogates could reach voters like never before. With social media, you do not have to be physically present in someone's home. You could visit them "digitally" by sending a tweet, and your surrogates could use Facebook groups and pages to speak to voters directly. Trump did not have to march in a small town parade because he commanded the attention of those in the virtual town square. Through social media, Trump could reach out to voters from New Hampshire to California with the click of a button. 

Trump also benefited from the nationalization of politics. One of the advantages of the New Hampshire primary has long been the fact that it isn't dominated by one media market. New Hampshire's communities are divided into the media markets in Burlington, Vermont, Portland, Maine, and Boston, Massachusetts. With only television news outlet historically serving the state (WMUR-TV in Manchester), there were few opportunities to utilize media in any kind of macro way. This placed an onus on candidates to do personal outreach and utilize local print media. However, print media circulation in New Hampshire has been declining and people are increasingly turning to national news sources, a process that social media has facilitated. This fact has created a de-emphasis on local issues and an increased importance on national issues, which benefits a candidate like Trump. 

Donald Trump proved that you could win a New Hampshire primary without doing anything that it was thought you needed to do to win. That is a seismic shift. 

If candidates can win in New Hampshire without engaging on local issues, is it still relevant for teaching candidates about rural issues? 

The New Hampshire Primary's Influence

The other side is whether or not the New Hampshire primary is even still influential for voters in other states. Now-President Joe Biden finished 5th and garnered only 8.4% of the vote in 2020. That kind of performance would have killed a campaign in previous cycles. But yet, Biden managed to win the Democratic nomination. The New Hampshire primary also failed to lift the campaign of second place finisher Pete Buttigieg or expand the base of winner Bernie Sanders. After Biden's win in South Carolina, it was almost as if the New Hampshire primary never even happened. 

Even in 2016, you could argue that John Kasich should have gotten a bigger boost from his second place finish. In 1992, Pat Buchanan parlayed his strong showing in New Hampshire into strong showings in other states. John McCain followed up his second place showing in 2000 with a strong second place in South Carolina and wins in other states. Kasich failed to receive any boost from his performance in New Hampshire. 

The question for Tuesday is whether or not a strong showing for Nikki Haley will even matter. Recent history indicates that it may not. 

So....does it matter?

The New Hampshire primary is certainly less relevant than it has been in decades past. Candidates can now bypass the traditional means of reaching voters and rely on nationalized outlets such as social media to "personally" reach out to voters. The impact of this is two-fold. Candidates no longer rely on the increased media coverage from a strong showing in New Hampshire to carry them forward in other states, and candidates can win in New Hampshire without pursuing traditional retail politics. They can also win in New Hampshire without engaging on local issues, missing an opportunity to learn more about issues that rural voters face. These facts have fundamentally reshaped the New Hampshire primary and I would argue that the primary's relevance has significantly declined as a result. 

All of that said, there is still a place for New Hampshire as the First in the Nation primary. Just last year, I wrote a piece in The Daily Yonder in which I called for the pairing of New Hampshire and South Carolina at the top of the calendar. The two states represent stark contrasts in the rural experience. South Carolina has more racial diversity and its agricultural past has been dominated by large scale agriculture. They also have deeper and more persistent poverty; thirteen of South Carolina's forty six counties are persistent poverty counties. New Hampshire has no persistent poverty counties and small-scale, subsistence farming dominate its agricultural past. Both states have similar population densities, though New Hampshire has a larger share of its population living in rural spaces. 

Candidates can still benefit from the exposure to rural concerns, even if the electoral importance of the First in the Nation primary has declined.

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