The Democratic Party is engaged in a heated debate over the order of its presidential primaries, as a Times Magazine story by Ross Barkan explains.
President Biden and other top Democrats want South Carolina to go first next year. State officials in New Hampshire insist on maintaining their first-in-the-nation status and say they will simply move their primary to take place before South Carolina. The outcome remains unclear.
Holding the country’s first primary election certainly offers great benefits to a state. Presidential candidates make repeat visits. So do political organizers and members of the media, filling hotels and restaurants. The voters of one state get to shape the national discourse. No wonder New Hampshire is fighting so hard to maintain a privilege it has had since the 1950s.
But there is also an inconvenient question to which New Hampshire officials have failed to offer a convincing answer: How has the rest of the country benefited from the state’s special status?
New England bias
New Hampshire’s critics often point out the many ways it doesn’t look like the rest of America. It is one of the whitest, highest-income and most educated states in the country. It’s home to ski resorts, lake retreats and boarding schools — but not a single city of more than 125,000 residents.
New Hampshire’s defenders respond that its intimacy allows for a purer version of politics. Candidates speak directly to voters in restaurants and at town meetings, rather than competing mostly through advertisements. As in ancient Greece or the early United States, citizens can take the measure of the people who want to represent them. I covered the New Hampshire primary, and I found it charming, too.
The results are however less impressive. There is no evidence that New Hampshire voters have a talent for electing presidents that other Americans lack. If anything, the state’s record is worse than average, at least on the Democratic side:
New Hampshire has voted against each of the past three Democratic presidents during their ultimately victorious nomination campaigns: Biden (who finished fifth!) in 2020, Barack Obama in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1992. Not since Jimmy Carter, nearly 50 years ago, has a prospective A Democratic president won the state.
No two-term Democratic presidency has begun with a New Hampshire victory. In 1992, Clinton took his second-place finish as a victory, calling himself “the comeback kid,” but he received less than 25 percent of the vote.
The clearest pattern is that New Hampshire favors Democrats from nearby, regardless of their ideology or national appeal. Every time a major candidate from neighboring Massachusetts or Vermont ran in the past 35 years, that candidate won New Hampshire: Bernie Sanders in 2020 and 2016, John Kerry in 2004, Paul Tsongas in 1992 and Michael Dukakis in 1988.
The closest thing to a substantive counterargument from New Hampshire officials is that their state is a swing state, unlike South Carolina, which is solidly Republican. If New Hampshire still goes first (as state law dictates) and Biden skips the state primary (as his aides said he would), the primary campaign would be filled with criticism of him from both Republican candidates running for the nomination and fringe of 2024. Democrats challenging Biden like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson.
“The reality is that New Hampshire is going to retain the number one primary in the nation,” said Ray Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, “and the only question is whether the president will go or not. put his name on the ballot.”
If he’s not on the ballot, Biden’s criticism could theoretically damage his image in the state and hurt his chances when New Hampshire votes next November in the general election. In a very close national election, New Hampshire may even determine the Electoral College outcome. But that scenario seems remote. A sitting president is always subject to harsh criticism during the open primary of the other party, and most sitting presidents still win re-election.
Ultimately, the main beneficiary of New Hampshire’s privileged primary status is New Hampshire, which explains why the state is fighting so hard to preserve it. As Ross Barkan, the author of the Times Magazine article, writes, “Democrats out there insist it’s their right to go first.”
Related: Ross explains that Biden has his own vested motives for pushing South Carolina. The state — home to many working-class Black voters — rocketed Biden to the front of the Democratic field in 2020 after his losses in New Hampshire and Iowa.
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