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N.H. says it will continue to host the first presidential primary. Democrats have other ideas

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Pins and bumper stickers of presidential contenders in the New Hampshire primary are displayed in the State House visitors center on Nov. 14 in Concord, N.H. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Pins and bumper stickers of presidential contenders in the New Hampshire primary are displayed in the State House visitors center on Nov. 14 in Concord, New Hampshire. (Charles Krupa/AP)

New Hampshire officials say they have no intention of giving up what might be the state's greatest claim to fame: the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

That's despite a move by the Democratic National Committee and President Biden to end the long tradition of allowing New Hampshire to hold the first primary and for Iowa to hold the first caucus every four years. Their proposal would have South Carolina, the state that saved Biden's 2020 election campaign, go first.

"It's part of our culture" said David Scanlan, New Hampshire's secretary of state. He pointed out that the state has a law requiring it to hold the presidential primary at least one week before any other state.

The first position has long been a boon for the state's image and businesses, pumping hundreds of millions into the state economy, while prompting legions of presidential wannabes, journalists and activists to make the pilgrimage to the Granite State, visiting scores of towns and villages along the way.

Jimmy Carter greets a crowd at the Carpenter Hotel in Manchester, N.H. in 1976. (Ulrike Welsch/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Jimmy Carter greets a crowd at the Carpenter Hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1976. (Ulrike Welsch/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

And the state's political leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, say there's no way they will give up being first on the primary calendar.

"We've been doing it for over a hundred years," Scanlan said. "The people of New Hampshire take great pride in it."

The early position has also given New Hampshire voters enormous influence in the presidential race, propelling some long shot candidates into the White House. That includes Jimmy Carter, who won the primary in 1976, and Bill Clinton, who finished a close second in 1992 — despite trailing badly in the polls — and famously called himself the "Comeback Kid."

Then Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton gives the thumbs up to supporters at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire on Feb. 18, 1992. (Greg Gibson/AP)
Then Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton gives the thumbs up to supporters at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire on Feb. 18, 1992. (Greg Gibson/AP)

New Hampshire has also helped dash the presidential hopes of other candidates, as happened in 1968. That's when President Lyndon Johnson decided to drop his re-election bid after almost losing to Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire.

But many Democrats argue it's unfair to give such outsized influence to small, overwhelmingly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

The DNC's rules and bylaws committee has proposed a new primary schedule that would move up some more diverse states, such as South Carolina, Nevada and Michigan.

Under the new schedule, South Carolina would go first, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada a week later and then Michigan. Iowa, which was dogged by problems tabulating votes in 2020, would vote much later in the process.

Mike Dukakis holds a press conference in front of Mac's Clam Bar in Seabrook, N.H. in 1988. (Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Mike Dukakis holds a press conference in front of Mac's Clam Bar in Seabrook, New Hampshire in 1988. (Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Antjuan Seawright, a political analyst and a Democratic advisor, notes that close to 70% of voters who cast ballots in South Carolina's Democratic primary are Black.

"That is very reflective of the most loyal and dedicated constituency in the Democratic Party," Seawright said. By contrast, New Hampshire's population is 87% white and only 1% identify as Black, according to U.S. Census data.

But even if the DNC approves the new schedule, it may run into challenges putting it into practice. New Hampshire's elected officials say they have no plans to alter their law requiring its primary to be first.

"So now the national Democrat Party is trying to change our state law?" Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said recently on WMUR. "If it weren't so serious it would be an absolute joke."

New Hampshire's entire political establishment seems united on that front.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen summed up New Hampshire's position with a terse statement: "We have a state law that says we're going to go first, so we're going to go first."

Some New Hampshire officials claim the schedule change is nothing more than a scheme to improve Biden's potential re-election chances, since Biden won South Carolina handily after finishing fifth in New Hampshire in the 2020 presidential campaign.

"Candidates should not dictate when elections are because they'll certainly do it to their advantage — and that's what's happening in this case," said Neil Levesque, who heads the Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd at Keene State College in 2000. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd at Keene State College in 2000. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Supporters of the New Hampshire primary also argue that the state plays a critical role in vetting presidential candidates with months of small gatherings and town hall meetings. It also offers a potential launching pad to lower-profile candidates who don't have the money for massive ad campaigns in much bigger states.

But James Roosevelt Jr., a co-chair of the DNC's rules and bylaws committee, argues that it's time to give states with more diverse populations, like South Carolina, more influence. And he predicts New Hampshire officials will eventually follow the national committee's plans.

"New Hampshire has done this and done it well for a century or more, but they have always abided by the party rules," Roosevelt said. "This is the first time they're not doing that."

If New Hampshire refuses, he said, the party could punish the state by not recognizing its delegates at the national convention. That would mean New Hampshire voters would have nothing to say about who gets nominated and the primary results would be largely symbolic.

"It will be a state-sponsored public opinion poll," Roosevelt said.

The issue will come to a head next February when the full Democratic National Committee votes on the final election schedule.

Meanwhile, Republicans have already decided to keep Iowa and New Hampshire as the first caucus and primary in the GOP election schedule.

But whatever Democrats decide, New Hampshire officials say their state primary will always be first.

This segment aired on December 16, 2022.

Related:

Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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