Just over a month ago, I was about to embark on my first trip to New Hampshire in January of a presidential election year with seventeen students in tow. We were to spend 16 days together for a January-term course titled New Hampshire Presidential Primary Politics. The course had several components including class in the morning, students working 20 hours of campaign work each week (on a campaign of their choosing), meetings with various professionals whose work is related to presidential primary politics, and attending as many house parties, town hall meetings, and candidate rallies as possible. As I finish writing this post, we are anxiously awaiting the outcomes of the New Hampshire primary. Travelling to New Hampshire with my students provided an opportunity to experience the excitement of primary season firsthand, but also allowed us to reflect on the ramifications of the state’s privileged position in the primary calendar.
New Hampshire has been the first primary since 1920, a time when these contests had no formal bearing on how delegates attending the national party conventions selected their nominee for president. Primary elections would become the mechanism by which the Democratic Party (and Republican Party, too) informed delegates who to select as their nominee beginning in 1972. The 1976 campaign of Jimmy Carter, a little known candidate from Georgia, demonstrated how spending a lot of time getting to the know the first-in-nation-primary voters and winning the first primary, could create enough momentum to win enough votes across the nation’s primaries and caucuses to become the Democratic nominee for president. In short, Carter’s campaign showed the value of investing heavily in retail politicking in New Hampshire, and ever since New Hampshire has fought to maintain its first-in-nation primary status. And almost every candidate fighting for the Democratic party nomination for president has followed Jimmy Carter’s lead.
Because of this, we knew to expect many opportunities to interact with the presidential candidates – Manchester has been the most visited city by presidential candidates since the Fraser-McGovern reforms adopted in 1972. And we also went in questioning what that means and whether it’s fair for any one state to hold such a special status in a democratic process. But for all of our preparation, we just could not understand what we were about to experience.
Being in New Hampshire in January of an election year was like a dream come true for us. From the very moment we arrived we were overwhelmed and dazzled with all of the candidate billboards, the constant play of candidate advertising on television, and the dizzying number of opportunities to attend house parties, town hall meetings, rallies, and other candidate events. But in between being caught up in the excitement of everything New Hampshire had to offer, we pressed on in our critical analysis of why New Hampshire gets this privilege and what that means for the viability of candidates from minoritized populations. We tried to untangle the effects of the mostly white populations in Iowa and New Hampshire getting the first votes in the primary process, and the qualifying demands placed on candidates to be able to get on the debate stage. Where was the equity we would expect to see in such a critical process in our election system? What would the candidate speeches and platforms look like if the first-in-the-nation caucus and primary were more demographically reflective of the nation at large?
Given the exciting atmosphere of election season in New Hampshire and our existential questions about our nation’s political processes, my students and I experienced a mixture of thoughts and emotions. We were falling in love with the New Hampshire primary experience. It was unlike any other we could have imagined. Nothing compares to being able to listen to a candidate talk for 45 minutes uninterrupted, to an audience of about 50 people. Even the large candidate rallies with the electric atmosphere of so many supporters cheering and raising their signs, left us feeling as if we had just participated in something really special. We were able to attend events for, and meet almost all of the presidential candidates.
We took many opportunities to talk with New Hampshire voters at events we attended and learned very quickly that voters take their time to make up their mind about which candidate to support and they feel a tremendous responsibility in how they cast their vote knowing that how a candidate fares in New Hampshire can determine their fate. We individual voters speak about how they at times, will cast a vote for a candidate who isn’t necessarily their favorite choice, but who they thought needed to be able to move beyond New Hampshire in order to keep their idea alive in the conversation. Other voters spoke of the anguish of trying to decide between the “ideal” candidate choice and the “pragmatic” choice. The New Hampshire voters we spoke with were knowledgeable and they take the responsibility of casting the first votes very seriously, but still we were left wondering, what would it be like if some other state(s) had the privilege of voting first?
What we never could have anticipated happening once we were back on campus and into the first weeks of the spring semester, was the debacle of the Iowa caucus. Some of us left New Hampshire feeling as if Iowa and New Hampshire would forever hold their privileged positions in the primary calendar. But now, suddenly it feels as if what occurred in Iowa has provided an opening. In other words, the mishaps of technology in Iowa might be the catalyst for change that we need. At the very least there appears to be more conversation in the past week questioning why the Iowa caucus exists, which provides an opening to push for wider reforms to the nominating process, at least on the Democratic side.
During one of the last classes with my students in New Hampshire, I gently suggested we might want to think about what actions we could take back on campus to advocate for changes in the nominating process. When we meet again tonight to watch the New Hampshire primary election returns (the first time we will have gathered as a group since our return to campus), I will ask them again: what are we going to do? I am confident my students will answer energetically with different thoughts on how we might advocate change. My confidence comes from knowing that they learned deeply through their experiences in New Hampshire. They have the knowledge, and more skills than they had before to organize and raise their voices. This is the type of learning outcome I had expected; providing students with opportunities to find their political agency, to build social capital, and to add tools and resources to their repertoire ensures our students are leading the way into the future.
Addendum: The results of the New Hampshire primary did surprise some. While Bernie Sanders came in first place as was expected, not many expected how closely Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar came in behind in second and third place. It was a little disconcerting to see many public proclamations (both in the media and on social media) exhorting Warren, Biden, and the other candidates to drop out of the race based on the results of just Iowa and New Hampshire, two contests who collectively represent only 65 of the total 1991 delegates needed to win the nomination. Shouldn’t more voters that are more representative of the Democratic Party be able to weigh in on who the party nominee will be?
Nina Kasniunas is a guest contributor for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.
Nina Kasniunas is an Associate Professor in Political Science at Goucher College. She regularly teaches courses in American politics including: The American Political System; Congressional Politics; Presidential Politics; Organized Advocacy; The Election 2020; and Education Policy. Dr. Kasniunas’ research interests center on organized interests within the American political system. She has written on the campaign strategies of organized interests, using re-enactment of Supreme Court oral argument in the classroom, gay rights, and how the Bush administration used the courts to advance religion. Democratic engagement is a core concern for Professor Kasniunas; she leads a range of efforts on and off campus to engage students. Her efforts in improving student voter engagement on campus led to her receiving the faculty standout award from the ALL In Democracy Challenge.