Tuesday night we’ll crown two new New Hampshire primary winners and perhaps witness the birth of a new political legend. Very likely, we’ll have our first-ever black or female New Hampshire laureate, so it’s almost guaranteed to make history. But it probably won’t end either nominating contest (it actually never does really end one). And we’ll have to wait until after both nominations are locked up before we know how big a role New Hampshire played. So keep your shirts on.
For political junkies like me, the New Hampshire primary is a revered event, but like most objects of reverence, it is susceptible to hype. For decades, I remember reading that no one since Harry Truman had been elected president without winning New Hampshire. That was true (until Bill Clinton was elected in 1992), but the streak was mostly hype, exaggerating the importance of New Hampshire in the political success of many of those presidents and disregarding the inconvenient list of New Hampshire winners who didn’t even win their party’s nominations.
So here’s the extreme de-hype: New Hampshire did not invent the presidential primary. Nor has it always been first. Nor is it a sure path to the nomination. It was never very important before 1952, when it played an amazing role in the political emergence of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Since then, it has often, but not always, played a big role in establishing a front-runner.
In pursuit of a calm assessment of its historical impact, I analyzed all New Hampshire primaries in which there was a seriously contested nominating contest in one party or the other, starting with the 1952 case.
I found that in 10 of the 19 cases, the New Hampshire winner went on to gain the nomination, but in only seven cases of the 19 was the New Hampshire victory a key turning point in the successful quest of a candidate for the nomination. So if you start out believing that winning New Hampshire is the key to the kingdom of presidential nominating contests, that analysis should give you some pause.
On the other hand, in several of the other cases, the snowy New Hampshire campaign provided the setting for jaw-dropping surprises and or the creation of new political legends, several of them at least half-true. In some cases (seven, by my analysis), New Hampshire was a very key event leading to a nomination.
In others (three good examples: 1984, when Gary Hart beat Democratic front-runner Walter Mondale in New Hampshire; 1996, when Pat Buchanan beat Repub front-runner Bob Dole; and 2000, when John McCain did the same to Repub front-runner George W. Bush) a New Hampshire surprise changed the dynamic of the rest of the race, but didn’t end up changing the final result because the original front-runner was able to recover.
In two cases (the Dem primaries of 1952 and 1968) an incumbent president who hadn’t decided whether to run for another term (Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson) took the result of the New Hampshire primary as advice to retire. But in neither case did the challenger who made that strong showing (Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver in 1952 and Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968) end up being the nominee.
So, despite the extreme de-hype above, since 1952 New Hampshire has almost always made an impact on the race, in part because whatever happens is filtered through the hyped interpretation of the political chattering classes. But that’s also a way of saying that it is guaranteed to be a big deal, because every political reporter and analyst makes a big deal of it. In the world in which we live, it can be impossible to separate spin from reality, because a powerful spin can change reality.
Meanwhile, for a collection of some pretty nifty New Hampshire primary trivia, and to make up your own mind about how big deal the primary has been, please read on.
The idea of primaries was a Progressive-era response to the “smoke-filled rooms” method of selecting presidential candidates. After fits and starts in the early 20th century, 1912 was the first year that anything like primaries, as we have come to know them, were held in 12 states. New Hampshire wasn’t one of them. (Neither was Minnesota, but our neighbors, Wisconsin and both Dakotas were — in fact North Dakota was first with a March 19 primary.)
In 1916, the number of states holding primaries jumped to 20, and this time New Hampshire — and Minnesota — held them. But first-in-the-nation honors went to Indiana that year (March 7). New Hampshire — and Minnesota — constituted the second round a week later. (The primaries were pretty much of a dud that year. Incumbent President Woodrow Wilson got 99 percent of the votes on the Dem side. The eventual Repub nominee, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, barely competed in the primaries, receiving less than 5 percent all of Repub primary votes cast nationwide. He got the nomination the old-fashioned way, from the party bosses.
So it wasn’t until 1920 that New Hampshire established itself as the holder of the earliest primary (March 9 that year), a position it has never relinquished and now views as its sacred right. But primaries in those days were still much less important than they later became. The eventual nominee was seldom the person who got the most votes during the primary season.
(The New Hampshire primary remained on a date in the first half of March until 1976, when it finally slipped into February. In 2004, it slipped into late January. This year’s date of Jan. 8 is the earliest ever.)
Often, New Hampshire awarded 100 percent of its votes and its delegates to an unpledged slate, so the primary was little more than a ritual on the way to the same old party boss room. Never, until 1952, did the outcome of the New Hampshire primary play a significant role in anyone gaining the nomination of either major party. But the first big case is a pretty amazing one (that I find is unfamiliar even to many of my politically-obsessed friends), so here it is:
1952: New Hampshire likes Ike
In early 1952, The Friends of Eisenhower, a group of influential Republicans promoting Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for president, had several problems. Ike was unwilling to do anything to help, had never publicly confessed to being a Republican, was serving in Europe at the time as NATO commander, and was strictly observing the ban on any political activity by a member of the military.
The rules of the New Hampshire primary made it possible for his friends (New Hampshire Gov. Sherman Adams was a key member of the draft Ike team and later became his top White House aide) to put Eisenhower’s name on the ballot without any cooperation from the candidate. He never set foot in New Hampshire while his chief rival, Sen. Bob Taft of Ohio, campaigned there hard. But Ike won the primary by 50-39 percent.
Here’s a fuller treatment of this fairly amazing tale.
An important addendum of local note: Minnesota had never held another presidential primary after 1916, but in 1952, Minnesota got back into the act and found itself second on the primary calendar again. Former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen was on the primary ballot, but was part of the draft Eisenhower group and had promised to throw his support if Ike got into the race. Stassen won the primary but Eisenhower finished a strong second in his own name with 108,692 write-in votes.
Taft stayed in the race, but after Eisenhower resigned from the military, returned to the homeland, came out of the closet as a Republican and indicated a willingness to occupy the Oval Office, resistance was futile. Ike was nominated on the first ballot, elected to two terms, and started the above-mentioned streak of seven presidents who won the New Hampshire primary on their way to the White House.
Anyway, I score Eisenhower’s 1952 victory as the first of the seven cases in which winning New Hampshire was an important breakthrough on the road to nomination. But, although New Hampshire remained significant since 1952, there wasn’t another such case for 24 years.
JFK in 1960
Before 1972, candidates who didn’t have big insider backing would often choose particular primaries to demonstrate their voter appeal and impress the bosses, more so than to gain delegates. A primary often took on importance only when two of the candidates used it as a proving ground.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy won New Hampshire (thus, after he became president, he continued the streak Ike had started). But he won with 85 percent of the vote while his nomination rivals conceded the state to him, partly on grounds that he was a New Englander.
Minnesota’s own Hubert Humphrey entered two other primaries where he thought he could win — in Wisconsin and West Virginia. But Kennedy beat him in both states, which secured his nomination much more than New Hampshire had. JFK went on to become president.
So on my score sheet, JFK continued the streak of New Hampshire victors to the White House that Ike had started, and counts as a New Hampshire winner who became the nominee, but doesn’t count as a case where winning New Hampshire was a major factor in the eventual success of the nominee.
1976: Carter, Ford and Reagan
Jimmy Carter’s improbable 1976 candidacy was the first to recognize that, under the new Democratic Party rules, it made sense to compete in every primary and rack up as many delegates as you could. Carter pretty much invented the one-two punch of winning the Iowa caucuses and using media attention from there to win in New Hampshire and acquire an air of inevitability (a pattern that Barack Obama hopes to replicate this week).
Carter’s New Hampshire win (with only 28.4 percent of the vote in a very large Dem field) doubled his Iowa momentum. He went on to win nine of the next 10 primaries and built a lead in delegates so large that even though (little remembered fact coming here) he lost eight of the remaining 16 primaries (mostly to the late-starting candidacies of Idaho Sen. Frank Church and California Gov. Jerry Brown), he continued to gain delegates even when he finished second, and locked up a first ballot nomination.
Another little-remembered New Hampshire battle, the one on the Repub side in 1976, also had a big impact on the nomination. Gerald Ford, the unelected incumbent president, was seriously challenged by Ronald Reagan. Ford won very narrowly in New Hampshire (49-48 percent). He didn’t knock out Reagan, who took the fight all the way to the convention. But if Reagan had defeated the sitting president in New Hampshire, he probably would have won the nomination four years sooner than he did.
I count both Carter and Ford as instances in which winning New Hampshire was a big factor in the eventual success of the nominee. And, since Carter became president, he kept the Ike streak going.
Carter was the fifth consecutive. But if you think about the ones I haven’t mentioned yet, it shows something about why that streak is a bit of hype. JFK barely counts, as discussed above. LBJ won New Hampshire in 1964, en route to his landslide victory that year. But he was a sitting president at the time, and won with 95 percent of the New Hampshire vote. Richard Nixon won New Hampshire and the White House in 1968, but he was also virtually unopposed and received 78 percent of the New Hampshire vote. Before you get to Carter, who was a legitimate case of the streak, you have to get past the Gerald Ford problem. Ford gained the presidency without election, so didn’t pass through New Hampshire. In 1976, he won New Hampshire over Reagan but lost the election to Carter. In order to believe in the Ike streak, you have to kinda ignore Ford).
1980: Reagan v. Bush; Carter v. Kennedy
Reagan was the presumptive front-runner in 1980 until George H.W. Bush scored an upset win in the Iowa Caucuses (by 32-30 percent). This set the stage for a New Hampshire showdown. (Note the similarities to the looming Barack Obama-Hillary Rodham Clinton contest Tuesday. Obama seized the front-runnership from Clinton in Iowa. Clinton badly needs to halt Obama’s momentum in New Hampshire, as Reagan needed to halt Bush’s.)
After the famous “I paid for this microphone” incident during a New Hampshire debate, Reagan surged, won the primary (50-23 percent) and regained the front-runnership (although Bush continued to win the occasional primary until May).
On the Dem side, Carter’s narrow (52-48 percent) New Hampshire win over challenger Ted Kennedy saved the incumbent president from what would have been a devastating blow, (but Kennedy, like Bush on the Repub side, stayed in the race and posed a serious threat to Carter’s renomination for months after New Hampshire). Reagan, of course, won the election and ran the Ike streak to six.
I count both the Carter and Reagan 1980 cases as examples where a New Hampshire victory was a big factor in the eventual capture of the nomination.
The race in 1988
Vice President George H.W. Bush lost his mantle of inevitability after finishing a distant third in Iowa, behind both Sen. Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson. In New Hampshire, Bush came back with a convincing 38-24 percent victory over Dole, thus doing to Dole what Reagan had done to him in 1980. Bush regained the momentum, swept 34 of the remaining 35 primaries and became the seventh straight president to have won New Hampshire on his way to the nomination.
On the Dem side, ex-Gov. Michael Dukakis won New Hampshire after finishing third in Iowa. It wasn’t such a big breakthrough for him, since he was from neighboring Massachusetts and was expected to win. I don’t count Dukakis’ win as a key factor in his eventual nomination. I do count Bush’s.
Gore 2000 and Kerry 2004
In 2000 (Al Gore) and 2004 (John Kerry), the eventual Dem nominee had already won Iowa, was expected to win New Hampshire, and did. In Kerry’s case, he won fairly easily (38-26 percent over dethroned front-runner Howard Dean) so New Hampshire was more a confirmation of Kerry’s Iowa win than a breakthrough. I decided not to count it as key to his nomination.
In Gore’s case, he was the favorite and didn’t win New Hampshire by much (50-46 percent over Bill Bradley), but went on to win all the rest of the contested primaries by wider margins. Winning New Hampshire was Bradley’s only case to turn it into a real race, so I counted Gore 2000 as the seventh and last instance of the 19 contested nominations in which a New Hampshire victory was a critical step on the road to nomination.
That completes the seven cases in which, according to me, winning New Hampshire was a key factor in the success of the eventual nominee. There were a couple of other New Hampshire primaries that should be mentioned simply because they were amazing or legendary.
The Lodge write-in of 1964
This one is amazing, but little remembered. In 1964, a Republican write-in campaign for Henry Cabot Lodge, a former Massachusetts senator then serving as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam and who did little to encourage the movement, won by a substantial margin over two declared and active presidential candidates. But unlike Ike, after Lodge showed an interest in running, his chances faded. Barry Goldwater, one of the declared candidates whom Lodge defeated in New Hampshire, won the nomination. So, as remarkable as that story is, it’s another case in which the New Hampshire winner didn’t become the nominee.
The Muskie mist of 1968
The 1972 contest is often remembered for the incident in which Edmund Muskie cried (or at least misted up) while defending his wife from some scurrilous attacks. Muskie had started off as the front-runner, and won Iowa. Less often remember (because it seems to undermine the importance of the crying story) Muskie also won New Hampshire, by 46-37 percent over Sen. George McGovern. But McGovern went on to win the nomination while Muskie soon faded to become another case of the New Hampshire winner losing the nomination.
The comeback kid of 1992
In 1992, Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas won New Hampshire (but the result was somewhat discounted under the New Englander rule) by 33-25 percent over Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Clinton, who had also lost Iowa, did one of the all-time great jobs of spinning a second-place finish as a victory, went on to win the nomination and the election. In doing so, Clinton broke the streak of seven presidents who won New Hampshire on their way to the White House. George W. Bush, who, as mentioned above, came back after a 2000 New Hampshire defeat to win in 2000, became the second consecutive case of a president being elected who had not won New Hampshire.
So the idea that New Hampshire is the maker and breaker of presidents has suffered two setbacks in a row. But the formerly popular statistic (seven consecutive presidents who were New Hampshire winners) was always a bit of hype because it conveniently overlooked the longer list of nine New Hampshire winners who not only didn’t become president, but didn’t even get their party’s nomination.
Eric Black, a former reporter for the Star Tribune, writes about national and state politics, foreign affairs and other topics. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.