This week, a bill in front of the New Hampshire Legislature to create a commission on how to best protect the state’s prized presidential primary received significant pushback. The bill once had the backing of nearly everyone from the most progressive to the most conservative of members, but Secretary of State Bill Gardner read it as micromanaging his ability to fend off other states who might want to schedule their primaries ahead of the Granite State’s. After that, a prominent conservative dropped his support. It’s unclear what will happen going forward.
But in 2019, Gardner’s focus on being first, shared by much of the state’s political establishment, is misplaced. The threat this time is cable news.
No one doubts Gardner’s sincerity about his role as the keeper of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. No one doubts that Iowa or New Hampshire are sincere when they say that their system of forcing US senators and governors and business moguls to take time to talk to regular people is a wonderful counter against a political system driven by big money and branding.
Being first for a century, as New Hampshire has been, sounds good. It’s the clout every four years that matters and that makes other states jealous. In the past, states have jockeyed for that influence, and it was easy for Gardner and the state’s leaders to spot and outmaneuver.
Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Gary Hart, Pat Buchanan, John McCain, Bill Bradley, and Howard Dean, and a slew of candidates in 2012 and 2016, all got their long or brief moments in the sun because of how they were connecting on the ground in New Hampshire.
Now, consider how the campaign has played out so far. The major moments of the 2020 campaign so far have nothing to do with New Hampshire or any other early state.
This cycle began with a buzzy candidate, Beto O’Rourke, who at that point had never visited an early state. Then the buzz went from Beto to Pete Buttigieg, who became a star during a CNN town hall meeting taped at the South by Southwest conference in Austin. Now, candidates seeking low-dollar donations from a wide base of people will go wherever CNN or MSNBC want them to.
This was on display in New Hampshire Monday night, where CNN held five town hall meetings back to back at Saint Anselm College. New Hampshire served simply as the backdrop to a national TV broadcast staged by CNN and Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
The romance of the New Hampshire primary (and, OK, the clout) comes from the unscripted moments when an average Jane from an early state gets to interact at a human level with a presidential candidate. (Hence the joke that New Hampshire residents need to meet a candidate three times before figuring out whether to vote for them.)
But consider the first CNN town hall Monday night, which featured Amy Klobuchar. Of the 13 questions from the invitation-only audience, 11 came from college students who hailed from Massachusetts or attended Harvard. The questions were approved by CNN and put in order by CNN. The person who actually asked the most questions was the CNN anchor.
No one should blame CNN (or Harvard or Saint Anselm, for that matter). Good for CNN on finding a way to play a major role in the presidential primary. The network has done these town halls in their Washington studios, in Iowa, South Carolina, and even in Mississippi. But CNN’s incentive is to make the campaign take place on their network and not in Nashua.
Now, Fox News has joined the game. The network is luring Bernie Sanders and Klobuchar to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin for town hall meetings, taking away time they could have spent in New Hampshire.
It’s not just cable news. Candidates have other incentives to spend less time in the early states. Some of it has to do with the hunt for new, low-dollar donors. And in a way, that’s less threatening to New Hampshire because those stops have simply replaced the closed-door, high-dollar fund-raising evenings all over the country that you didn’t know about in previous cycles.
But it was notable how on a recent Sanders campaign conference call with reporters, his top aides referred to the “first five states,” including the four early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina . . . and California. This was the first time a campaign has ever used that five-state phrasing. And it may show that candidates’ idea of an “early state” is changing.
The response from New Hampshire and Iowa traditionalists is to point to the number of presidential events in their states. And, yes, there are 20 candidates and many events. But even when the candidates are in the state, their incentive is to create great “digital moments” that can either go viral or be plopped into a fund-raising e-mail, not to let voters judge their character.
Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker are doing it the traditional way. So far, it’s not working. They are both very credible candidates who are in the state all the time. They have solid staffers, and Booker has an office. At the same time, both are in the single digits in polling in the state. One reason might be that neither have had a major viral moment.
By contrast, the front-runner in the state, Sanders, has only held two actual events for the general public since becoming a candidate. He didn’t take a single question at either event. (He did have a give-and-take event for supporters in Portsmouth this week focused on campaign strategy for those already converted.) Joe Biden, in second place, hasn’t been to the state in two years. Third in early state polling is the national media-bolstered Buttigieg.
Granted, the primary is still a long way away and polls are still reflecting name identification. Just because a candidate hasn’t caught fire yet by connecting to voters in early states doesn’t mean it won’t happen later.
Will the early states end up playing their most basic role of winnowing down the field or will other players take over?
It’s possible that the Democratic National Committee will play a big role when some candidates fail to meet the DNC’s debate criteria this summer. (Debates held on cable news networks, by the way.) It’s also possible that candidates will drop out when they realize they don’t have enough money to compete in the California primary, which will come three weeks after New Hampshire.
On the other hand, when candidates traditionally dropped out after finishing fifth in Iowa or New Hampshire, they did so because they were broke, not because of where they finished. What happens if a losing campaign gets an automatic $7 million more from recurring donations even after a poor showing in these states?
For now, back in Concord, maybe the presidential primary commission won’t happen. But an honest conversation about the threat to the primary — especially from cable news — perhaps should.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp