Why New Hampshire’s primary gets to go first

The story of how an undersized state achieved oversized political influence.

Such is the power of New Hampshire that relative unknown Senator Estes Kefauver could bump President Truman from the race.
Such is the power of New Hampshire that relative unknown Senator Estes Kefauver could bump President Truman from the race.

FROM ESTES KEFAUVER'S coonskin cap to Bill Clinton's "Comeback Kid" finish, from "Get Clean for Gene" to "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green," and everything in between — all of the lore, history, and impact of the New Hampshire presidential primary, the conventional wisdom upturned and the nominees forged and the pretenders exposed — all of that was nearly snuffed out by a stiff breeze before it began.

It was autumn 1880, and a farmer from Richmond, New Hampshire, named Stephen Bullock — 23, mustachioed, newly married — was hauling cider through the hill country in the southwest corner of the state when the wind picked up, rustling a poster along the road. The sound startled Bullock's oxen; they bolted, tossing him violently from his cart. That he somehow survived with mere bruises made the newspaper. "It was a narrow escape from a fatal accident," the New Hampshire Sentinel reported.


A few inches or a different angle, and Bullock might not have gone on to become a Richmond selectman, tax collector, library trustee, health officer, fire warden, or five-term representative to New Hampshire's vast, volunteer Legislature — where he would write the bill to create the state's first presidential primary, starting with the election of 1916.

Bullock did that from a sturdy roll-top desk, and one after another last fall, the candidates filing for the 2016 primary — the bold-faced names thronged by media and the quixotic ones who arrived in costume or paid their $1,000 filing fee in cash — signed their paperwork at the same oak desk where Bullock sat, alongside his kerosene lamp and straw hat.

Those artifacts, unearthed and displayed by Secretary of State Bill Gardner in his office at New Hampshire's State House, are part of a suitably low-key centennial celebration that includes official February 9 ballots in old-time fonts.

And they underscore that New Hampshire — at once venerated and assailed every four years, an undersized state with an amplified influence — did not achieve its first-in-the-nation status recently, or by accident.


Bullock's primary did not pop from the ether fully formed. It grew from New Hampshire's small-d democratic culture — with more elections, elected officials, and candidates per capita than any other state — and has continued to evolve over the years. And Bullock himself, a poultry farmer who pared apples for his family every night around the wood stove, was just one in a series of modest and quirky figures who have worked mostly in the background to shape New Hampshire's presidential primary and protect its leadoff status.

They include Richard Upton, the young House speaker who in 1949 advanced the idea to put the candidates themselves (rather than convention delegates) on the ballot; Gardner, a mild-mannered official who favors sweater vests and speaks in winding historical anecdotes, but who has outmaneuvered the machinations of other states angling to go first for nearly 40 years; and Jim Splaine, a longtime Democratic activist who began his legislative career as a write-in candidate at 21 and authored the 1975 bill to keep New Hampshire first during a time in which many Granite State leaders wanted to abandon the primary altogether.

EVEN BEFORE STEPHEN BULLOCK, New Hampshire prided itself on being first — first to write its own constitution, first to have its delegates sign the Declaration of Independence, first to have its electoral votes counted for President George Washington. Congenitally frugal, New Hampshire spent much of the 19th century holding state elections not in November, like the rest of the country, but on Town Meeting Day in March, to save money. That eight-month lead made it something of a bellwether in the national jockeying between Republicans and Democrats.


New Hampshire did not, however, invent the presidential primary. Wisconsin, a Progressive Era laboratory for democracy, enacted a series of measures in the first decade of the 20th century to roll out primaries for state offices and then for president, and several states soon followed. In New Hampshire, a progressive wing of Republicans led by soon-to-be governor Robert Perkins Bass succeeded in establishing a primary for state offices but not for president. Undeterred, the faction staged its own for Republican voters in 1912, a kind of dress rehearsal.

The next year, Bullock, a Democrat, hitched his wagon to a horse named Jerry and rode to Concord, where he filed House Bill 430, "An Act to Provide for the Election of Delegates to National Conventions by Direct Vote of the People."

Bullock's successful legislation called for the primary to be held on the third Tuesday in May 1916. Before that date arrived, however, a lawmaker from Bethlehem named John G.M. "George" Glessner — who had been prescribed the fresh air of the White Mountains as the precocious but sickly child of a Chicago industrialist — proposed the money-saving measure of pairing the primary with Town Meeting.

That made New Hampshire second in March 1916, a week behind Indiana and the same day as Minnesota. By 1920, though, Minnesota had abandoned its primary and Indiana had reverted to May, restoring New Hampshire to leadoff status.


In the ensuing decades, many states dropped their primaries, but New Hampshire persevered, receiving occasional media attention — "Nation's First Test," a Globe headline called it in 1948 — but few candidate visits.

Enter Richard Upton, a Concord lawyer and 34-year-old speaker of the New Hampshire House. He thought the primary needed some oomph — not to bring attention to New Hampshire, but to boost voter turnout. He spearheaded legislation to affix a second question to the ballot starting in 1952, allowing voters to choose not just delegates but actual presidential candidates, too.

The press initially derided the primary as a "beauty contest." President Harry Truman, coy about whether he would seek reelection, dismissed it from afar as mere "eyewash." But two candidates sensed an opportunity. US Senators Robert Taft, a Republican, and Estes Kefauver, a Democrat seeking to snatch the nomination from Truman, began crisscrossing the state, shaking hands at community centers, chatting up voters outside post offices, and posing for photo ops — though Taft, an Ohio Republican, appeared to do so grudgingly. He lost to the immensely popular General Dwight Eisenhower, who was still stationed in Europe but had been drafted onto the ballot by supporters.

On the Democratic side, Tennessee's Kefauver charmed voters with his polite persistence — he had probed organized crime in the Senate, and now here he was on a downtown sidewalk approaching them with a simple "Hi, I'm Estes Kefauver . . . ." He jolted Truman with an 11-point win, shaking the president from the race (though Adlai Stevenson was ultimately the Democratic nominee). "There was no 'eyewash' in what Kefauver was doing," the Globe reported. "It was an eye-opener."


Voters loved it — turnout doubled over 1948 — and the press embraced it, too: the visuals of covered bridges and country stores, the national politicos fielding questions from workaday residents, and, especially, the ease of interpreting the results. A cottage industry was born, bringing a flood of activity and interest to New Hampshire.

BY THE MID-1970S, however, even in the country's most politics-crazy state, the run-up to the elections had begun to feel wearying. Republicans were exhausted from Watergate. Democrats were battered by fierce primary contests in 1968 and 1972, in which long-shot outsiders won perceived victories by coming close to beating establishment favorites — first Eugene McCarthy against President Lyndon Johnson, then George McGovern against Ed Muskie. In both cases, the Democratic Party was ultimately trounced in November, while drained and divided New Hampshire Democrats limped toward their own state elections. "It was much more bitter than politics today," recalls Jim Splaine, the Democratic activist. "People ended up hating each other."

Against this backdrop, Massachusetts led an effort to replace New Hampshire with a New England-wide primary starting in 1976. Proponents like Barney Frank argued that it would preserve the grass-roots quality of the Granite State's contest, boost the region's voice, and diminish the bully pulpit of William Loeb, the conservative publisher of New Hampshire's Union Leader, who had long savaged targets from both parties with front-page epithets like "Dopey Dwight," "Moscow Muskie," and "Snake Oil Lyndon."

The push drew particular support from Democrats who wanted Ted Kennedy to run and saw a path to the nomination in a regional primary, Splaine says. Though Splaine backed Kennedy, he cherished his home state's tradition. In 1975, he drafted a bill to separate the primary from Town Meeting Day and, later, empower the secretary of state to set it seven days before any "similar election." It passed, barely.

By then, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter — a peanut farmer who started the race as "Jimmy who?" — was already deep into a Kefauver-style campaign to win over the Granite State through cheerful persistence, leading him to a 1976 victory over Mo Udall that would propel him to the nomination and the White House. On the Republican side, Gerald Ford edged Ronald Reagan by 1 point in the closest race in New Hampshire primary history.

In subsequent decades, Bill Gardner, the secretary of state, has fended off a series of efforts to supplant New Hampshire, with critics wondering why this little state always gets to go first. Just this month, when Splaine addressed a convention in Manchester for college students, a Virginia Commonwealth University student stood and challenged New Hampshire's lack of diversity, suggesting that her state should go first — or that the whole thing could be replaced with candidate chats via Skype. Plus, she quipped, "it's cold as hell here."

In response, Splaine cited Bill Clinton, saying face-to-face contact in New Hampshire forges better candidates and presidents — and that letting larger states go first would likely eliminate New Hampshire's human-scaled campaigning from presidential politics.

That's a favorite point of Gardner, who likens moving the first primary to rotating the home of the Statue of Liberty or the Kentucky Derby. "There's a reason in history why it is where it is," he says, seated near Stephen Bullock's desk. "It's not that the people here are smarter or better at doing this, but this is part of the DNA of the state."

Eric Moskowitz is a Boston Globe staff writer. E-mail him at eric.moskowitz@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @globemoskowitz.