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New Hampshire.  The First Primary State No More, Says Joe

GELFAND’S WORLD - It appears that the people of New Hampshire are displeased with the decision to remove them as the site of the nation's first presidential primary. Joe Biden has decided that South Carolina ought to go first, which is a bit amusing in itself, but there is plenty of reason for the rest of us to join the Anybody But New Hampshire movement. As NBC News explains in the story you can read here, the residents of The Granite State are displeased. Allow me to quote a couple of statements from that story: 

“How dare he?” Laurie Jasper, a member of the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women, said. “How dare he think he can influence New Hampshire that way? It’s just outrageous.” 

It's almost as if she were asked to go to the back of the checkout line at the supermarket, or to wait to board a plane in Group B. After all, New Hampshire has the right to be the first primary state because . . . come to think of it, because why? 

The answer is actually a little surprising to the younger generation. New Hampshire was not granted the authority to be the first primary state because there was some national contest or election. They just took it. Way back when, they set their primary very early in the nominating season. When this turned out to be a political and financial advantage, they decided to enshrine it in law. A couple of other states have tried to contest the New Hampshire primacy over the years, but the political parties were too chicken to make much of a fight of it. Why is that? Well, the voters of New Hampshire have made a practice of punishing any candidate who supports reforming the primary system in a way that would dethrone NH. Word got around about this a long time ago. You could either play by their rules or lose badly. Candidates made it a practice of opening campaign offices in New Hampshire a year in advance and talking to the people of New Hampshire one on one. 

This can be an advantage to some candidates who wouldn't be all that competitive in a more industrial state, or a state with a lot of minority voters, or in a southwestern state that has water issues. Candidates running in New Hampshire don't have to talk about dealing with the draught. They just talk about the issue de jour in that little white state. 

Yes, New Hampshire wants to keep its hold. It turns out that being the first primary state confers certain advantages if you happen to be New Hampshire. Consider the following, from the same article: 

"To the people of New Hampshire, it’s a deep disturbance to the political soul of the “live free or die” state, where restaurant workers not only can tick off a list of presidents they’ve met but recount which ones will look you in the eye." 

Now why wouldn't we in California like to have that same privilege, rather than just enduring traffic jams when candidates and presidents come to L.A. to attend fund raising dinners? I sure would have liked to have a chat over my eggs and waffles with Joe Biden or Bill Clinton. But we were denied that opportunity because there is supposed to be some sacred right of Granite State voters to hog all the campaign riches. 

Also, local merchants and hotels and Boston area television stations like the business that the primary wins for them. 

By the way, the Iowa caucuses suffer the same criticisms as the New Hampshire primary, except that they have already begun to lose esteem in the public eye. 

In brief, New Hampshire's cooks and waiters and homeowners love to recount how many presidential candidates they have met. Then they tell you why they alone are supremely qualified to make the first decision for the rest of us. They seem to think that they are better judges of human character than those of us from big states or from states that have a functioning Democratic Party, or from states which have any substantial number of minorities in them. 

But there is plenty of evidence for the lack of wisdom and judgment of the people of New Hampshire. Let's first consider their stellar record in choosing first place candidates: 

Richard Nixon

Gerald Ford

Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.

Ronald Reagan

Pat Buchanan (!)

George W. Bush

Mitt Romney

Donald Trump (!)

Donald Trump again (!) 

and that's just some of the Republicans. 

And then there are all these Democratic winners: 

Estes Kefauver

Edmund Muskie

Gary Hart

Michael Dukakis

Paul Tsongas

John Kerry

Hillary Clinton

Bernie Sanders 

Now I will admit that they picked a few candidates with leadership and some charisma, including JFK, Eisenhower, Bill Clinton (as an incumbent), and Al Gore. 

But if you wanted to defend New Hampshire as having some special gift for choosing the best among us, you'd have to concede that they are nothing better than the rankest sort of mediocrities. 

In fact, when you get right down to it, New Hampshire Democrats are suckers for candidates who are from the immediately adjacent states, and mainly Massachusetts at that. How's this for a list: JFK, Edmund Muskie (Maine), Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, John Kerry, and Bernie Sanders (Vermont). That's 5 out of 6 losers, with Muskie, Dukakis, and Kerry kind of joke figures in the history of American presidential candidates. 

The problem for the rest of the United States is that winning in the first primary has traditionally provided a major advantage to winning the nomination. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that the nation could have done a lot better had somebody other than Iowans and New Hampshirites had the privilege of First Caucuses and First Primaries. 

There is one other point which is worth revisiting. I would very much like the chance to meet personally with serious presidential candidates. I imagine that most of you would too. I'm also sure that people in other states would like that privilege. By asserting its right to go first each and every presidential election year, New Hampshire is denying the chance to everyone else. All I am asking is a chance -- perhaps being the first state could be subject to some sort of lottery, where the first primary state in 2024 goes to the back of the line in 2028, and so forth. 

Some people feel that there is an advantage to having a small state go first in the primaries, because it does allow candidates to campaign face to face and hope to reach some reasonable fraction of the voters. Still, if we were to agree that the first primary state should have a small population, then we could simply look at the lowest 10 or 20 on the list and do our lottery pick from there. For example, going from the lower to higher, starting from the bottom, here is the ranked list: 

Wyoming

Vermont

Alaska

North Dakota

South Dakota

Delaware

Montana

Rhode Island

Maine

New Hampshire

Hawaii

West Virginia

Idaho

Nebraska

New Mexico 

One other observation we might make: New Hampshire is 10th from the bottom, at 1.39 million people. We can obviously find states which are substantially smaller, if that is the only criterion. Or we might go as much as 1.5 times as high as New Hampshire by picking New Mexico. And New Mexico has a functioning Democratic Party, as does Hawaii, Delaware, and Rhode Island. For low population, accessibility to many candidates, and compact boundaries, Rhode Island beats New Hampshire. 

But even this argument -- that we should limit the first primary states to small populations -- is not necessarily the best criterion for choosing. The presidential election includes all of the states, which means that a candidate who can contest Michigan, Wisconsin, and perhaps Ohio and Florida is better situated than a candidate who can win only in low population, mainly white states. A candidate who can win Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania but not New Hampshire is preferable to an Edmund Muskie or Paul Tsongas. 

How to Enforce the Changes 

New Hampshire officials make clear that no matter what the Democratic National Committee may ordain in terms of the order of presidential primaries, they will still hold theirs before anybody else's. They figure -- and history has shown -- that promises to punish states which hold their elections out of order are never upheld when the national convention comes around. That's because the sanctions always involved cutting the number of delegates by half, or some such nonsense. The problem is that the candidates campaign anyway, and they get the sort of publicity that winning (or coming in second) in the first primary accomplishes. 

There is a more effective sanction, which the Democrats have figured out. You sanction every candidate who campaigns in that early primary. The idea is to make the illegal primary into something of a non-event, much as the Iowa caucuses became a non-event the last time around. 

The Entitled voters of New Hampshire 

When New Hampshire residents were interviewed about the prospect of losing their preeminence, they responded much as the core Trump voters did to the Donald's presidential loss. It would be unthinkable and unacceptable and all the un-words one can think of. It all comes down to a toddler's wailing -- "I WANNA GO FIRST!" -- and that's that. 

The state of New Hampshire is so arrogant in its demands that it has written it's "GO FIRST" status into state law. Wow -- talk about the tail wagging the dog. 

So perhaps if New Hampshire wants to keep telling the rest of the country who its presidential candidates are going to be, then The Granite State should be renamed The Karen State, or just the State of Entitlement. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])