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Ahead of the New Hampshire primary, the media spotlight has dimmed

Media members prepared at a Donald Trump rally in Atkinson, N.H.Brandon Bell/Getty

The New Hampshire primary has been a media spectacle for decades. Reporters flock to diners and main streets in search of pithy quotes from undecided voters. National news stations rent out restaurants and large event spaces to broadcast live from the state.

But this year is shaping up to be quieter. While news organizations are still sending correspondents and broadcast stations will anchor live coverage from the ground, the typical frenetic atmosphere in the days leading up to the election is more subdued.

“This time has definitely got a whole different feel,” said Shawn Monahan, director of sales and marketing at the DoubleTree by Hilton Manchester Downtown, which for years has been the unofficial headquarters of the primary’s media scene. “They’re all here,” Monahan added, referring to the national news outlets, “but production on their end is definitely scaled back from what we’ve seen in other primaries.”

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MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” which broadcast from the now-closed J.D.’s Tavern at the DoubleTree in 2016, won’t be there this year, Monahan said. The Washington Post, which booked space at the hotel in previous cycles, did not for 2024. And the number of radio stations filling out the part of the hotel referred to as Radio Row is “nowhere near” as many as in the past, Monahan said.

There also won’t be any Republican debates before Tuesday’s primary after both ABC and its local affiliate WMUR-TV canceled their event scheduled for Thursday. CNN followed and called off a debate that would have been held Sunday.

The networks scrapped the events after two of the three eligible candidates — former president Donald Trump and former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley — declined to attend. CNN was set to hold a town hall with Haley in Henniker on Thursday.

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Part of the pullback in media attention is also likely due to fewer candidates in the running compared to previous primaries. On the Republican side, the race is down to Trump, Haley, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. And to this point, it’s lacked some of the drama typical in a nomination cycle for a party out of power. Trump has held a dominant lead in polling, despite facing charges in four criminal cases across the country.

And while President Biden is up for reelection, he’s not on the ballot in New Hampshire as the Democratic National Committee is trying to supplant it as the first-in-the-nation primary with a state with a more diverse population, South Carolina. New Hampshire officials are adamant that its status won’t change, citing a state law that guarantees the primary goes first. And Biden supporters in the state are campaigning for voters to write the president’s name on the ballot.

So the lessened media presence may be a taste of the future facing New Hampshire — and Iowa, for that matter — if the DNC and some political activists are successful in realigning the primary calendar to bigger, more diverse states.

The dominance of Trump in the Iowa caucuses, where he won with 51 percent of the vote earlier this week, and the strong expectation that he will prevail in New Hampshire has made the primary feel somewhat routine, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.

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“I’ve been busy, but it’s not frantic busy, which it has been in different cycles,” said Scala on Wednesday. “It feels a bit like the air of suspense and anticipation that to me characterizes a superior New Hampshire primary as opposed to an OK New Hampshire primary is lacking, at least today.”

The combination of fewer candidates and the potential for a predictable outcome has translated into fewer on-site interviews, the DoubleTree’s Monahan said.

“In primaries past, this week that we’re in now, we did see the networks up and running and broadcasting,” Monahan said. “With the candidate field we have this time, we’re not seeing that on the ground.”

From left to right: US Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX); Republican presidential candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; and US Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) speak to members of the media at the conclusion of a campaign rally at the LaBelle Winery on Jan. 17 in N.H.Brandon Bell/Getty

Monahan added that because of the smaller field and quieter media presence, he expects less foot traffic in the hotel from locals and political tourists who have been known in previous years to stop by to catch a glimpse of candidates and famous journalists.

But even at a scaled-back level, the media presence is still creating a big to-do in this small state.

Spokespeople for CNN, NBC, Fox News, and CBS said they have reporters and anchors in New Hampshire for primary coverage. ABC will also have reporters in the state, but David Muir will anchor coverage on primary day from New York, a spokesperson said.

And international outlets may be paying more attention to this cycle than previous years out of concern around the world that Trump could be president again, said Dartmouth government professor Dean Lacy.

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“I’ve been receiving fewer domestic and more international requests” for interviews, Lacy said, adding that inquiries have come from outlets in Canada, Chile, and Europe, among others.

Still, the smaller footprint and lack of debates right before the election have dimmed New Hampshire’s spotlight.

And it’s not just New Hampshire. The number of credentialed journalists in town for the Iowa caucuses fell from 2,600 in 2020 to just 1,200 this year, The New York Times reported, contributing to a media atmosphere that felt smaller in Des Moines and the rest of the state.

“The lobby bar of the Des Moines Marriott Downtown, once a buzzing, gossip-soaked node of Washington- and Manhattan-based reporters, anchors and operatives, was a ghost town late Saturday,” according to the Times report.

Iowa and New Hampshire have a small number of delegates, but their votes can be crucial when the nomination race is tight. And doing well in New Hampshire, with the national media’s attention, can give a candidate an early pole position and lots of momentum.

The stories of come-from-behind candidates like Bill Clinton, whose second-place finish in New Hampshire in 1992 dubbed him the “comeback kid,” are election lore. But in recent years, New Hampshire has often been a poor indicator of the eventual winner. In 2020, for example, Biden finished a distant fifth, but went on to win the nomination and the presidency.

There’s also a feeling that the nominating process has become more of a national story and that candidates have moved away from discussing kitchen table issues such as economic concerns affecting voters locally, Lacy said.

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And Scala noted that the media landscape has changed in such a way that many voters may have gotten their first exposure to candidates such as DeSantis from national and conservative outlets before they ever set foot in New Hampshire.

Those trends could undermine the sway of local outlets — which at the same time have been shrinking as traditional sources of revenue like print advertising have fallen.

“In previous cycles, I would be asked about the impact of the New Hampshire Union Leader endorsement on Republican voters,” Scala said, referring to the daily newspaper based in Manchester. “I haven’t gotten a single question about that.”


Aidan Ryan can be reached at aidan.ryan@globe.com. Follow him @aidanfitzryan.