EXETER, N.H. — It was immediately recognizable as a New Hampshire primary event. There was an old codger with his white hair sticking out the side of his baseball cap. He actually said that he hadn’t met all the candidates yet; that’s the great Granite State conceit and he said it effortlessly, unselfconsciously, though with the requisite scowl. In front of him an earnest young woman, dressed entirely in white, unfurled a banner. It bid Senator Bernie Sanders, who hadn’t yet arrived, to “Lead Us to Clean Energy,’’ an invitation the socialist from Vermont would gladly accept, if given half a chance. There was a young man, just out of high school, holding a “Don’t Tread on Me’’ flag plus three signs demanding the election of Rand Paul for president. He didn’t think it the least bit incongruous to admit that he also has a Twitter feed, @NH4Bernie, that touts Sanders. One man had a T-shirt that said “Stop Puppy Mills,’’ and another wore one proclaiming he was a member of the National Sarcasm Society. Need I mention that there actually was a little old lady in tennis shoes? Apparently oblivious to the fact that women of that exact and thoroughly dated description were the most loyal element of the Barry Goldwater coalition in 1964, she nonetheless was probably in the wrong place. She voted for Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, and wept when he lost to Barack Obama.
This spectacle — in New Hampshire they call it a political event, though in this case it was more like a revival meeting — occurred six months before the 2016 New Hampshire primary. The candidate arrived early at the Exeter Town Hall, gave a speech, answered just about every question imaginable, and departed late.
The same thing happened only a week later at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Derry. John Kasich — in shirtsleeves, just like Bernie Sanders — greeted a huge crowd of voters in T-shirts and baseball caps, though in deference to the Republican Party’s reflexive tilt toward the traditional, all of those caps had brims facing forward. (Not so at the Sanders event.) These voters were, most of them, undecided — after all, there were, at the time, 17 candidates in the GOP race to choose among — but they were decidedly determined to examine their options. “I’m evaluating many of these people,’’ said Sunne Coleman, an accountant. Added Larry Johnson, a retired Marine: “I’m here to see what he’s like.’’ These people were tasting presidential candidates as if they were the samples at Costco.
There is a lot of pretending that goes on in the New Hampshire primary; Gary Hart once said that more lies were told in the bar of the old Sheraton Wayfarer in Bedford than in any other room in America, and Lamar Alexander once paraded around in the sort of red-and-black checkered flannel shirt that was sold in general stores in northern New Hampshire a half century before H&M marketed them to teenage girls as a retro fashion icon. But let’s not pretend that anything about what happened in Exeter or Derry was the least bit remarkable. This sort of thing — the grilling of the contenders, the shopping for candidates, the long mornings at coffees and the evenings in service clubs and fraternal lodges — has been going on for decades and, in fact, the primary is exactly a century old this year.
The New Hampshire tradition of trial by town meeting may, however, have a somewhat diminished power this time around, as the leading candidates — Donald Trump, especially — have tended to swoop in and out, and the candidates most prone to indulging the close, sometimes exhausting questioning by voters have been, in the main, on the losing end of the polls. Cruder tools are controlling the political conversation, and doing much of the early winnowing that was once New Hampshire’s pride — the acid bath of TV advertising, much of it financed by shadowy political financiers, the debates with their lineups set by national polls and their concussive aftershocks of who won and who was most effective at the game of insult and interplay.
The primary’s old ways and old role thus seem possibly at risk, but far from dead. The roots just run too deep.
For while New Hampshire has, for a century, had an outsized profile in presidential contests, the state has been the focus of attention for far longer than that. As far back as the Lincoln administration, the state’s elections were, as South Conway historian William Marvel says, “the focus of intense interest when the national parties were wrangling over seminal issues.’’
Throughout that stretch of time the state has been the stage for a personal brand of politics that has had no equal in the world or even in other parts of the United States, where a political rally sometimes can be defined as three people sitting in front of a television set watching a negative advertisement.
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The importance of the New Hampshire primary remains, even in this strange political season, as stubborn as the quirky, sometimes contrarian, usually pragmatic people who fill in the places between the mountains, the shore, and the lakes. “No matter where someone lives in this state, it’s not only feasible to meet every candidate in person before deciding who to vote for, it’s actually kind of common,’’ says Jim Collins, onetime editor of Yankee Magazine and an accomplished curator of North Country culture. “Because our primary comes so early in the process, we’ve gotten used to the national reporting and have come to mistrust it the way we mistrust and get sick of television ads. We trust our instincts more. We’ll give a pass to a pandering-looking flannel shirt or down vest as at least an attempt to connect with us here — what’s more important is how straight the talk sounds. And we want to hear it in person. Where else can people say that?’’
Almost no place else, Iowa perhaps excepted.
“There were times in 1980 and 1988 where I was fairly certain I had met every single person in New Hampshire,’’ former president George H.W. Bush said in an e-mail last summer, 35 years after his first primary and as his son Jeb was mounting the Bush family’s sixth campaign, finding it an uphill slog. “It was fun. Sometimes fattening. You were expected to eat a lot. I’m glad it’s still a tradition. I hope it always is.”
Let’s not pretend, however, that there’s a whole lot of logic to this. This is an American tradition, to be sure, but it also is an American curiosity.
New Hampshire — an “oddball state,’’ in the characterization of House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill of Massachusetts — has about half the foreign-born population, by percentage, as the country as a whole. Its population is 1.5 percent black; the country is 13.2 percent black. People in New Hampshire are more educated and more likely to be homeowners than are residents of other states. New Hampshire simply is not representative of the nation, unless you count the demand for responsive politics and politicians as a demographic characteristic. Then the hard ground of New Hampshire is ground zero. Perhaps that is what Henry David Thoreau, who made his greatest mark in Massachusetts (Walden Pond) and Maine (Mount Katahdin) but also wandered wide here, meant when he spoke of “a New Hampshire everlasting and unfallen.’’
Part of this is the setting. Here, a bit of pretending is permitted; the covered bridge and the waterfall at the Wayfarer were enhanced landscape features if not complete phonies, though they survive on YouTube as the background of scores of television standups. (Move the camera a bit and you’ll see a mall and an interstate highway.) We all know that most of the campaigning in the state is done in Portsmouth, Manchester, Concord, and Keene, and in suburbs that are distinguished from those in Massachusetts only by ZIP code and tax returns. (There aren’t any income taxes north of the border, but you knew that. No general sales tax either.) But news correspondents, this one being a repeat offender over the past quarter-century, continue to highlight campaign forays into the hamlets of New Hampshire, or political trips into the faraway hills or down snow-choked country roads.
Because in truth New Hampshire has the best visuals of any state and, in the remote notches and river valleys, enduring cultural totems that are the least altered by the reach and influence of television and the Internet. It no longer takes eight hours to drive from Boston to Lebanon, N.H. — Interstates 93 and 89 took care of that chore — and it is now possible to get more than a television signal from Vermont in Hanover, the only station available when I was a student there a dozen years after the Nixon-Kennedy debates made television the principal factor in American presidential politics. But all is not lost, or homogenized. The Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, pointedly located at 20 Petrograd St. in Berlin still holds an ethnic festival every August, and in 2015, the summer in which Hillary Clinton was already spending millions on an advertising blitz, the top prize in the church raffle was a cord of firewood. Call me, collect, if that works in Manhattan, or in Marshfield.
Candidates still go to the northern reaches of the state, and if you do not believe me, drive up Seavey Street in North Conway and call on Bart Bachman, who has been at the Conway Daily Sun for more than two decades. He’ll walk you over to the refrigerator on the second floor of the newspaper office where you will see the signatures, in black Sharpie, of all the candidates who have dropped by to have a conversation and a cup of herbal tea. You’ll see the scratchings of, among others, Ron Paul (twice), Mike Gravel, Obama, Romney (twice), Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Buddy Roemer, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Chris Christie. Oddly, no Trump or Sanders — yet.
They go there, to an office with an editorial staff of eight when nobody’s out sick or on assignment up in Pinkham Notch, because they know that the way to look for America is not to hitchhike from Saginaw, as the great political scientist Paul Simon — not the Paul Simon who finished third in New Hampshire in 1988 — once sang, but to show up in places like this. They go there in part because in New Hampshire every vote counts, and in part because, as Jane Langton, the author of children’s literature, wrote more than three decades ago, New England villages like the ones still present in New Hampshire “are one of the great sights of the western world — red buildings to house the cattle, white ones to hold the spirit, and trees like the spirit itself abroad on the countryside.’’
The images of New Hampshire campaigning are seared in our collective memory. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York picked among the groceries at Harry Tanzy’s market in Hanover in 1964. Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, perhaps anticipating the campaign he might undertake a year later, skied there in 1967. Former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt hiked there in 1988. Senator Robert Taft of Ohio held a rooster there in 1952, a moment captured in an unforgettable Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph in Life magazine. None of these men won the New Hampshire primary, though President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who went fishing with Dartmouth president John Sloan Dickey on the upper reaches of the Magalloway River and Little Boy Falls in 1955, did take the primary a year later . . . with 99 percent of the vote. (“Almost every time the president cast,’’ said a breathless contemporary account produced in a North Country company newsletter, “he got a strike.’’)
And, to men and women of a certain age, New Hampshire politics symbolizes possibility, for in the winter of 1968, with Lyndon Johnson in the White House and a half-million US troops in Vietnam, 23,269 voters in New Hampshire, exhorted by hundreds of college students from the Northeast, rocked the nation. Johnson captured the primary, but the 42 percent that Eugene McCarthy attracted made him the real winner, and changed the dynamic of presidential politics that year and maybe forever.
Watching that race 8,700 miles away was a 24-year-old Navy man who had been schooled at St. Paul’s in Concord, then Yale, but was being educated in Vietnam. Thirty-six years later John F. Kerry, then a Democratic senator from neighboring Massachusetts, would win the primary, but in 1968 — 40 days after the Tet Offensive, just three weeks after a classmate was killed in combat — New Hampshire was transformed in his mind. It no longer was, as the secretary of state put it in a letter written to answer an inquiry for this essay, “just the place I’d gone to high school, the tucked away, quintessentially New England place where I’d first taken my cuts playing hockey on the black ice of Turkey Pond.’’
Kerry went on: “Now, suddenly, New Hampshire was someplace else entirely, the place where legions of kids my age — kids carrying pamphlets while I was carrying a gun thousands of miles away — just kids knocking on doors, the peanut butter-and-jelly brigade, proved themselves powerful enough to send a message all over the world that Lyndon Johnson couldn’t be president anymore . . . It was a grassroots prairie fire and a lifelong lesson for me in the power of people.’’
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The wonder of it all is that so much of our political folklore occurred within the 9,350 square miles — from Coos to the Sea, as the state’s biggest newspaper likes to proclaim — of thin soil and Silurian and Devonian rocks. “She’s one of the two best states in the Union,’’ Robert Frost, whose principal character flaw in local eyes was that he had a soft spot for Vermont, wrote in the poem called “New Hampshire.’’ Frost lived for a time in Derry, Franconia, Hanover, Plymouth, and Salem. He was not, as he asserted in that 1923 poem, “a plain New Hampshire farmer.’’ Nor are many others, hereabouts, who say the same.
But within its borders reside the 1.327 million people whom US Representative Jack F. Kemp of New York, the third-place finisher in 1988, called “the wine tasters for the whole system.’’ And within their collective memory is a big portion of the political history of our country.
There was the time, in 1980, when former California governor Ronald Reagan proclaimed that he “paid for this microphone’’ in a storied debate in Nashua. There was the time, in 1984, when Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, who had entered a hatchet-throwing contest, successfully stuck it into a tree trunk, in an enduring symbol of political destiny. There was the time, in 1988, when a truck-stop event salvaged Vice President George H.W. Bush’s campaign, and the time, a few days later, when Senator Bob Dole of Kansas demanded that Bush “quit lying about my record.’’
There was the time, in 2000 and again in 2008, when Senator John McCain of Arizona rambled through the state in a bus called the Straight Talk Express. There were all those times when William Loeb, the fabled, vituperative publisher of what was then known as the Manchester Union Leader, called various candidates a “stupid, conceited jackass’’ (Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware), “a Jerk!’’ (President Gerald R. Ford), “a boob’’ (Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington), “Moscow Muskie’’ (Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine), and “Chihuahua George’’ (Governor George Romney of Michigan). And of course there was the time that Muskie, the 1972 front-runner, once cried, or didn’t cry, in front of the Union Leader office building.
There was also the time when Ned Coll, an urban activist from Hartford brandished a rubber rat — the tail must have been 5 inches long — during a 1972 Democratic debate in Durham. Nobody alive remembers a word that Muskie, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana, or Mayor Sam Yorty of Los Angeles said, but hardly anyone watching that night has forgotten the spectacle. Coll said it symbolized the urgency of urban decay. I say it symbolized the beauty of the New Hampshire primary. It is what the Boston Marathon used to be: Anybody can run.
Then there was also the time, in 1976, that I left the college library and trudged across a snowy campus green to go to a Reagan rally in a sparkling new hockey facility. Reagan was challenging Ford that winter and I was taking a course in the King James Bible. The Reagan people, sensitive to security issues, seized my book at the door of the Rupert C. Thomson Arena. They flipped through its pages and examined its cover carefully before allowing me to proceed. I told the story the next morning to my professor, Harry Bond, who nodded wisely but showed no surprise. “The Bible,’’ he told his bewildered student, “has always been a dangerous book.’’
Let’s face at least one inarguable truth: For the voters, politics in New Hampshire are easy, even if the seats at places like the Peterborough Town Hall are hard and unforgiving. That’s because political tradition in the state can be described much the way a popular website characterizes the Black Cap hiking trail in Kearsarge: a clear view “for relatively little effort.’’ The candidates would actually come to your door. Shaula Levenson of Portsmouth says that “having these candidates around so much is the best part of living in New Hampshire.’’ Then again, beginning in August, long before the balloting, she doesn’t answer her phone. She’s tired of answering pollsters’ questions.
For the candidates, presidential politics in New Hampshire isn’t easy at all, and that’s not only because the journey itself to Dixville Notch, where the first ballots have traditionally been cast, is hard and unforgiving, or because the campaigning conditions — Taft made 28 stops in 500 miles of travel in three snowy days in 1952 — are demanding, even dangerous. McCarthy, after his great New Hampshire breakthrough in 1968, characterized the state as “a suit of long underwear frozen stiff on a clothesline.’’ And watch for the moose.
But the rewards — for the candidates, for the nation — are substantial, as William N. Gardner, the longest serving secretary of state (since 1976!), argues every four years when he maneuvers to keep New Hampshire at the front of the primary pack. It’s part of the state creed, along with the aversion to a broad-based tax and devotion to General John Stark’s famous “Live Free or Die’’ toast that has been the state’s motto since 1945 but its leitmotif since the 18th century.
“It’s very important that at some point in this process the next president of the United States has to sit across the table from real live Americans and understand how Americans live and how Americans think,’’ says Thomas D. Rath, who began his political career as a Dartmouth student helping to organize the state for Rockefeller in 1964, became the state’s attorney general, and emerged as a leading New Hampshire strategist. “It will make them better presidents. And when they’re elected president and they give a State of the Union Address and quote some store clerk from Manchester, they do it because that New Hampshire clerk was the last real human being they talked to.’’
Even so: The hours are long, the odds long, even for former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who had every reason to think she had a lock on New Hampshire until Sanders caught fire. Her husband, then-governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, had his great comeback there in 1992, and he won the primary easily in 1996. She had her own comeback there in 2008 after losing Iowa to Obama, then the junior senator from Illinois.
The Bush family also knows it’s not easy. The father stumbled in New Hampshire after winning Iowa in 1980 and never recovered; the first Bush son thought he had a clear path to the nomination 20 years later, but lost the 2000 primary to McCain. It is no wonder that the Appalachian Mountain Club, which for 139 years — even before there was a New Hampshire primary — has lured flatlanders into the state, publishes a well-read “Accident Report’’ in its biannual journal. Its topic is mishaps in the mountains. There are plenty of them.
It’s those mishaps that make history. One of the most celebrated occurred in 1984, when former vice president Walter F. Mondale, who had taken Iowa eight days earlier, was ambushed by Hart. He was out-organized by the guerrilla forces led by the indefatigable Jeanne Shaheen, later the state’s governor and now its senior senator, and that included a young Catholic University student named Martin O’Malley, later the governor of Maryland and a 2016 presidential hopeful.
The first New Hampshire primary of any consequence, and it wasn’t of much, occurred precisely a century ago, when the state, following Indiana and voting on the same day as Minnesota, helped propel President Woodrow Wilson to a second term. By 1920, New Hampshire had assumed its position as first-in-the-nation primary.
The big breakthrough came 32 years later, in 1952, when Eisenhower, with the important backing of home-state Governor Sherman Adams, destined to become White House chief of staff, carried 138 of the 223 towns, where Taft was expected to do well. “The primaries — exhaustive, wide open, expensive and unwieldy — were not made for the ultimate insider,” wrote Charles Brereton in an authoritative history of the primary. Eisenhower did not campaign for even a day.
One of the ruling tenets of New Hampshire culture is that the state prides itself for its independence. There is a New Hampshire outlook, a way of looking at the world, a set of spectacles tinted gray with skepticism. Dartmouth College president Ernest Martin Hopkins spoke in 1923 of “patterns of ruggedness, of sturdiness and individuality, and self-expressive independence,’’ and the late Republican Senator Warren B. Rudman, of Hollis, said the spirit of self-reliance that is so much a part of New Hampshire’s identity “is even true of the people who move into the state.’’ He was born in Boston but moved to Nashua at age 4. New Hampshire, as Reagan could attest, is a place of second chances.
For New Hampshire possesses an instinctive skepticism — and a cultivated unpredictability. In his 1990 book on the primary, former governor Hugh Gregg reminds us that the winner is “sometimes somebody nobody ever heard of, or maybe somebody who wasn’t even here.’’ That’s because the state sometimes evinces an up-country brand of hostility toward bigshots with big budgets. Many presidential aspirants get a reception much like the one experienced by Daniel Webster in the summer of 1831, when the congressman was guided to the state’s most majestic summit by the legendary host of the White Mountains, Ethan Allen Crawford: “Mount Washington, I have come a long distance, have toiled hard to arrive at your summit, and now you seem to give me a cold reception, for which I am extremely sorry.”
Primary politics north of the Massachusetts line requires what Webster called “time enough,’’ and though enough is defined differently every four years, the word time is always modified by the word substantial.
“We must continue to have the presidential nomination process begin in New Hampshire, or a similar human-scale forum, to permit so-called ‘dark horse’ candidates, those without huge financial resources or national notoriety, to make their case for leadership,’’ says Hart, whose 1984 victory remains a symbol of the state’s ability to change the political calculus.
The result can be an unusual intimacy. “Any larger or more ‘representative’ state would require, almost exclusively, far more expensive and scripted television campaign advertising, far less accountability in front of actual voters,’’ says Collins, the former Yankee editor. “The intimacy here is revealing. It counts for something real.’’
That’s because New Hampshire is a real place, and not, though frozen over a good portion of the year, frozen in time. The state’s politics have bounced between progressivism and conservatism for a century. It was the reforming impulses of the so-called Progressive Yankees that embraced the modern idea of political primaries in 1916, and it was the conservative impulses of the state that kept that contest at the second Tuesday in March for so many years. That’s the day when town meetings are held, and no one wanted to heat the town hall twice.
And the state’s profile has bounced between rural rustication and manufacturing sophistication in the last century as well. Drawing on workers from Scotland, Quebec, Greece, and Poland, the Amoskeag mills in Manchester were once the biggest textile plant in the world, with 17,000 workers accounting for 8 million square feet of floor space along 2 miles of the Merrimack River. The city’s impact went well beyond textiles; it produced locomotives for the expanding and industrializing young nation, rifles for Union soldiers — and a work ethic that endures in the state.
That bustle faded after the mills closed in 1936, but now those buildings, hugging the river, are alive again, as high-tech companies with syllable-studded names strive in structures that marry traditional mill architecture with daring digital initiatives. For all its summer-sweet-corn reveries and its family farms — and truly the state’s political rival, Iowa, produces no pork chop that rivals in taste or juiciness those of Sherman Farms in East Conway, which also does a brisk business in its own dairy products, including blueberry milk in rugged returnable bottles — New Hampshire is really an industrial state.
But its identity remains stubbornly rural — a third-person rural sort of character, to be sure. Even with its start-ups and skunk works, New Hampshire still luxuriates in what Richard Gilmore of the University of New Hampshire called in the introduction to his 1981 “New Hampshire Literature’’ anthology “a Currier and Ives print frozen in mid-19th century.’’ The author of this essay is not immune to this syndrome, but if New Hampshire is not rural but believes it is, it is also no longer all that remote, but it believes that, too, with all its ardor, even though you can now drive from Salem, N.H., to Salem, Mass. in less than 50 minutes.
For New Hampshire may have been changed by cable television, and its distinctiveness may now be undermined further by the Internet, but the real agent of change in the last century — the element that deprived the state of its faraway-distinctiveness or, if you have a different turn of mind, gave the state its sense of inclusiveness — has been the automobile.
Long before the interstates provided the first primitive information highways, infusing New Hampshire with daily invasions of business executives and tourists, many bearing out-of-town newspapers and up-to-date outlooks on the world outside, the new roads of mid-century were providing inroads from outside — inroads more disruptive than the trains that visited the major cities and the mountain resorts where, a century earlier, the flower of American intellectual life made the word summer a verb.
Almost all campaigning is done on those roads, and not only by candidates. There is politics on every other automobile bumper, which is why, when a woman was handed a sticker at the Kasich rally in Derry she asked, “Can I put this on my caaaah?’’ The final “r” of the word was about 50 miles away, perhaps caught amid the lichens on the summit of Mount Monadnock, where in 1845 Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated the “twilight parks of beech and pine,/High over the river intervals.’’
With all this rich heritage, part fable and foolishness, part devout tradition, it is no wonder that when contemporary candidates get to the state, they discover an old-fashioned brand of politics. That, too, is not so surprising when you realize that New Hampshire was the place where a visionary governor, Frank West Rollins, invented, in 1899, Old Home Week.
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On his way into that rousing meeting in Exeter, where Abraham Lincoln once delivered an 1860 campaign speech, Sanders described the state’s primary as “a beautiful thing,’’ adding, as if this were necessary, “I’m campaigning here because it’s going to have a big impact on presidential politics.’’
The Web, new television outlets, new forms of digital communication — all are changing New Hampshire and with those changes come changes in the primary itself. And yet no institution in American politics — not the Iowa caucuses, which began in 1972, two decades after Taft and his rooster; not presidential debates, which began in 1960, with John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — has remained so vibrant and yet so ruled by rituals.
“And like most rituals,’’ the political scientists Gary R. Owen and Nelson W. Polsby wrote in their 1987 book, “Media and Momentum,’’ about the primary, “it requires the repetition of familiar incantations, chants and tenets of faith, some of them grounded in fact and others more mythical.’’
They are right. Chances are you’ll read more of those incantations and chants four years from now, as the first-in-the-nation primary again exerts its will.