ON A WARM TUESDAY morning in September, a bipartisan group of longtime public figures gathered at the New Hampshire State Library in Concord to pay homage to the tradition that has given them — and their state — a sense of political purpose.
It was a birthday party of sorts for New Hampshire’s storied presidential primary, which will turn 100 years old next month. Born out of the progressive movement at the start of the last century, the primary was based on the notion that ordinary people, not party bosses, should decide who gets nominated to run for the highest office in the land. But on this day, the pols weren’t so much commemorating the lofty origins of the 1916 contest as they were persuading themselves — and, they hoped, the rest of the country — that New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary was now a permanent part of American political life, a resilient testing ground for future presidents.
“For 100 years, we Granite Staters have shown the rest of the country how seriously we take politics,” former New Hampshire House speaker Terie Norelli told the crowd of true believers. The big red ribbon that she and Governor Maggie Hassan cut that day, symbolizing the kickoff of the centennial celebration, said: “The next 100 years!”
And yet, just that morning, a poll of New Hampshire Republicans showed the top two candidates in the state’s February 9 primary were New York businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, neither of whom found his way to the top the traditional way. Trump had rejected the idea of courting the New Hampshire’s political elite, of schmoozing with voters in cafes and living rooms, of spending week upon week answering questions in high school gymnasiums and stuffy town halls. Carson — preparing for a book tour — simply appeared uninterested. And now a poll seemed to say they were getting away with it.
This was not the only sign that the ties to New Hampshire’s traditions were beginning to fray. The rising influence of the national media, in winnowing the field before voters even have a chance to size up the candidates, appeared to be diminishing the role of the early states. And changes to the federal campaign finance system meant that a good performance in New Hampshire was no longer critical to having enough money to compete in bigger states later in the year. (Got a super PAC? You’re in!) Even Trump’s over-the-top manner of campaigning — ridiculing and insulting his rivals to great effect — seemed to chip away at New Hampshire’s sober-minded tradition.
Privately, many longtime political players in New Hampshire were worried. Was the New Hampshire primary — part civic duty, part mid-winter circus, which everyone in this room so intimately knew and loved — dying? What if the September celebration, intended to mark the primary’s 100th birthday, was actually the prelude to a funeral?
TO BE SURE, New Hampshire’s ability to hold on to the first-in-the-nation primary has always involved some angst. Since 1968, jealous outsiders have tried to diminish the state’s prominence or swipe its title, arguing that New Hampshire was too small, too wealthy, too rural, too white. In 1972, the Democratic National Committee inserted Iowa’s precinct caucuses ahead of the Granite State. Before the 1976 contest, Vermont and Massachusetts tried to tie their presidential primary dates to the one in New Hampshire. In 1980, Republicans created the South Carolina primary as a conservative counterweight to the less religious Yankees. In 1983 and 1984, the Democratic National Committee moved to get rid of New Hampshire’s status entirely. In the years since then, individual states have tried to leapfrog ahead: Michigan. Nevada. Florida. Louisiana. Arizona.
In each case, New Hampshire hung on — sometimes winning the battle at obscure rules committee meetings, sometimes simply moving the date of the primary to stay ahead of the competition. Along the way, New Hampshire produced some of the most iconic moments in American politics. In 1992, Bill Clinton fought for his political life and became the Comeback Kid — 16 years before his wife, Hillary Clinton, pulled off her own surprising win after shedding a tear in Portsmouth. This is the place where Gary Hart campaigned while throwing an ax, where Gary Bauer fell off the stage flipping a pancake, and where Eugene McCarthy, an antiwar candidate, did well enough to convince Lyndon Johnson, a sitting president, not to seek reelection.
It’s also the place where, truth be told, political activists have laid the groundwork to be rewarded by successful presidential candidates. Governor Sherman Adams got to be White House chief of staff after helping Dwight Eisenhower’s campaign. Former New Hampshire governor John Sununu played the same role for George H.W. Bush. Others have landed foreign ambassadorships or plum D.C. jobs after betting on the right horse in New Hampshire.
In 2016, no one has moved to seriously challenge New Hampshire’s place at the head of the line, but the state’s clout is being threatened in a more existential way. And no one is quite sure what to do about it.
“Over time, there have been a ton of different interest groups chipping away at the primary, and we have had to withstand those attacks,” says Sununu, a Republican. “There is a chip here and a chip there, and eventually the primary as we have traditionally known it became something different.”
Consider the manner in which Republican Jeb Bush launched his presidential bid. He held an announcement rally in his adopted hometown of Miami before flying to New Hampshire for a town hall meeting. That seemed to be in the old-fashioned tradition, a path trod by his brother and father before him. (In fact, it would be the sixth time that a Bush had participated in the state’s primary.) Voters crowded into the Adams Memorial Opera House in Derry that evening, but before they had a chance to question the candidate, it turned out they would have to watch him parry questions from Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, in an interview that would air nationally later that night. The town hall meeting, delayed because of the interview, would have to come second.
For more than two decades, New Hampshire hasn’t really been about picking presidents. It’s easy to forget that the state actually went for Paul Tsongas over Bill Clinton in 1992, for John McCain over George W. Bush in 2000, and for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008. But it does narrow the field, convincing candidates who can’t connect well with voters, whose views are out of touch, who lack sufficient charm, savvy, or money to end their campaigns. It’s where smug front-runners are spooked by hard-working underdogs. It’s where voters send a message to party leaders about war and peace, health care and jobs. It’s where a phrase with remarkable staying power — “the economy, stupid” — was born.
But in the 2016 race, the state’s ability to perform its traditional role has been partly usurped. Last summer, national television organizations, with the backing of the political parties, took it upon themselves to winnow the field well before New Hampshire voters had their say. With such an enormous cast of major Republican hopefuls — 17 early on — TV executives decided that only the most popular would be included in prime-time debates, essentially cutting the field in half. Fox News, CNN, and others used national polls to determine who deserved to be at the top of the heap, relying on the views of voters from across the country whose only exposure to the contest was what they’d seen on television.
This created a disincentive to campaign in New Hampshire the old-fashioned way, with coffees and house parties and local television advertising. Catching on in New Hampshire has no bearing on performance in a national poll unless the national media cover it. It makes strategic sense — and is much easier — simply to advertise and be interviewed as much as possible on national media outlets. Suddenly, the candidates’ most important New Hampshire stop wasn’t Manchester’s Red Arrow Diner or the Concord High School auditorium, but rather the satellite television studio at Saint Anselm College, where they could appear on national TV shows.
“That the primary has become more of a national election versus a state-by-state contest, with New Hampshire going first, is no longer in doubt,” says former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Joe Keefe, who notes that Granite State voters still take their first-in-the-nation role seriously.
This flip of the script did not go unnoticed. In June, 56 prominent New Hampshire Republicans, including former governors Steve Merrill and Craig Benson, signed a letter to Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and Fox News chief Roger Ailes, urging a change to the new criteria that left some candidates off the main debate stage. They warned that the system would “undermine the very nature of our process and the valuable service that states like New Hampshire provide to voters across the country.”
Little came of the protest. And no New Hampshire polls were factored into the debate criteria for months. Some state Democrats also formed their own group and held press conferences hoping to change the fact that the only sanctioned Democratic debate in the state would occur on a Saturday night six days before Christmas and have no local moderator.
Certainly, there have always been reasons to view New Hampshire’s prominence with skepticism. In a nation that grows increasingly diverse and urban, New Hampshire is 94 percent white. It is more educated, more wealthy, more rural than most states. Its residents are older. In the New England tradition, civic life centers on small towns. As a result, issues like race, urban schools, and public transportation rarely come up on the presidential campaign trail. Immigration, like foreign policy and poverty, is more of an abstract concept for debate than an everyday reality in this state.
But New Hampshire has also been an antidote to many of the things that so ail the modern American political system. Super PACs can buy only so many ads in a state with just one major media outlet, WMUR-TV. Name ID, marketing, and bluster have less impact in a place where voters get to meet candidates, engage with them, and then decide whether they are, in fact, phony. (That John Edwards never did well here is seen as a badge of honor.) Further, the mudslinging and name-calling of politics are toned down when candidates often bump into one another unexpectedly — as Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina did on the streets of Portsmouth last summer, greeting each other with an enthusiastic hug.
THERE’S AN OLD JOKE about the New Hampshire primary, told by candidates as diverse as Mo Udall in 1976 and John McCain in 2000. In it, a presidential contender asks a taciturn voter whether he’d earned his support. “Can’t say,” the voter demurs. “After all, I’ve only met you three times.” It’s funny because it rings true.
But this season, the joke appears to be on those candidates who are — still — trying to meet that voter three times. There has been almost an inverse relationship between the amount of time candidates spend in New Hampshire and how well they do in the New Hampshire polls. Heading into the final weeks of the race, the candidates who have spent the most time in New Hampshire include US Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former New York governor George Pataki, and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore. The first two dropped out, and Gilmore has rarely polled above 1 percent.
To be sure, there is evidence that the New Hampshire traditions will survive in some form. In the Democratic race, the two leading candidates, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and US Senator Bernie Sanders, have campaigned in a more old-fashioned way, though they have used large-scale rallies more than small house parties to get their message out. Voters still throng to candidate events. And the most pressing issue in the state — the opioid abuse epidemic — has risen to national attention in part because New Hampshire voters have forced the candidates to address it.
Even some candidates on the GOP side are playing by the old rules and, slowly, seem to be catching on. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ohio Governor John Kasich, especially, have spent considerable time in the state and have seen their poll numbers rise during the final months of the campaign. Donald Trump, however, has maintained a consistent and enormous lead over them and the others. At a recent rally in Windham, Trump added some zingers tailored specifically to a local audience. He ridiculed both the local paper (“Useless Leader”) and John Sununu, the former governor who resigned as chief of staff for President George H.W. Bush. (“He was fired like a dog, and he doesn’t even realize it!” Trump crowed.)
Last summer, Kasich was surging into second place in the state, his events drawing big crowds. One August night he held a town hall meeting in Peterborough, where he took questions on drug addiction, on balancing the federal budget, on defeating ISIS. In the town where John McCain and Jimmy Carter and others before him had earned voters’ support, Kasich seemed to be the very embodiment of the first-in-the-nation primary.
But even in this idyllic New Hampshire moment, a voter took the microphone to say that he had enjoyed watching Kasich in a recent CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer. Kasich, the man said, had come up with a great line on national television.
“I was thinking to myself, what a great New Hampshire moment,” he said — describing something not very New Hampshire at all.
Not everyone is fretting about the health of the New Hampshire primary. In the end, Trump’s ignore-all-traditions campaign may be an aberration. So, too, the enormous Republican field that prompted TV debate organizers to toss some candidates aside before the contest even got going. New Hampshire voters, notoriously fickle until the hours before the primary, may still reward a Kasich or a Christie for his efforts.
“My number-one piece of advice is that every primary is different,” says US Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a 40-year veteran of the primary. “But the one thing that has remained is the necessity of candidates to directly answer questions from voters.”
On February 9, New Hampshire voters will show the world whether Shaheen’s wisdom still holds.
Boston Globe political reporter James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jamespindell. Subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at bostonglobe.com/groundgame.