Accessibility links

New Hampshire Vows to Stay 'First in Nation’ for State Primary Elections


The U.S. Constitution does not outline how a political party can nominate a candidate for president. The process simply has evolved over time, and now both major parties -- the Democratic and Republican -- rely on state primary elections to determine their candidates for the general election. VOA's Kane Farabaugh spent time in the first state to hold a primary election -- New Hampshire -- where the growing influence of the media has prompted the state to hold earlier primaries each four-year election cycle.

It is a source of pride to the people in the northeastern state of New Hampshire. A tradition marked by signs and etched in stone in the state capitol, Concord.

But when William Gardner ran for New Hampshire's Secretary of State in 1976, the state's presidential primary election could hardly be described as a political milestone. "New Hampshire has had the "first in the nation" primary since 1920. For the first half of the century it was not a national or internationally significant event."

It was during Gardner's second year in office -- 1977 -- when lawmakers passed legislation making the state primary election the "first in the nation." Gardner describes New Hampshire's now famous political winter tradition as an important part of the "American Dream." "It first of all gives an average person the opportunity to have a chance to be president. It keeps the American dream alive that any person's son or daughter can someday grow up to be president because you don't have to be the most famous or have the longest purse strings to be able to win here."

New Hampshire is a state of roughly 1.3 million people. The 2000 Census shows that 96 percent of the population is white. A majority of voters in the state call themselves independent as opposed to Republican or Democrat. Because of that fact, and its status as first in the nation, New Hampshire is an important stop on a candidate's campaign itinerary.

Senator John Mccain, a Republican candidate from Arizona said to an audience, "One of the first priorities is that if they ever want to embark to any path to citizenship is that they must first learn English."

Often candidates will make an effort to connect with voters one-on-one, because they know this is a state that can make or break their political future. But the state's special status is threatened by changes in the presidential election cycle next year.

For the 2008 election, at least 10 states have already scheduled compressed primaries for February 5th, a date known as "Super Tuesday." That number could grow to 25 as other states pass legislation in the coming months.

The chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, Fergus Cullen, says the change does not give candidates much time to build or gain political momentum after they stump in New Hampshire. "Because of the compression, a candidate who stumbles may not have time to recover. A candidate who exceeds expectations many not have time to capitalize on that success. They literally won't be able to cash the checks fast enough to fund their campaign in the next state. It increases the odds that one party or the other might nominate somebody who is not electable before they can put a stop to that."

Leon Panetta served as former President Bill Clinton's chief of staff. He says that the Super Tuesday calendar compression would seem to help the candidates with the most money. "And that probably favors not only Hillary Clinton -- Barack Obama is raising a lot of money. On the Republican side it probably favors somebody like Mitt Romney who has raised a tremendous amount of money as well."

A compressed primary calendar impairs a lesser-known candidate's ability to increase visibility with voters in other states. Critics of the Super Tuesday also contend that it gives more importance to political advertising since it leaves less time for the candidates to actually meet with voters in person.

The state of Florida has scheduled its primary in 2008 for January 29th. New Hampshire state law requires primary elections held here to occur at least seven days before any other state.

Some, like Fergus Cullen, speculate that New Hampshire could move its primary to late 2007. "I suspect it will probably be earlier than people generally think it is. I also expect that we will have a British style snap election, where the Secretary of State will say it will be four weeks from tomorrow, or it will be six weeks from tomorrow, maybe less. That's what I'm expecting - no one can tell."

The person who can tell is not saying much about his plans this year."Some time this coming fall is most likely when the date will be set," Cullen added.

Despite the changes this election year, the campaign is in full swing in New Hampshire, thanks in part to political debates held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. Off campus, handshakes and town hall meetings ushered in the latest round of campaigning in a state that hopes to keep its relevance -- and its source of pride -- intact for 2008, and beyond.

XS
SM
MD
LG