From computers across the globe, lessons on the N.H. primary

UNH political science professors Andrew Smith (left) and Dante Scala are creating a massive open online course about the history of the state’s presidential primary.
Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe
UNH political science professors Andrew Smith (left) and Dante Scala are creating a massive open online course about the history of the state’s presidential primary.

DURHAM, N.H. — Along with a slew of candidates running for everything from the State House to the White House, New Hampshire residents could see a University of New Hampshire film crew out and about this fall, interviewing experts on the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

Their task: creating a smorgasbord of historical treats and tasty New Hampshire election tidbits they can serve up to political history fans from across the globe.

Enrollment opens next spring for UNH’s first official “massive open online course,” often referred to as a MOOC, which promises an insider’s view of the state’s fiercely protected election tradition. Who might sign up? UNH political science professors Andrew Smith and Dante Scala aren’t quite sure.


“The only way we can anticipate the numbers is to look to some of the guys who’ve run these courses before,” says Smith. “We had a meeting earlier this week, and Dante and I asked the tech guys, ‘What do you think about enrollment numbers?’ and they said they’re hoping for 50,000. Fifty thousand! That would be amazing.”

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In the meantime, Smith and Scala are ready to hit the road to begin filming segments at strategic locations around the state. Along the way they will pick the brains of leading political experts to construct a course they hope will be both academically stimulating and politically captivating.

The course will consist of about 18 hours of prepared content for three online classes per week over six weeks. There will be online forums, where students can interact with one another, as well as with Scala and Smith. Quizzes will follow each segment, but the courses can be taken at any time by anyone from anywhere around the world, Smith says.

“We’ll be taking people around the state, from house parties to the State House, to meet people who have been part of the primary process for years,” Smith says. “In that sense, there’s a lot more you can do with a class like this.”

It so happens that 2016 coincides with the 100th anniversary of New Hampshire’s first-ever presidential primary — not to be confused with the 100th anniversary of the state’s first-in-the-nation status, which doesn’t happen until 2020.


Since MOOCs are noncredit, nontraditional academic offerings, Scala says, he figures the audience is likely to be equally nontraditional. He and Smith plan to make a special effort to reach out to high schoolers in New Hampshire and beyond, to reach those preparing to vote for the first time in 2016.

But they anticipate a majority of participants will be political super fans.

“We hope to attract a broad national — even international — audience, as we draw back the curtain on New Hampshire,” says Scala. “That means reaching those who see politics as a bona fide hobby, like the person who goes home at night and watches two hours of MSNBC or Hannity or ‘O’Reilly Factor,’ or whatever it might be — the person who tunes in to politics because it’s their sport.”

“We will talk about pivotal moments and turning points,” he says. “Part of our job is to distill reality from many of the myths that have grown up around the primary and what really matters in a New Hampshire primary.”

One such myth: the power of the undecided voter in a primary election.


“There is a large pool of undeclared voters who can vote in either primary,” Scala says. “But a lot of those so-called independent voters have pretty strong partisan leanings. In reality, it’s a small sliver of those independent votes that are truly up for grabs.”

‘We hope to attract a broad national — even international — audience, as we draw back the curtain on New Hampshire.’

At the top of the short list of primary experts on call for this project is New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who coauthored the book on New Hampshire’s coveted first-in-the-nation status, “Why New Hampshire: The First in the Nation Primary State.”

First elected in 1976, Gardner has presided over the primary continuously since 1980 and has more than once taken measures to defend its first-in-the-nation status from attack by other states aiming to cash in on the notoriety and attention that goes with primary prognostication.

One question Gardner fields often is the overall significance of the New Hampshire primary in 21st-century politics.

“There are no presidents who have not won a New Hampshire primary,” Gardner says. “We’ve had 17 primaries, and 14 of the 17 winners became president. In those other three cases, all three went on to win the New Hampshire presidential primary four years later. It’s a fact that every president elected since World War II has won a New Hampshire primary.”

Gardner is happy to participate in the online course because, he says, technology has meant everything to the evolution of the New Hampshire primary and its significance in presidential politics. In the 1970s, he notes, the contest was covered by three national television networks. Later, it attracted major TV stations from across the country. And in 2000 people started to follow the primary via computer.

“So having a presidential primary MOOC is not just like going from 0 to 100; every four years it seems there’s something new about the primary, specifically because of technology,” says Gardner. “This format is going to extend the reach of the New Hampshire primary for those who want to vicariously participate in a process of true democracy.”