The New Hampshire primary, explained

CONCORD, New Hampshire — The New Hampshire primary tonight could provide the Democratic race for president with some much-needed clarity after the Iowa caucuses devolved into chaos last week.

It’s likely no such chaos will happen in New Hampshire, which has a traditional secret-ballot primary and whose voters use paper ballots.

When voters in this small New England state head to the polls on February 11 (polls close by 8 pm Eastern), they will be fighting for a portion of the state’s mere 24 delegates — less than 1 percent of the pledged delegates in the Democratic nominating contest. But if history tells us anything, there’s a lot more on the line than delegates. Because the primary is a far different kind of election than the Iowa caucuses, the outcome here won’t necessarily confirm Iowa’s results.

“In New Hampshire, you’ve got to appeal to a whole bunch of independents,” attorney and longtime politico Bill Shaheen (husband to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen) told me last fall. Undeclared voters, often referred to as independents, make up 42 percent of the total registered voters in the state — but they hardly vote as a bloc.

Political experts here are watching to see if history repeats itself with another win by Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont. Sanders won the 2016 New Hampshire primary handily and is still considered the favorite to win with a plurality. In the RealClearPolitics polling average of New Hampshire, he’s currently 7.4 points ahead of his closest competitor, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and ahead of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who are tied for third.

If the Iowa caucuses showed us anything, it’s that a lot can change before the actual vote. It’s worth noting that New Hampshire voters make up their minds notoriously late in the process.

“I have not made up my mind,” North Conway independent voter Nancy Stewart, 72, told me in early January. Stewart was stuck between Warren and Klobuchar but was also waiting to see Buttigieg speak. “I’ll make it up probably the day I go in” to vote, she said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a town hall at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire, on September 25, 2019.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Many Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents here are experiencing the political indecision racking the rest of the country. The polls have been shifting over the past couple of months, and just like the party as a whole, many are obsessed with finding the most “electable” candidate to beat President Donald Trump.

“I want that guy out so bad, I can’t even tell you. Getting Trump out, that’s No. 1,” Conway voter Mike Manson, trying to decide among Klobuchar, Biden, and Buttigieg, told me.

A strong New Hampshire finish can breathe new life into the top three candidates’ campaigns. Those who finish lower will find the primary to be another nail in the coffin.

Still, the rules are different this year, and by the time New Hampshire results are reported, thousands will have already started voting in the Super Tuesday states. As historically important as New Hampshire has been, it may be standing between the Democratic Party of old and a new, more diverse one.

“It is a privilege based in no rationality at all that we’re not going to give up,” Dover voter Jeremiah Dickinson said to me at a recent Warren town hall. “I think the criticisms of it are valid.”

Who could win in New Hampshire in 2020 — and who needs to

Political experts are watching to see whether Sanders can reprise his blowout New Hampshire win of 2016. The senator from Vermont has maintained a hold on his neighboring state; though he’s likely nowhere near repeating his 22-point win against Hillary Clinton four years ago, he has broken away as the frontrunner in the RealClearPolitics New Hampshire average, with Buttigieg in second and Biden, Warren, and Klobuchar all essentially tied for third.

RealClearPolitics

New Hampshire is key for all four frontrunners to win — not for amassing delegates, but for the much-needed momentum it bestows.

“Someone who wins is a winner; if you lose, you’re a loser,” said University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith. Candidates want to downplay expectations, then overperform them come election night.

New Hampshire’s primary could be make or break for Sanders (who won it in 2016), Warren (who, like Sanders, hails from a neighboring state), and Biden (the national frontrunner). “Who has the most to lose, it’s really Sanders and Warren, but Biden too — he’s the former vice president,” Smith told me. “If any of those three underperforms expectations, they may have to drop out. There’s not enough room for all three of them.”

Buttigieg and Klobuchar — building on Friday’s strong debate performance — could have the most to gain by overperforming expectations, political experts told me.

“[Klobuchar] has the most to gain by a New Hampshire win, but she’s also in the weakest position,” Smith said. “If [Buttigieg] performs even as well as expected, that would be a boost for him. This is the first time he’s in a general election format and that he’s able to go toe-to-toe with the big guys.”

Why winning New Hampshire is such a boost

New Hampshire wields a substantial amount of political power — this year more than ever following Iowa’s muddled caucus results. Historically, no major-party nominee has won the nomination without coming first or second in New Hampshire. Winning here, all else equal, increases a candidate’s expected share of the primary vote by 27 percentage points, political scientist William Mayer wrote in 2004.

This small New England state has a well-documented history of elevating underdogs and leveling frontrunners, and political experts here told me it’s as likely to have a “dark horse” candidate surprise as much as it would be for the top three to finish well in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders campaigns at the University of New Hampshire in Durham on September 30, 2019.
Preston Ehrler/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The very fact that New Hampshire has a traditional secret-ballot vote could give it extra importance in 2020.

Out of New Hampshire’s total 24 Democratic delegates up for grabs, 16 are district-level delegates (eight per each of the state’s two congressional districts). The rest are made up of current and former party officials and prominent activists. Candidates need to reach a 15 percent threshold in order to receive delegates, and delegates will be awarded in proportion to the percentage of the primary vote each candidate wins in each district.

New Hampshire’s one-person, one-vote primary — contrasted with Iowa’s public caucuses — could serve as a clarifying moment after Iowa.

How to win the primary

Face-to-face voter contact with presidential candidates is the classic New Hampshire playbook.

The state’s living rooms, diners, and school gyms have traditionally been the test sites of a candidate’s authenticity and ability to answer questions. The idea is that not only do voters in these states help “vet” candidates, but a barrage of questions also better prepares them for the job of president.

“We are so spoiled, we can go up and meet any candidate that’s running,” Merrimack voter Chuck Mower told me. “They beg for our attention.”

The Granite State got its influence for upending conventional wisdom around elections; it first rose to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s when not one but two incumbent presidents — Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson — lost the primary and subsequently bowed out of the race. In the 1970s, voters in New Hampshire and Iowa decisively replaced party bosses who once got to make backroom decisions about who would be the nominee.

John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy greet potential voters in Nashua, New Hampshire, on January 25, 1960.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

“It was said back in the days of John F. Kennedy that primaries … were basically like horse races, where party bosses would see how the horses played,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor and primary expert Dante Scala. “That’s still true today about New Hampshire — it’s just you all have replaced the party bosses as the ones watching and scrutinizing the results.”

The state upended conventional wisdom again in the 2016 primary when its voters chose Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Sanders and Trump each rode a populist wave that disregarded both the establishment picks and the traditional New Hampshire way of campaigning. Both men prioritized huge crowds over intimate town halls and retail politics, and eschewed diner stops in favor of filling theaters, gymnasiums, and stadiums with thousands of cheering supporters.

New Hampshire had the highest primary turnout of any state in 2016 with 52 percent, compared to 15.7 percent for Iowa, 30 percent for South Carolina, and just 8 percent for the Nevada caucuses, according to data from the US Elections Project. Given the state’s relatively small size, that still left the consequential decision of the primary up to just 542,459 people; more than the 357,983 Iowa caucus-goers and 159,216 Nevada caucus-goers, but less than half of the 1,118,468 voters who turned out in South Carolina.

The political electorate here is highly engaged; even though it’s home to a little over 1.3 million people, New Hampshire has a big 424-person state legislature. Politics is somewhat of a local sport here; retail politics, one-on-one conversations with voters, and no-holds-barred town halls are the name of the game.

The primary has also allowed New Hampshire’s issues to have a spotlight on the national stage; in 2016, the state’s deadly opioid crisis became a flashpoint in both the Republican and Democratic primaries.

For all the time and money being poured into engaging voters here, it’s still stubbornly unpredictable. With more than 40 percent of the state’s registered voters undeclared to any political party, New Hampshire is tricky to poll.

At the same time, New Hampshire and Iowa have also been coming under increasing scrutiny for their outsize role in picking presidents. Some former presidential candidates criticized the states for being too white and rural, and a recent national poll from Monmouth University showed a majority of voters in favor of getting rid of Iowa and New Hampshire going first and replacing them with a single, national primary.

Some think New Hampshire and Iowa should give up being first

Some presidential campaigns have been downplaying both states’ importance and looking toward Super Tuesday on March 3 as their real make-or-break moment.

Biden’s campaign and advisers spent part of the fall telling reporters their diverse coalition would carry Biden to Super Tuesday, even if he lost the first two states. And last week, Warren’s campaign manager Roger Lau sent out a memo to supporters telling them the campaign plans to stay in for a while, even anticipating poor early state performances like Biden had in Iowa.

Joe Biden embraces 16-year-old Graham Sundstrom while attending a firefighter’s chili event and canvass kickoff in Concord, New Hampshire, on November 9, 2019.
Erin Clark for the Boston Globe via Getty Images

“We expect this to be a long nomination fight and have built our campaign to sustain well past Super Tuesday and stay resilient no matter what breathless media narratives come when voting begins,” Lau’s memo read.

Candidates who have enough money could stick it out until Super Tuesday.

As the Democratic Party becomes increasingly diverse — in 2018, an estimated 39 percent of the Democratic electorate identified as something other than white — New Hampshire is in an increasingly awkward position for playing such a large role in the presidential nominating process.

New Hampshire has a vested interest in continuing to be first; it’s a huge boost to the economy and the small state’s national profile. It clings to the “first” status, helped by a state law that allows the New Hampshire secretary of state to set the date of the primary a week before any other state that might try to go before it (a big part of the reason Iowa goes before it is that it’s a caucus state).

But every year there are challenges to its power. People in the Democratic Party, including some former 2020 candidates like Julián Castro have openly questioned why two predominantly white states get to hold such power over the presidential nominating process.

“I actually believe we do need to change the order of the states because I don’t believe we’re the same country we were in 1972. … Our country’s changed a lot in those 50 years,” Castro said on MSNBC this fall. “What I really appreciate about Iowans and the folks in New Hampshire is that they take this process very seriously. At the same time, demographically it’s not reflective of the United States as a whole, certainly not reflective of the Democratic Party, and I believe that other states should have their chance.”

Castro has a point; the US Census estimates New Hampshire is 90 percent white; in Iowa, it’s 85 percent. By contrast, the United States as a whole is just 60 percent white. The concerns of black and Latino voters, while represented in other early states Nevada and South Carolina, still don’t have as much power as the first two states, simply because of the order of the contests.

Still, all of the top-tier candidates — the ones with the most to gain from winning Iowa and New Hampshire — aren’t rocking the boat this year, saying that Nevada and South Carolina round out the diversity the first two states lack.

“I think Julián raises an important issue,” Warren told reporters recently. “I am very glad the process we use right now is that we go to four states in four weeks right at the beginning. It’s very different states, very different sets of issues that go on. There is no process that’s perfect, and people are going to continue to talk about it, but I am delighted to be here.”

Scala, the UNH political expert, said he could see national Democrats more seriously contemplate a calendar change in 2024 if Iowa or New Hampshire selects a nominee who ultimately loses to Trump.

“When they lose a presidential election, they tend to look to their nomination process for flaws,” Scala said. “The losers do tend to want to tinker with the process in order to try to produce better results the next time around.”

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