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A brief history of a crazy thing called the New Hampshire primary

CONCORD, N.H. — Humor columnist Dave Barry went to his first New Hampshire primary in 1984, and then kept coming back every four years through 2016. It was such a blast. There was nothing else like it.

“Like Epcot, except with candidates instead of countries,” is how he describes it. “You’d go on the John Glenn ride, then the Alan Cranston ride, then the Gary Hart ride, all these events a few miles apart. Everybody filed stories at the end of the day, then everybody went to the Sheraton Wayfarer bar, where the big-foot national columnists like Jack Germond would sit around drinking and creating ‘the narrative.’”

But it’s different now: “I’m not sure what purpose it serves anymore.”

This is a sad thought for political junkies. For the people who come here every four years, the New Hampshire primary — specifically, the typically eight-day political frenzy between the Iowa caucuses and the primary date here — has long been a pleasure bordering on a vice.

But this year it’s not really itself. In fact the final dash to the primary vote is shaping up as a bust, by historical standards. The big thing that’s missing: Candidates. And campaigning. There aren’t even that many candidate signs sprouting from the roadside snowbanks.

Candidates started campaigning here long ago, so New Hampshire has seen its share of presidential hopefuls. But most of the field has been wiped out already. And strangely, the candidates still running don’t seem to be doing so at full speed.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was popping in and out of the state but had poor poll numbers here, and on Sunday he abruptly ended his campaign. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who is banking on an upset here, had a relatively light schedule in the first couple days after Iowa. And former president Donald Trump is merely commuting here.

Trump spends his days dealing with legal challenges somewhere else, then flies in late for an evening rally. Then he flies back to New York to sleep in his own bed.

In the olden days, candidates would manically cram their schedules with events, racing from hamlet to hamlet on dark, often icy country roads that are so rarely straight you would think the road builders got paid by the curve.

Democrat John Edwards, in his failed 2008 presidential bid, took this tradition of brain-addling hyperactivity to a new level, scheduling 36-hour marathons in which he would make an appearance every two hours, somewhere, even in the wee hours of the night. At one 3 a.m. campaign stop in the town of Berlin, Edwards, according to CBS News, said: “You know when I dozed off on the bus a few minutes ago, I’m thinking about you.”

In the olden days, there was always a debate, typically sponsored by TV station WMUR. The press corps would be large enough to fill a gymnasium. This year there will be no debate. There were supposed to be two, actually — both canceled. Trump, citing poll numbers, has never been willing to debate his less popular Republican rivals. And Haley last week announced she wouldn’t debate DeSantis one-on-one. DeSantis couldn’t debate himself.

National Democratic Party leaders, meanwhile, have all but dropped “Stay Away” leaflets on New Hampshire. There will be a Democratic primary on Tuesday, and author Marianne Williamson and Rep. Dean Phillips (Minn.) hope to make a good showing. But it won’t really count. The Democratic National Committee made South Carolina the first primary that will allocate delegates to the national convention. President Biden isn’t even on the ballot here.

Historically the New Hampshire primary has had a purpose: it exposed, elevated, diminished, clarified. Notwithstanding the asterisk that hovered over this state — small, White, totally unrepresentative of America — the vote here was usually consequential. The news media, including crews from abroad, came with hopes of seeing a purely spontaneous and unexpected political moment that would wrench history off its previous trajectory.

Ideally this would happen in a prepossessing setting, like a vintage diner or a Victorian opera house, or at some lonely gas station on a country road with “MOOSE XING” signs.

This year, everything’s muted. The smart bet is that the nomination battle is over. Some details would still need to be worked out — like, who would be Trump’s running mate — but at the moment the November election is shaping up as a rematch of 2020.

Poor New Hampshire!

“If you’re a political junkie, there’s no other place in the world you’d rather be,” Don Murphy, a Republican who traveled here from Maryland, said Tuesday as he entered the Trump rally in Atkinson. “All my friends are in Florida and we’re up here freezing.”

Political reporters in the past have brought their kids along to see the show. The youngsters get to see, up close, how democracy works, for better or worse or worse yet. No sign of kids so far this year.

Even before the no-shows of New Hampshire, the press corps was grumbling about the “desultory” primary season, a joyless “slog.” Some of the big-foot journalists didn’t even bother to brave the polar storm of Iowa, choosing the comfort of the home office. But to not show up in New Hampshire would be a journalistic crime. What would Jack Germond think?

(The obvious rejoinder regarding the late political reporter: “Who is Jack Germond?”)

Candidates here, as in Iowa, must engage in “retail” politics. They are practically required by law to go to the Red Arrow Diner. They must hold court in the living rooms of rich donors.

With the entire national press corps on hand, small moments are magnified, exaggerated, parsed and tortured for anything that might be plausibly meaningful, or at least goofy enough to serve as the lead of a story.

One of the most scrutinized primary moments came in 1972 when Edmund Muskie, the senator from Maine and the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, stood outside the offices of the Manchester Union Leader and, struggling to stay composed, angrily denounced the newspaper for what he considered nasty and dishonest coverage of the senator and his wife. Snow fell steadily.

Reporters saw tears on Muskie’s face.

Or was that — melting snow?

Like other reporters at the time, The Washington Post’s David Broder, dean of the press corps, described “tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion. … In defending his wife, Muskie broke down three times in as many minutes — uttering a few words and then standing silent in the near blizzard, rubbing at his face, his shoulders heaving, while he attempted to regain his composure sufficiently to speak.”

In 1987 Broder wrote in the Washington Monthly that his story still nagged at him, that he couldn’t be sure Muskie, though emotional, was really crying. Broder framed the moment as a case where motivated reasoning could have influenced the coverage: The press had been looking for signs that Muskie was cracking under the pressure of the campaign.

Muskie actually won the primary. But New Hampshire results are always measured against expectations. Muskie’s own campaign manager said his candidate, coming from a state next door, ought to get 50 percent of the vote. Muskie got 46.4 percent. Failure!

Similarly scrutinized (and hyped) was the moment in 1980 when Ronald Reagan objected to a one-on-one debate with George H.W. Bush. There was a gaggle of other candidates backstage, and Reagan demanded they be included. The moderator, a Mr. Breen, ordered Reagan’s microphone turned off. Reagan bellowed, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” [sic] while Bush — who had arrived from the Iowa caucuses with what he called “Big Mo” — sat there with a deer-in-the-headlights look. The other candidates emerged, and Reagan had his way.

And the Big Mo was suddenly No Mo.

There have been many other moments that the political veterans will always remember. Bill Clinton nearly saw his presidential hopes perish in the snows of New Hampshire amid an infidelity scandal and a draft-dodging allegation. But he kept campaigning — “I’ll be there for you ’til the last dog dies,” as he put it.

Clinton’s second-place finish to Paul Tsongas, combined with a fair bit of chutzpah, allowed him to claim a kind of victory: “Tonight New Hampshire made Bill Clinton the comeback kid.” It was political spin at its finest.

New Hampshire’s small scale is congenial to insurgent candidates with limited budgets. In 1996, Pat Buchanan won a startling victory over Bob Dole, one that foretold a coming era when a wildly anti-establishment candidate with no previous experience in elective office might actually become president.

The most famous moment in Buchanan’s campaign came one day in a sweltering room at the Sheraton in Nashua:

“ … [T]hey are in a terminal panic in Washington. They are frightened. They hear — ha ha — they hear the shouts of the peasants from over the hill. You watch the establishment, all the knights and barons will be riding into the castle, pulling up the drawbridge in a minute. And they’re comin’! All the peasants are comin’ with pitchforks after them!”

John McCain always found New Hampshire to be his kind of place. In 2000 he rolled up and down the state in a bus called the Straight Talk Express, charming the bark off the press corps. New Hampshire allows independents to vote in either party’s primary, and independents liked McCain more than front-runner George W. Bush. As Nancy Gibbs and her colleagues wrote in Time magazine, “One seems to delight in crashing the party; the other drapes the Republican establishment around his neck like a mink.”

But — and here’s where the facts interfere a bit with New Hampshire’s mystique — McCain’s victory over Bush didn’t propel him to the nomination.

Gibbs, again: “New Hampshire has always been useful less for picking winners — ask almost-Presidents Buchanan, Tsongas and Hart — than for chastening losers, stripping them bare, exposing the phonies, humbling the pundits, rewarding the pirates and generally leaving the impression that the voters might actually have some role to play in deciding who gets to be President.”

Inexorable forces may be sending this American tradition into its twilight years.

The news media have evolved, becoming as fragmented as a shattered windshield. The “narrative” is no longer concocted by pundits at a bar. Reporters now are more likely to stay on their computers updating files until they pass out from exhaustion.

There is a new generation of influencers — operating on YouTube and TikTok and podcasts and many other platforms — who reach the voting public outside of the traditional corporate media. Such influencers may not feel compelled to travel to New Hampshire and feel their toes freeze as they stand outside a small-town diner while a delusional presidential candidate flips pancakes inside.

New Hampshire also has the quadrennial irritant that is Iowa. “First-in-the-nation” is New Hampshire’s boast, but that requires some explanation. Iowa is actually first, with its byzantine and incomprehensible array of caucuses. And Iowa generates enough of an early result to knock candidates from the race.

New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary status was codified in a state law in 1975. For the next four decades, Secretary of State Bill Gardner fanatically defended the state’s priority. If another state tried to jump the gun, Gardner by fiat could move the New Hampshire primary to an earlier date.

“The reason for the New Hampshire primary was to give the little guy a chance to be a part of this process whereby we elected presidents,” Gardner said this month. “Before that it was the big shots who decided who the nominee was going to be.”

In New Hampshire, he said, candidates can’t hide behind glossy television ads or highly staged events.

“You can’t script it,” Gardner said. “This is Americana at its finest.”

But it’s not America as it actually appears in the mirror. The state is nearly all-White. So is Iowa, for that matter.

John Sununu, the former Republican governor, dismisses criticism of the state’s lack of racial and ethnic diversity.

“We have a full spectrum from liberal to conservative in this state, and a full spectrum of views on all issues, including gender and race and ethnicity, and liberal, conservative. It’s all here. All you have to do is go down to downtown Manchester,” Sununu said this month.

He recalls the time that Reubin Askew paid him a visit in advance of the 1984 election. Askew, the former governor of Florida, was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. He also had a plan, Sununu recalled, to make Florida, not New Hampshire, the first presidential primary, which obviously would be an advantage for Askew against his Democratic rivals.

Sununu said such a change was impossible.

“You will not end up first. New Hampshire will end up first,” Sununu insisted. “There’s Provision B in the law.”

Provision B, Sununu said, was designed as an emergency measure if some other state attempted to sneak in an early primary vote. The governor would simply appoint a winner of the New Hampshire primary.

Askew, Sununu said, took pains to visit a state office to look up the language of Provision B.

“There is no Provision B,” Sununu says, stating the obvious.

Asked if New Hampshire historically has had an outsized influence on presidential elections, he didn’t miss a beat:

“It’s not outsized! It’s our God-given right!”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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