Assuming Jeb Bush does run for president in 2016, one of his first missions will be charming the notoriously fickle voters in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Judging by the track record of his father and brother, that’s a tricky task, especially the first time out.
George H.W. Bush claimed he had “the Big Mo” heading into New Hampshire. He had beaten Ronald Reagan in Iowa and won the obscure Puerto Rico primary too. But after a dramatic candidates’ debate just before the vote, Reagan easily beat Bush in New Hampshire: 50 to 23 percent.
When George H.W. Bush returned to New Hampshire eight years later as the sitting vice president, promising to continue the Reagan agenda but with what he would eventually call a “kinder, gentler” gloss, he did well. Although Bob Dole was leading in the polls ahead of the New Hampshire vote, Bush tried a fairly surefire New Hampshire tactic that year: calling his opponent a taxer. Bush won the race, 38 percent to Dole’s 29.
George H.W. Bush was his party’s successful nominee for president in ’88, running against Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. He won, of course. In New Hampshire, it was a blowout. Bush won the state, 62 to 36 percent.
As the sitting president, George H.W. Bush was the obvious favorite to win his party’s New Hampshire presidential primary. But the economy was so bad and the president so unpopular, that New Hampshire voters were eager to send a message of disapproval. Yes, Bush won, but he got quite a scare from conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who was buoyed by Bush’s broken pledge not to raise taxes. In the end, it was Bush over Buchanan, 53 to 37 percent.
In the Democratic primary that year, New Hampshire made Bill Clinton the “Comeback Kid.” In the general election, a three-way race pitting Clinton against the sitting president, George H.W. Bush, and independent Ross Perot, New Hampshire voters — once reliably Republican — went for Clinton. The tally in the state: Clinton, 39 percent, Bush, 38, Perot, 23.
In his first foray into New Hampshire, George W. Bush fell flat. The New Hampshire primary that year included not just Bush but also John McCain, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and others. McCain — considered a long shot — was the big winner, beating Bush, 48 to 30 percent. The victory helped McCain draw attention, money, and support, but Bush won his party’s nomination.
Most voters will remember 2000 as the year of the never-ending general election between George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore — a race ultimately decided by the US Supreme Court. In New Hampshire, voters went for Bush, 48 to 47 percent. Democrats still smart over that election — in part because of the presence of Ralph Nader on the ballot. Nader got 4 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. Had those New Hampshire Nader votes gone to Gore, Gore might have been president.
As the sitting president, George W. Bush had no significant opposition in the New Hampshire Republican primary. He got 80 percent of the vote, compared with the 20 percent total for a large cast of also-rans.