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The ‘artistry’ behind determining N.H.’s presidential primary date

Taking the legal text and operationalizing it takes creativity and finesse, according to the man who crafted the state’s 1975 first-in-the-nation primary law. “That’s how we stay first.”

New Hampshire Secretary of State David M. Scanlan announces the date of the state’s 2024 presidential primary at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. (Steven Porter/Boston Globe)Steven Porter/Boston Globe

Twelve presidential elections have come and gone since New Hampshire enacted a law in 1975 to mandate that its primary be held at least a week ahead of any similar contest.

In each of those past cycles, the state’s long-serving top election official, William M. Gardner, was the one legally obligated to keep an eye on other states then pick a date for New Hampshire’s vote, to preserve an electoral tradition that began more than a century ago, well before the law was enacted.

Gardner retired last year. So now it’s Secretary of State David M. Scanlan’s turn to defend New Hampshire’s spot in the lineup, and his actions this week followed a familiar playbook.


Scanlan announced Wednesday that New Hampshire will hold each party’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. But it was the watchful patience he exhibited before the big announcement that confirmed he’s following in Gardner’s footsteps.

James R. Splaine of Portsmouth, a former state lawmaker who sponsored the 1975 legislation, said it’s one thing for state law to require that the primary be held seven days ahead of any similar contest, but taking that legal text and operationalizing it is another thing entirely.

That requires a certain level of creativity and finesse, which is something Gardner mastered and Scanlan seems to be emulating effectively, Splaine said.

“And that’s how we stay first, not just because of the law but because of people who have the artistry to be able to apply it,” he added.

Scanlan’s announcement this week came 69 days before the 2024 primary. That’s about on par with Gardner’s announcements in the past two decades, though timelines shift significantly from one cycle to the next.

For the 2000 primary, Gardner announced the date of New Hampshire’s contest 126 days in advance, but the advance notice got much shorter thereafter. His announcement came 74 days ahead of the 2004 primary, and just 48 days before the 2008 primary (when Granite Staters headed to the polls on Jan. 8, the earliest primary date so far).


Gardner’s announcements came 69 days before the 2012 primary, 54 days before the 2016 primary, and 78 days before the 2020 primary.

Ultimately, Scanlan said, New Hampshire’s tradition is worth defending because it keeps voters at the center of the conversation rather than allowing national parties to control the process.

“In today’s society, it seems that we are quick to eliminate traditions and ignore them,” he said. “But I would like to think 100 years from now the people of this country will really be glad that we kept this one.”

The latest polls

Three new polls came out this week showing former president Donald Trump in first, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley in second, and former governor Chris Christie in third among voters likely to cast ballots in New Hampshire’s GOP primary:

This story first appeared in Globe NH | Morning Report, our free newsletter focused on the news you need to know about New Hampshire, including great coverage from the Boston Globe and links to interesting articles from other places. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail Monday through Friday, you can sign up here.

Steven Porter can be reached at Follow him @reporterporter.