Traditions of the New Hampshire Primary
What primary traditions have developed in New Hampshire, and why are they important?
In the years since the 1952 primary, a number of New Hampshire traditions have developed—some fun and quirky, others deeply important to the electoral process. Why do these traditions matter? They show how much New Hampshire values every vote and how an election can turn on the decisions of ordinary voters.
The Power of Retail Politics: New Hampshire is a small state, making it relatively easy for candidates to interact personally with voters. Candidates can travel around the state effectively in only a few days and connect with voters, many of whom are less interested in stump speeches and more interested in having a dialog with those seeking the presidency. Retail politics, in which candidates try to sell themselves to the voters by interacting with them personally, rose to popularity in the 1950s. Opportunities for people to have a dialogue with those seeking public office—to ask unscripted questions and follow up on candidates’ answers—allowed voters to feel that they got to know the candidates, what they believe in, and how they will react to people who present opposing viewpoints. In retail politics, this interaction occurs at the local level: candidates visit a community event or a popular restaurant, knock on people’s doors, stand outside of a grocery store, or hold a town hall meeting. All of these venues allow voters a great deal of access to candidates. Granite Staters pride themselves on this vetting of candidates; the candidates themselves, rather than relying on their staff, have to think on their feet and confront the problems of ordinary Americans. Ultimately, this New Hampshire primary tradition forces candidates to talk about the issues and concerns the people want to talk about and not what their campaign advisors tell them is their strong suit.
The Rise of the Underdogs: New Hampshire voters are historically independent in their thinking. Although front-runners get lots of attention, Granite Staters are also receptive to learning more about the underdogs—the people who enter the race without a lot of money or backing by party leaders. The voters’ willingness to support candidates other than the front-runners makes the New Hampshire primary unique and sometimes rather volatile. Voters have a chance to make a real assessment of political promise because, in the first primary, the field of candidates is wide open. It has also led to some big upsets over the years. The first was in 1952, when President Harry Truman decided not to run for re-election after he lost the New Hampshire primary. President Lyndon B. Johnson came to the same conclusion in 1968; he won the New Hampshire primary but by such a narrow margin that he decided he lacked the support to win the general election. At other times, the New Hampshire primary has helped put underdogs on the political map, such as when Bill Clinton, a little-known governor from Arkansas, captured a second-place finish in New Hampshire. In his “victory” speech on election night, he credited New Hampshire voters with making him the “comeback kid.” Other notable underdogs included Pat Buchanan in 1996, John McCain in 2000, and John Kasich in 2016. After campaigning hard in New Hampshire, and doing substantially better than expected in the New Hampshire primary, all three made credible, if ultimately unsuccessful, runs for their party’s nomination. Underdogs can connect with New Hampshire voters, while several front-runners, including Truman and Johnson, have found that neglecting the Granite State can be costly.
Civic-Minded Voters: The people of New Hampshire take their civic responsibilities seriously, making great efforts to learn about the issues and candidates. In fact, Granite Staters have a reputation nationally for their civic-mindedness. Participation at traditional town hall meetings, when candidates come and answer voters’ questions directly, is generally high, depending on the candidate. For some voters, it has become a tradition to attend at least one town hall event for each candidate to listen to what potential presidents have to say on a wide variety of topics. Sometimes, voters will even debate with candidates. Several formal debates are held in New Hampshire during primary season as well, which gives voters additional opportunities to learn about the candidates. The media also plays a role in helping candidates get acquainted with the people, and vice versa, although Granite Staters show a decided preference for the coverage provided by New Hampshire journalists over journalists from elsewhere.
Independent Voters: Granite State voters are famously independent-minded, making it difficult for pollsters to accurately predict the outcome of elections. Approximately one-third of the state is registered to vote Republican, one-third Democrat, and one-third is unaffiliated with any political party—the so-called independents. In New Hampshire independent voters can request either ballot on primary election day. This large demographic in the state gets attention from all candidates as the independents can often determine the outcome of the election. They are the core of why New Hampshire is a swing state. Time and again the press has predicted that a candidate is about to win the New Hampshire primary by “the largest margin in history” only to find the candidate narrowly winning or even losing because it is difficult to predict which way the independents will go. By focusing on the candidates themselves, New Hampshire voters often confound predictions and party preferences.
The Allure of Midnight Voting: A few tiny New Hampshire towns have historically voted in the first few minutes of primary day, shortly after midnight, garnering much media attention. In both presidential primaries and presidential elections, these voters cast their ballots before anyone else in the nation. Midnight voting came from an early 20th-century state law that allows communities with less than 100 residents to close their polls once all residents have voted, immediately count the votes, and announce the results. The tradition began with the first New Hampshire primary in 1952 with the seven registered voters of Hart’s Location. In 1964, another community, Dixville Notch, began midnight voting, supported by local resort owner Neil Tillotson, who turned the counting of the ballots in Dixville Notch into a media event. Until his death in 2001, at the age of 102, Tillotson proudly boasted of being the first American to vote in each presidential primary and general election.
Behold the Unique Characters: Many unique characters have participated in the New Hampshire primary over the years. Some notable candidates include comedian Pat Paulson (1968), who made a name for himself on the TV show Laugh In; Jeff “Lobsterman” Costa (2000), a professional wrestler who wore a cape and lobster gloves; and Vermin Supreme (2008, 2012, 2016), a performance artist known for wearing a boot on his head and promising every American a pony if he is elected. While these characters have little impact on the race itself, they do connect with those across the nation who see themselves in the uniqueness of their candidacies. If a professional wrestler with a cape and lobster gloves can legally run for president in New Hampshire, why not anyone?