U.S. President Joe Biden appears to have united Republican, Democratic and independent voters in New Hampshire on one issue amid a White House push to have South Carolina replace the Granite State as the first in the nation to hold a 2024 presidential primary.
Sentiment against the proposed change is channeled through Chris Ryan, who hosts “New Hampshire Today” on WGIR radio in Manchester.
“This is the biggest threat that New Hampshire has ever faced in over 100 years of voting, and it’s being brought by Joe Biden, an individual that ran for president three times here,” Ryan recently told his audience.
Feelings are hurt among patrons and staff of Manchester’s Red Arrow Diner, known as the restaurant every future U.S. president must visit.
“New Hampshire’s got a lot of pride that it has that role in the primary, and to take that away without some sort of deep reasoning is kind of offensive in some ways, but it’s more just like a slap,” Mark Hanneman, who manages a building and renovation company, said as he finished a meal.
The diner walls are adorned with photos of visiting candidates, including several who became president. Plaques glued on the counter indicate which famous people have sat at that seat.
The first-in-the-nation, grassroots-level primary is very important for New Hampshire’s economy, especially for the hotels and restaurants, said Ellen Ryan, who has served burgers and cream pies through four presidential campaigns. “It brings a lot of people in," she said. "It’s nice. Please don’t take it away.”
More than 20 leading New Hampshire Democrats sent a letter to the White House in mid-January pleading with the president not to change the status quo.
“While we share your desire to elevate more diverse voices in the process, we believe that the proposed schedule could wreak havoc on Democrats up and down the ticket in New Hampshire and unnecessarily jeopardize four critical electoral votes in your reelection campaign,” said the letter.
Biden’s campaign faltered when he finished fifth in New Hampshire’s 2020 primary after a loss in the Iowa caucuses. A subsequent first-place victory in South Carolina’s primary propelled him toward the Democratic Party nomination.
Candidates here are compelled to visit the local diners, trudge through the snow and face tough questions from skeptical middle-class voters in the small, mostly white rural state. It is a system that can boost underfunded, unknown politicians, but undermine well-financed famous faces who prefer to let their campaign commercials do the talking.
“I think the White House is clearly trying to rig and change the election schedule and calendar to the best advantage of the incumbent president,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political Library at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.
Small states with big power
The political establishment is wary of a small state wielding so much power with an unpredictable system in which independents on Election Day can choose either a Republican or Democratic ballot, according to Ryan.
“They’d much rather have a condensed, smaller field and a fewer amount of voters in a place like South Carolina or, what I feel is taking place, moving more towards a nationalized primary where you can just survive based on cable TV [advertising] buys, [a] good social media/digital campaign and you don’t ever really have to talk to a real human being,” he told VOA.
Asked by VOA during a mid-January news briefing to articulate the White House stance and explain why New Hampshire should face punishment by the Democratic Party if it does not yield the nation’s first primary to a state more representative of the country’s ethnic diversity, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was reticent.
“The Democratic National Committee has addressed this,” she said. “I’m just not going to go any further to what we’ve already shared.”
States holding primaries before the first Tuesday in March without the consent of the Democratic National Committee would lose half their pledged delegates to the party's nominating convention. The state’s so-called superdelegates, which include party leaders as well as the party's U.S. Senate and House members, would also not be allowed to vote at the convention.
It could get noisier
If New Hampshire is punished for holding an unauthorized primary, Biden could face a Democratic Party challenger, hoping to take advantage of a backlash.
“I have no doubt there’ll be a candidate that runs against Joe Biden on the Democratic side, comes here and is going to have success,” predicted Ryan.
“If they move it away from New Hampshire, would that eliminate the possibility of a challenger to President Biden? No. It’s just going to change the dialogue and might even make New Hampshire noisier,” said Anna Brown, research director for Citizens Count, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group informing New Hampshire voters about issues and candidates.
Despite the threats, as Levesque said, New Hampshire has no legal room to maneuver regarding its premier status.
“We have a law here in New Hampshire that says we will go seven days prior to any other similar election,” said Levesque. “And it’s important to know that the United States of America is just that — we’re 50 states and the New Hampshire primary is a state election. The White House or any other organization nationally has no say in when we conduct a state election.”
New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu told reporters: “We are going first. We are going to have a winner.”
Sununu, a Republican, is a possible presidential candidate next year.
If Biden skips New Hampshire, another Democrat running in the state “is going to have a head of steam behind him regardless of what games the DNC wants to play,” added the governor. “They clearly didn’t think [this] through.”
“I think that it’ll be a very exciting primary in New Hampshire regardless of whether Biden has a challenger or not,” Brown told VOA.
The DNC in early February is to give final approval on next year’s primary elections calendar.
Anita Powell at the White House contributed to this report.