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A smiling woman holds a blue sign that reads “Biden New Hampshire.”
Attendees of the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention hold up signs for presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at the SNHU Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire on September 7, 2019.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

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New Hampshire’s 2020 status anxiety

In a state that prides itself on picking presidents, some fear a nationalized primary is changing things.

The type of big-ego New Hampshire politicos who like to repeat Gov. John Sununu’s famous dig — “the people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents” — fear their bragging rights might be in danger.

Presidential campaigns and candidates typically spend lots of time and energy on the ground in New Hampshire. The state’s first-in-the-nation primary turned around the political fortunes of candidates who ultimately became president like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Winning New Hampshire increases the average candidate’s chances of taking the nomination by 27 percent.

The New York Times called John McCain’s victory in New Hampshire a Lazarus-like win in 2008.

“We had a lot of people running, they all invested in Iowa,” John Weaver, McCain’s chief political adviser in his 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns, told Vox. “None of them made it, they all dropped out before New Hampshire. So the investment [we] really put into the state really paid off.”

While candidates are still flocking to New Hampshire in 2020, it isn’t the centerpiece of any major campaign’s strategy so far. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won the New Hampshire Democratic primary in a landslide in 2016 and literally lives next door in Vermont, is making Iowa the setting for his 2020 return (although Sanders is spending more time on the ground in Iowa, he recently launched a $1 million ad buy in New Hampshire). Many other Democrats are also favoring Iowa; Sen. Kamala Harris even closed some of her New Hampshire offices to focus on the Hawkeye State.

Bernie Sanders walks past a giant American flag in a field.
Senator Bernie Sanders prepares to give a speech at the Polk County Steak Fry at the Water Works Park in Des Moines, Iowa on September 21, 2019.
Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Many New Hampshire politicos point to televised debate rules as one reason that their state’s influence might be waning. These rules prioritize national name recognition and fundraising skill over time spent in early states. But time on the debate stage in front of a national audience is enormously consequential, and many campaigns see it as make-or-break.

To get there, the Democratic National Committee this year started to require a candidate to hit a certain percentage in national or early-state polls, and raise a certain amount of money from grassroots donors. These numbers have crept upward; to qualify for the November 20 debate, candidates must have 165,000 individual donors, plus either 3 percent support in four national or early-state polls done by qualifying pollsters, or 5 percent support in two early-state polls.

“The role New Hampshire plays in its face-to-face interaction with candidates is still very strong, but I think candidates are campaigning differently, because it’s not just how well you’re doing in New Hampshire polls, it’s how well you’re doing in national polls to get on the debate stage,” said Jim Demers, a New Hampshire lobbyist who co-chaired Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in the state and now supports Sen. Cory Booker. “The thresholds placed on the candidates to make the debate stage has impacted every state.”

The DNC says its rules are set up to preserve the power of early states; a DNC staffer pointed to the fact that early-state polls are given equal weight as national polls to help decide who takes the stage.

Both the debate requirements and the focus on Iowa is being driven by the sheer size of the campaign field in 2020, which is still 17 candidates and counting, as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg considers jumping into the race. But some in New Hampshire argue the nationalization of 2020 detracts from the primary’s role, and hurts lower-tier candidates who have been out of the debates for months.

“I personally don’t agree that the DNC should be winnowing the field. I would rather see real voters and real candidates do that,” said former US Ambassador Terry Shumaker, who co-chaired Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992, and now supports Biden.

Iowa and New Hampshire have a history of launching campaigns

Iowa and New Hampshire have been the first states to vote for presidential candidates for decades; New Hampshire since the 1950s and Iowa since the early 1970’s.

More recently, Nevada and South Carolina have joined the early-state roster. But Iowa and New Hampshire have remained first, owing to their perceived ability to be a place where any candidate — even those with little money or clout — can win.

“I think it goes back to the fact that New Hampshire exalts time over money,” said New Hampshire immigration attorney and Elizabeth Warren supporter Ron Abramson. “If you come and put in the time and the effort, you can transcend not having money.”

Face-to-face voter contact with presidential candidates is the classic New Hampshire playbook. Candidates typically lavish the state and its voters with attention, holding small town halls in living rooms, coffee shops, and trudging through the snow to shake hands. It’s created a pathway for many an underdog candidate to finish big and shock the political establishment: Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gary Hart in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1992, and John McCain in 2000.

Jimmy Carter shakes hands of his supporters in 1976, after winning the New Hampshire primary.
Owen Franken/Corbis/Getty Images

Iowa and New Hampshire’s real rise to power came during the 1970s, when the presidential nomination and delegate allocation process shifted from being decided by party bosses to determined by voters. Voters in both states defied political conventional wisdom in 1976, when they elevated the relatively unknown Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter to become the Democratic nominee for president.

“It made New Hampshire much more important than it ever was before,” University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala told me. “The rules were new, political parties had lost control over the process, and that’s when New Hampshire really made its claim to fame.”

Carter’s team took an untested political gamble on the early states; their theory was if they out-hustled the competition in Iowa and New Hampshire and met voters face-to-face, they could win. And New Hampshire was the perfect place to test that theory; the tiny state is easy to criss-cross in just a few hours, maximizing voter face time. Also, New Hampshire voters are unusually plugged into politics — the state has a massive state legislature of 400 people, about one legislator per 3,200 people. Turnout during the New Hampshire primary in 2016 was 52 percent; the most of any state.

Many voters pride themselves on waiting until the last minute to make a decision about who they’re supporting, meaning they expect politicians to work for their votes.

“Iowa can really test how organized you are. In New Hampshire you’ve got to appeal to a whole bunch of independents,” said Bill Shaheen, an attorney and longtime politico in the state who supported Carter back in ’76 (he’s also the husband of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen). “The Independents usually swing the race. It tells you on a national level, your appeal.”

This strategy was adopted again by another relatively unknown governor from Arkansas in 1992: Bill Clinton got into the presidential race relatively late in October when his campaign was spiraling and he was polling at just three percent name recognition. Clinton fanned out around the state to shake hands and talk to voters, and New Hampshire turned his campaign around, propelling him to a surprise second-place finish. He’d go on to win the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency.

Bill and Hillary Clinton speak to a crowd in Nashua, New Hampshire, on February 10, 1992.
Cynthia Johnson/Liaison/Getty Images

And in 2000, Republican John McCain rented a bus and drove the “Straight Talk Express” all around New Hampshire. McCain’s relentless schedule of town halls and his characteristically blunt manner helped him pull off an upset in the Granite State against George W. Bush, even though Bush would go on to win South Carolina and the Republican nomination.

In other words, New Hampshire is revered as the place where you don’t need millions of dollars in ads to win. But it’s also indisputable that campaigns are modernizing, and voters these days can be reached in more ways than shaking hands.

“Campaigns are changing, people want to see these candidates more and more, but what they can’t lose in New Hampshire is that intimate, truth-bearing process of a candidate in real life,” said Lucas Meyer, president of New Hampshire Young Democrats. “We shouldn’t be offended or worried we’re going to lose relevance because candidates are going to other states.”

Candidates are still coming to New Hampshire, but more this year seem to be banking on Iowa, perhaps because of the larger field, and perhaps out of a sense that Sanders and Warren’s neighboring ties make New Hampshire their home turf. Weaver, the Republican strategist for McCain and later John Kasich, told me a short swing through the Granite State just isn’t going to cut it.

“Some of it is the nationalization of the debates, so they’re all focused on being on the debate stage. But how has that helped them in any stage?” he said. “I think a commitment by someone where they’re spending two to three days [at a time] in New Hampshire and they’re doing 15-20 events would pay dividends.”

Does the old New Hampshire playbook still work?

Not everyone is convinced that the old ways still work. Carter and Clinton came before a time of social media, online organizing, and campaigns that cost many, many millions of dollars.

Sure, face time with voters in New Hampshire is still incredibly important — this summer, voters told me they appreciated being able to ask candidates questions and get detailed answers. But numerous political experts told me the pressure of this nationalized election is making it harder to have these “dark horse” campaigns find success focusing on early states.

“Some of the folks that are way off the curve like Delaney, those folks are doing the traditional stuff because they say maybe a Gary Hart or Jimmy Carter can happen again — but I don’t think it can,” said Ned Helms, a former New Hampshire Democratic party chairman who co-chaired Obama’s 2008 campaign and now supports Biden.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump won the New Hampshire Democratic and Republican primaries, proving New Hampshire could still launch outsider campaigns — but not necessarily by doing it the “New Hampshire way.”

People cheering and holding signs that read “A Future To Believe In.”
Supporters cheer as Bernie Sanders speaks after winning the New Hampshire Democratic primary at Concord High School in Concord, New Hampshire on February 9, 2016.
Lucian Perkins/Washington Post/Getty Images

Sanders and Trump both shook the political conventional wisdom in the state. They (especially Trump) prioritized huge crowds over intimate town halls and retail politics. They eschewed diner stops in favor of filling theaters, gymnasiums and stadiums with thousands of cheering supporters. The one time Trump went to the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, he sat alone in a booth and ordered a hamburger.

“Usually when people do the small diners and everything is because they can’t get anybody to show up, to be honest with you,” Trump told the assembled reporters, pointing to the crowd of thousands he’d drawn at a nearby hotel ballroom. Meanwhile, the 16 other Republicans competing against him were trying their hardest to meet New Hampshire voters where they were. Trump made the voters come to him.

Several New Hampshire politicos I talked to characterized 2016 as a fluke year, and said 2020 is showing a realignment back to retail politics.

“I think the entire election of 2016 from start to finish was an anomaly,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley. “It was a situation we had never experienced before and I doubt we’ll ever experience again. I don’t think it changed the New Hampshire primary permanently.”

Others lay blame at the 24-hour news cycle and the national media’s hunger for a story.

“I find the competition with the race is being winnowed by the press,” said Helms. “You could be the most brilliant person in the whole wide world, but your brilliant speech is not going to be covered because they want to say who’s hot.”

In 2020, New Hampshire political experts say they’re seeing the pendulum swing back the other way. Sanders has shifted from his big 2016 rallies to small town halls where he allots a large amount of time to take voter questions. Biden is also holding smaller events, and even though Sen. Elizabeth Warren is drawing larger crowds in the Granite State, she typically makes time for questions and stays hours for selfie lines with attendees.

“It is true you have to build a national audience as a candidate, but you also have to put down roots in Iowa and New Hampshire,” Scala said. “For candidates it’s a ‘both, and’ situation, it’s not ‘either or.’”

So even as the primary is changing, some things are staying the same.

“Every cycle is different, and expecting the New Hampshire primary not to evolve with all these changes would be naive,” Shumaker said. “But I believe it is still going to be extraordinarily important, because there is nothing like real people casting real ballots.”

As for the question of whether there will be a dark horse candidate like Carter, Clinton, Sanders, or even Trump emerging out of New Hampshire, everyone I talked to told me they’re anticipating some big shake-up before primary day on February 12.

“I’d be ready for a surprise if I were embedded and I knew my history, which many of the young reporters don’t,” Susan Casey, a top political adviser on Gary Hart’s 1984 campaign, told me. “I suspect we’re going to be surprised at what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire, and we’re going to be talking about that surprise in March.”

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