When I got my start in professional politics more than two decades ago, it was drilled into me that nobody had ever been elected president in the modern era without first winning the New Hampshire.
Then Bill Clinton broke that rule. Supporters of the first-in-the-nation primary attributed it to the fact that many people believed Clinton won. And he certainly won the post-primary media scrum when he declared himself the “Comeback Kid,” all bet eclipsing Paul Tsongas in the process.
Fast forward to the present day, and the “rule” is that nobody has been elected president after winning New Hampshire since George H.W. Bush in 1988. That was the year when then-Gov. John H. Sununu famously opined, “The people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents.”
What will happen in 2016? And what does it mean for the often-questioned future of the storied New Hampshire primary?
The outcomes next February 9 and November 8 cannot yet be foretold, of course. Regardless of the result, it’s a certainty that some will question whether New Hampshire should go first in 2020.
Many would argue that although the Granite State may no longer be in the business of picking presidents, we do help winnow the field. Candidates may be able to survive poor national poll standings – but not if they show weakness in New Hampshire, too.
Of the two Democratic party candidates who dropped out last week, one (Jim Webb) chose to completely ignore the first primary state. The other, Lincoln Chafee, put most of his eggs in the New Hampshire basket.
Looking to the top of that party’s ballot, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are locked in a tough fight in New Hampshire, despite the fact that the Vermont senator trails badly in national polling. Perhaps nobody more than the Clintons knows better how much the first-in-the-nation can impact the presidential race. It propelled Bill to the presidency and restored enough life to Hillary’s campaign to turn the 2008 race into a prolonged battle with eventual nominee (and now President) Barack Obama.
A Sanders victory next February could set up a similarly contested nomination process, while a decisive Clinton win would almost surely put an end to the Democratic competition.
On the Republican side, most campaigns seem to betting on either Iowa or New Hampshire as their best chance to take down national frontrunner Donald Trump. Just days ago, the once presumptive GOP nominee, Jeb Bush, decided to shift his resources to the Granite State in a last-ditch attempt to regain that status. We have breathed life into countless foundering campaigns in the past by allowing voters to connect directly with the candidates.
Unfortunately for Bush and the others, New Hampshire GOP voters have demonstrated a willingness to embrace maverick choices. In particular, Donald Trump seems to be channeling the same energy as 1996 primary victor Pat Buchanan. Perhaps the real estate magnate and reality star will even show up at an event with pitchfork in hand before all is said and done.
Regardless of whether New Hampshire picks the 2016 winner correctly, or merely winnows the field, there will be plenty of calls for a new calendar in 2020. Fair or unfair, it’s simply reality.
However, all of us in the Granite State must realize that the most potent defense of the New Hampshire primary is having a winner in the White House. If the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue feels a debt of gratitude toward the primary voters, that individual will be more likely to direct the party apparatus to leave our status intact.
That’s not to argue that New Hampshire should abandon its traditional role of careful scrutiny of the candidates in favor of merely picking the most likely candidate to win. But it is a recognition of the fact that our first-in-the-nation primary status may be in greater peril than ever.
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