Hugh Gregg’s Commentary
It is a tenet of our democracy that anyone can grow up to be President. For the last half century our presidential primary has paved the road to the White House. To get there, "anyone" must first join a political party, accumulate enough delegates to become the nominee of the party, and win the national election. Politically friendly New Hampshire has been the quickest, easiest, least expensive and most effective place to start. It draws the focus of worldwide attention.
There are a few sardonic columnists like Mike Royko who believe New Hampshire should "move its primary back into the pack where it will receive the attention it really deserves - which is none." He thinks the primary system is "wacky" anyway and eulogizes the days when political bosses chose the candidates in party conventions. His enlightenment in that conclusion is about as spotty as his statements that President Eisenhower was the product of the convention system and that "New Hampshire is a political molehill of a state"
Columnist David Broder was far more perceptive in observing: "Every four years, someone will ask why a nation this large, this diverse, lets a couple of hundred thousand voters in an out-of-the-way comer of this country decide who should be president. The answer is obvious. Nobody does it better."
I think most members of the fourth estate would concur with a Boston Globe editorial: "Toppling two presidents (Truman and Johnson). Kneecapping front-runners like Taft, Muskie and Mondale. Introducing future presidents like Eisenhower, Carter and Clinton. New Hampshire voters know how to size them up and lay them out. Rarely has the rest of the nation disagreed."
Still there are those who cling to the musty argument that our citizenry is not sufficiently representative of the American electorate to speak for it. They allege we don’t have enough Asians, Mexicans, Eskimos or assorted others to be a true cross-section of the general populace. Maybe we don’t, but who does? Except for neighboring Vermont, where they say the cows outnumber and have more sense than the voters, we’ve got more "Ay’up" Yankees than any other place. So who is to determine which minorities best represent the American dream?
With the advent of satellite television, Internet and other electronic technology, we must admit that the outer layer of our primary is changing; but, at the same time, as the Concord Monitor has said, it's "not losing its character." It is less of a homespun cottage industry. More and more, the media, professional spin doctors and political consultants from out of state are calling the shots. Peter Steiner has an appropriate cartoon of a mother standing next to a voting machine with her four-year-old son, explaining, "It’s called voting, sweetheart, you push one of these levers, and all those awful men leave New Hampshire."
Fortunately all of this superficial sophistication does not diminish the importance of what we do. This is the sole venue where the candidates have the opportunity to interact with real people. We have the time to look them in the eye and test their handshakes. The winners are never preordained here by collective media assessments, fat financial coffers or renowned political gurus. Author Theodore H. White wrote that "the reporting of 40 to 50 senior political correspondents can determine the outcome of an American presidential election." Not so in New Hampshire.
Still the press attempts to predict New Hampshire election results before the votes are cast. CBS’s 60 Minutes, for example, in 1996 had to shelve their expensive production designed to prove that money could buy our primary when it appeared that the excessive spending of candidate "Steve" Forbes was not going to pay off.
Before 1996, presidential primaries in all other states were held after New Hampshire’s in February and were on a staggered schedule extending to the summer. The front loading in 1996 resulted in more than two-thirds of them voting by the end March. "That, in turn, restricts the candidate field to those who have the great personal wealth or have access to those with wealth (to raise $25 million before the primary season starts)," said Curtis Gans, Director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. Ibis reasoning stirred a movement to substitute alternating regional primaries and to include New Hampshire in one of them.
Even if the country’s lawmakers should decide to have regional presidential primaries, the nation would be best served by continuing to exempt New Hampshire from that scenario. Genuine "grass roots" presidential campaigning remains alive here, whereas the term has become no more than a word of eardearment in most other places. New Hampshire serves the nation by winnowing the weak sisters before the key races begin in the other states.
Not to be overlooked in New Hampshire’s importance is the opportunity it provides for that "anyone" to fulfill his or her dream. Dreamers come here from every state, from all walks of life, to take the gamble of becoming President of the United States. When Billie Joe Clegg learned that Senator Phil Gramm was going to buck tradition by filing in the Delaware primary, Billie chastised the senator, "You’re going to try to take away my chance to run for President by destroying this place up here. Shame on you." And as Secretary of State, Bill Gardner commented to the press, "If it wasn’t for New Hampshire, they wouldn’t have a chance."
The Secretary is correct. Nonetheless It is unlikely that a lesser known candidate would win or, even if he or she did, that they would become the nominee of their party. Perhaps the most exceptional "fringe" candidate who beat the better knowns and made it to the presidency was the former peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, although he had previously been the Governor of Georgia.
Many who come can ill afford the $1,000, and some feet a call from God, but all have a common thread. They love our country, they have a message, they want to make a contribution, they feel the nation is not well run and they can do it better. Sure, a few may only seek the publicity, but they pay dearly for it. Most of them believe the adoption of their innovative ideas would create a better place in which to live. From my interviews of the fringe candidates I am convinced the overwhelming majority is sincere, no matter how outlandish some of their platforms may appear. Some realistically don’t expect to win, Others honestly think they will. There’s a third category who don’t think they’ll win yet suppose a miracle could happen and they would.
Do we no longer believe anyone can grow up to be president? Are we then to deprive "any one" of the lesser knowns even the opportunity of running for the presidency? I hope not.
Of much greater concern than whether we restrict the New Hampshire ballot to well known and/or well-financed candidates is the future of the entire presidential primary system. In 1996 the two states that came closest to us in voter turnout were Oregon and North Dakota, both of which used mail-in ballots. Gone from those states are election days and Polling places with all of the trappings of the time-honored election booths and registration procedures.
In 1996 even the United States Postal Service aborted tradition by publicly advertising "Voting by mail ... increases voter participation - it broke all records in Oregon. It gives voters plenty of time to make a decision. It eliminates waiting in line to vote, and the Problems that keep people away from the polling place, such as bad weather, age or physical handicaps." Sounds like the Postmaster General never heard of absentee voting. The ad continues, "If voting by mail works in Oregon, why not in other states, or even nationwide?"
In this depersonalized cyberage it may not be long before we go the next logical step to ease voting technique. The voter need only sit in front of his TV set with a pre-registered remote electronic device cropped securely in his hand. A ballot will come up on the screen. He’ll press the button for the candidate of his choice. His vote will be instantly transferred by phone line or TV cable to a computer in Washington, D.C. There, in some megaplex, votes will also be recorded on-line from Internet or a satellite system controlled by the Federal Elections Commission, making it possible for the simultaneous participation of Americans from anywhere in the world. At the end of an authorized twelve-hour voting span, the computer will print out the total voting results. The President will have been elected.
It’s only a short step from picking our presidents by licking stamps to picking them by television. If we continue to employ space-age technology, politics will become no more than a spectator sport competing with football games on the tube.
Voting "made easy" has already gone too far. What has happened to the civic responsibility we used to feel for exerting at least a modicum of effort to support the election process? We took such pride in our right to vote. Setting aside an hour or two on election day to go to the polls was a voluntary, patriotic duty eagerly performed.
In the past century New Hampshire has led the nation in both ballot access and voter participation. It was our state legislature which, on January 5, 1776, was first in the nation to spark a government of the people, for the people and by the people.
I believe it is a responsibility for our legislators of the 21st century to promulgate the traditions of our unique democratic election process which has so well served the nation for the past two hundred years.
This history was written by Hugh Gregg who was elected Governor of New Hampshire in 1952 and participated in all presidential primaries since that year In preparing his presentation Governor Gregg personally interviewed the lesser known candidates who filed in 1996. He has also written two books about the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primaries: The Candidates: See How They Run and A Tall State Revisited.