CONCORD, N.H. — It was a traditional campaign event, down to the union hall and patriotic color scheme. Just as typical were the candidate’s assurances of the state’s exceptionalism in picking presidential candidates.
“You’re going to see an awful lot of me,” former vice president Joe Biden told the crowd earlier this month at IBEW Local 490. “You are among the most informed voters in the country. And I want to know what’s on your mind, what you think.”
For more than 100 years, New Hampshire has played a leading role in picking presidential candidates by holding one of the first primaries on the nominating calendar.
Today, however, inside and outside the state, politicos point to signs heralding the decline of New Hampshire’s importance, for both structural reasons unique to the 2020 contest and the recognition that more politics is being waged on cable news and social media than in coffee shops and at house parties in the early states.
Thanks to these forces, the two dozen would-be Democratic presidents are courting voters in a long roster of other states, including the delegate-rich outposts of California and Texas, both of which moved their primary contests to Super Tuesday in early March.
The Democratic National Committee’s rules dictating who gets a spot on the crowded debate stage, meanwhile, have sent candidates running for the cable TV cameras and toward rallies in once-forgotten places such as Illinois, Colorado, Mississippi, and Puerto Rico, as they hunt for the 65,000 individual donors from 20 states that they need to qualify.
To Jim Demers, who has guided presidential candidates through the New Hampshire primary for three decades, the 2020 campaign is being conducted differently by most candidates.
“It’s already obvious that the DNC debate rules have meant a lot of campaigns are focusing on building up their national social media focus and national name recognition than they are grinding it out and building a traditional campaign in the early states,” said Demers.
By this point in the 2016 presidential campaign, for example, Bernie Sanders had visited New Hampshire six times. This time he has been here three. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., saw his stock rise after a CNN town hall meeting in Austin, Texas, not Laconia — and he’s had more campaign trips to Boston, with its deep-pocketed donors, than to New Hampshire.
But plenty of locals say they’ve heard this general tune before — and so far they’re still not seeing evidence to back up the claim that New Hampshire’s clout is waning.
“I just don’t see it,” said Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has spent 10 presidential cycles defending New Hampshire’s grip on the nation’s first presidential primary. He recalled hearing in the 1950s that television would upend New Hampshire’s influence, and then again in the 1990s with the Internet. “It really didn’t turn out to be the case.”
“We’ve never taken the position that candidates shouldn’t go to any other state,” he added.
Demers, who leads New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s campaign in New Hampshire, said his candidate is running a traditional Iowa and New Hampshire campaign of showing up early and earning local endorsements and hiring staff.
But, he said, the only other candidate running a similar campaign is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who returned to New Hampshire last weekend for a house party and to speak to the Manchester Democratic Committee’s annual dinner. It was her 11th trip to the state this year, part of a breakneck campaign pace that has her stumping from Puerto Rico to California.
There’s no doubt, analysts say, that the presidential primary process has become more nationalized. Cable news and social media have helped give voters front-row seats for the political show that was once the exclusive domain of people living in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The DNC’s debate rules have accelerated this change. Winning a spot on the stage depends on two metrics: the number of individual donors to a campaign and polling performance in national or early-state surveys. The rules have created a feedback loop for candidates who must now put time and money into pursuing e-mail addresses and Facebook “likes” from which they’ll solicit more donations in hopes of crossing the threshold to get on the debate stage.
Still, most observers in New Hampshire believe reports of damage to the state’s clout are overblown.
“Once upon a time, it was the case that New Hampshire voters had more of a monopoly over delivering first cuts or first impressions of candidates,” said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor.
But looking at how many candidates have visited the state, and how many events each is doing here, “I think New Hampshire is more than holding its own as one of the first four states,” he said. “A number of candidates, at least so far, have included New Hampshire as part of their plausible path to the nomination.”
“The candidates are coming here all the time,” said Judy Reardon, a Democratic operative who helped guide John Kerry’s 2004 campaign in New Hampshire.
The New Hampshire primary is likely to be held Feb. 11, a few weeks before the Super Tuesday contests on March 3 and just after the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.
Indeed, the historically large field of candidates and the front-loaded primary schedule could even end up amplifying New Hampshire’s influence, some analysts say.
Others have raised concerns that early voting in California will overlap with the Iowa and New Hampshire contests and could diminish the relevance of the latter two states. But Charlie Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report, views it another way: California voters casting ballots in real time as the winners in Iowa and New Hampshire are holding victory events.
“Any candidate [who] does badly in both Iowa and New Hampshire, given the timing of early voting in the dozen states for the March 3 Super Tuesday states, will have a very difficult time bouncing back,” he said. “Conversely, whoever does well in one or both, they are getting a gigantic boost and at exactly the right time for those Super Tuesday early voters.”
New Hampshire voters at the Biden event weren’t sweating the situation.
“I mean, last weekend, I caught four” candidates, said Carol Schapira, of Hopkinton, a retired teacher, as she stood at the front of the line. She gestured toward a friend. “Ellen’s from this tiny town in New Hampshire, and Elizabeth Warren was there!”
Nearby, Ellen Dokton confirmed that Warren did indeed go to Weare (population 8,900), the first visit by a presidential candidate she is aware of in the town’s history.
Schapira said New Hampshire’s unique role will endure, in part, “because we get so personal to the candidates, can really ask questions, and . . . we expect a lot from the candidates, we do. Somebody said to me, this is our state sport.”