Phil Hatcher and his wife moved to New Hampshire from the Midwest in 1986, and soon got a taste of what makes the state’s first-in-the-nation primary so special to the people who live there.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson gave the young girl a pat on his head at an event during 1988’s presidential campaign. After placing fourth in the state, he was elected as the Rev. Hatcher attended Hatcher’s first house party during the 1992 presidential primary cycle. Former California Governor. Jerry Brown was the guest honoree.
“A friend of ours went to a Jerry Brown event and just walked up to him and said, ‘I’d like to have you come to my house.’ And he looked at her and said, ‘Fine,’” said Hatcher, who is now co-chair of the Dover Democrats. “It was amazing to us.”
Thirty years later, the future of New Hampshire’s century-old, first-in-the-nation primary is on shaky ground, as the national Democratic Party seeks to reassert its control over a process that’s been centered on traditions and dominated by smaller, predominantly white states.
Hatcher believes 100 years is an impressive run.
“I’m in the camp of maybe it’s time for us to give it up, you know?” he said. “I understand it’s been a great thing for New Hampshire, but I think it’s hard to justify keeping it at this point.”
The Democratic National Committee is set to vote next month on President Biden’s proposal to dramatically reshape the first weeks of the party’s 2024 primary calendar. Instead of leading the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary, presidential contenders would face voters in South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada and Georgia on February 3 and 6, respectively. Michigan will be on February 27.
However, the chances of this calendar being fulfilled in 2024 is low.
New Hampshire needs to repeal a 1975 law that required itsprimary be preceding others by at least a week, and to pass legislation expanding early voting access.
The Democratic Party gave the state till Jan. 5, to promise to make these changes. The state’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has repeatedly and forcefully rejected the party’s demands, writing earlier this month that the state would not be “blackmailed” or “threatened” by national Democrats.
“We’re going first, regardless of what Joe Biden thinks or wants,” Sununu recently told Bloomberg. “I think the Democrats have made a huge mistake.”
Georgia Democrats must convince Republicans to hold at least two primaries in order to keep their place. The Republican National Committee voted September 23 to preserve the Iowa caucus’ traditional order, and the New Hampshire primaries.
Biden’s decision to run for reelection would have a negative impact on the whole lineup.
With the Republican 2024 primary calendar set and the Democrats’ in flux, the DNC’s February vote won’t end New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary status. But if the national party approves Biden’s plan, it would end decades of national party deference to the state, setting a new precedent for the 2028 primary season.
By acting now, when the odds of an open primary are low, national Democrats believe they have a better shot at upending old traditions in favor of a new system that prioritizes states that reflect the party’s base and decide general elections.
The new plan sends a signal “that change isn’t just necessary, but possible,” said Mo Elleithee, a member of the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws panel.
“We’re going to be constantly reevaluating this and have a framework on how to change it based on the needs of any given cycle,” Elleithee said. “That’s an incredibly important message to send.”
The party also moved to increase penalties against states that host unaccredited nominating competitions.
The DNC first stripped the states of their delegate when Florida and Michigan jumped the line in 2008’s early primaries. However, they reversed course before the convention.
Elleithee, who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, said the lesson he took away from that situation was that any effort to enforce the primary calendar would need to focus on the candidates, not just states and their delegates. Clinton and her rivals signed a pledge by the Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina state parties, stating that they would not be running in the rogue States.
Under new rules approved last year, candidates who put their name on the ballot or campaign in states that have jumped the line could face additional sanctions from the Democratic party chair, such as being blocked from attending debates and losing access to the party’s voter information database.
“So when you hear a state say, ‘We don’t care what the DNC does, because there’s no way the candidates aren’t going to come,’ they might not if there’s too big of a price to pay,” Elleithee said.
The debate over the nominating calendar, and the threats to Iowa and New Hampshire’s dominance aren’t new. The party was discussing a similar question ahead of the 2008 presidential primaries: How can you give people of colour a stronger voice in the nomination process? The answer is to move up South Carolina or Nevada, where Black voters and Latinos make up large portions of the Democratic base.
All states that applied for an early spot on the DNC’s primary calendar in 2022 were eligible to participate in the process. Twenty-seven states and territories submitted their applications, and seventeen were invited to present. Committee members aimed to pick states that are racially and regionally diverse, have inclusive election processes — including a shift away from caucuses — and would allow Democratic candidates to get in front of as many battleground state voters as possible.
Nevada appeared to be the favorite for the first-in-the-nation slot before Biden’s proposal, and would likely be the favorite when the DNC reevaluates the calendar ahead of the 2028 cycle.
“For Democrats, choosing a president to lead America should start with a state that looks like America,” Rebecca Lambe, a Democratic consultant who worked as former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid’s chief political strategist, wrote in a November memo pitching Nevada as the first primary state. Reid, who died in 2021, played a pivotal role in increasing Nevada’s influence in the nominating process.
It’s a diverse, majority-minority state and a general election battleground. Nevada Democrats recently passed legislation that expanded mail voting and switched from caucuses towards a primary system.
And unlike New Hampshire, Nevada’s backers may have gained good will with the committee by refraining from publicly criticizing the 2024 plan.
With their primary position under threat, New Hampshire Democrats — including the state’s congressional delegation, current and former legislators and influential DNC members — have pointed to the state law protecting their primary while also urging Biden and other DNC members to reconsider. The state’s Democratic senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, boycotted the White House congressional ball last month after Biden unveiled his plan, and have promised to keep fighting for first-in-the-nation status.
In a Jan. 5 letter to the party’s rules and bylaws committee, New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Raymond Buckley called the changes the DNC has asked the state to make “unrealistic and unattainable.” Buckley warned that the party was giving Republicans a valuable talking point ahead of the 2024 election, when the governor’s mansion, two congressional seats, control of the state legislature and the state’s four electoral college votes will be up for grabs.
New Hampshire voters have also condemned Biden’s design of the primary schedule, which was designed to deter potential challengers and benefit his reelection campaigns.
Neil Levesque, the executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, has accused Biden of attempting to “rig” the 2024 presidential primary by elevating a state that’s favored him in the past. After placing fifth in New Hampshire’s 2020 presidential primary, Biden’s campaign was revived by a first-place finish in the South Carolina primary, a victory that has been credited in part to a key endorsement from Democratic Rep. James E. Clyburn.
“The president does not want to campaign in a state like New Hampshire because campaigning is not what people in power want to do,” Levesque said. “They want to go to a state like South Carolina, where one endorsement by a party boss will mean success.”
South Carolina is one of the few states that has a high share of Black voters and the flexibility to move its primary — unlike New Hampshire, the state party sets the primary date. However, it is not a state that can be competitive for general election and does not have a strong union presence.
Democrats from the state rejected the claim that New Hampshire voters are less independent than New Hampshire.
“Zero tolerance — ZERO for any disrespect or dismissal of Black voters,” Democratic National Committee chairman Jaime Harrison, who previously ran the South Carolina Democratic Party, wrote in a tweet. “These voters are always pragmatic & clear-eyed. Their knees never gave way. Their spines have been stiffened in the perpetual fight for freedom and equality for ALL of US!”
Interviews with New Hampshire primary supporters revealed that they believe no other state can match New Hampshire’s track record of supporting underdog candidates and dedicated voters.
New Hampshire has always been a place for upstart political candidates without major donors and party backing to launch winning campaigns. They have done this by shaking hands and answering tough question at house parties and town halls.
It is small enough that you can drive from the state’s southern border with Massachusetts to Canada’s northernmost border with Canada in just under four hours. However, most of its 1.4million inhabitants live near Manchester. It has media markets in which ad buys are cheaper and a politically engaged electorate that welcomes — and expects to have — conversations with presidential candidates.
“The New Hampshire primary creates such a level playing field, whether it was Jimmy Carter in 1976, or it was Bernie Sanders in 2016,” Buckley said. “One thing that has been very consistent is that the New Hampshire voters decide. There’s not a group of insiders, there’s not a group of powerful power brokers.”
Critics say that history is just that — stories about a bygone era. Or worse, it could be a myth. Even New Hampshire primary fans agree that the retail politics of the past are now obsolete. more rallies and selfie lines.
“Everybody refers to the Jimmy Carter campaign, which was real,” said Hatcher, the Dover Democrat. “But you know, how many Jimmy Carters have happened since then?”
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