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First-In-The-Nation Presidential Primary

By Hugh Gregg
Hugh, Gregg. "New Hampshire’s First-In-The-Nation Presidential Primary", State of New Hampshire Manual for the General Court, (Department of State) No.55, 1997.


Its Genesis and Operation

      From the founding of our Republic until the introduction of national political conventions in 1831, candidates for president and vice president were named by congressional caucus or other methods chosen by the House of Representatives.
      That same year, the Republican members of the New Hampshire Legislature elected their delegates to the first National Republican Convention in Baltimore, where Henry Clay received the Republican presidential nomination. Following his defeat by Democrat Andrew Jackson, those early Republicans disbanded. Most of them joined the Whigs and did not reappear as a formal political party until their 1856 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.
      Beginning in 1831, except for the Republicans that year, New Hampshire chose delegates interested in or committed to certain presidential candidates at town caucuses held throughout the state, then sent them to the state conventions of their respective political parties. The state party conventions, in turn, selected from the delegates those who would attend the party’s national convention where the party’s presidential nominee was eventually determined.
      By the late 1800s the railroad lobbyists wielded a powerful influence over the state’s government. New Hampshire’s Winston Churchill writes eloquently of that plight in his historical novel, Coniston. People became alienated from the entrenched political power brokers who had succeeded to the upper crust of society. Nationally, the Progressive Movement was also fighting the political bosses who controlled nominations, thus controlling elections. It was probably in reaction to the exclusionary practices of this era that reform became inevitable.
      In 1913, the nominating procedure was changed definitively when the New Hampshire Legislature substituted a presidential primary for the caucus system. This law allowed any potential delegate to be listed on a statewide ballot for election to the national convention. A candidate was permitted to sign up either as "pledged" to a particular presidential candidate or as "uncommitted."
      Unexplainably, Manual for the General Court #15 published in 1917, asserts a presidential primary was held in 1912. It was conducted by the rejuvenated Republican Party, which had been founded by Amos Tuck at Exeter, New Hampshire in 1853. Apparently it was an unofficial primary in which only its members participated. No record Of the results is given.
      The date of the first official primary was to have been the third Tuesday of May, 1916, but the 1915 legislative session, the date was moved up to coincide with traditional town meeting day, the second Tuesday of March. Upon reconsideration, frugal New Hampshirites had realized it was wasteful to light the Town Hall twice.
      In 1916, a week prior to the state’s holding its first primary, Indiana conducted theirs and Minnesota voted on the same day as New Hampshire. By the next presidential election cycle, four years later, Indiana had changed its date to May and Minnesota had discontinued its Primary altogether. Thus, since 1920 until 1996, the New Hampshire presidential primary has always been first in the nation by at least a week. Coincidentally, it was also in 1920 that the Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting nationwide it was Leonard Woods’ delegates who won the Republican primary. Winchester, New Hampshire, Woods had been military commander of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Yet, it was Warren G. Harding, not Woods, who received the party’s nomination at the Chicago Convention. Four years later in 1924, the slate of delegates for Calvin Coolidge, who had been Vice President at the time of Harding’s death, was victorious, and his election began a trend for New Hampshire’s winners succeeding to the White House.
      In 1944 a mere 18% of the registered voters turned out, and in 1948 only 27%. Thus, in the 1949 legislative session, Speaker Richard Upton, desiring to make the primary "more interesting and meaningful ... so there would be a greater turnout at the polls," initiated a widening of the primary process which permitted the voter to state preferences for presidential and vice presidential selections. By submitting fifty supportive petitions from each of the two congressional districts, any candidate’s name could be entered on the ballot. Unless a name so submitted was withdrawn by request of the candidate, it remained on the ballot. As the procedure was informational only, with no legal effect on the ultimate election, it was called "the beauty contest" and immediately caught favorable national media attention. The new law also required that delegates receive prior approval from their candidate before filing as "pledged" and created a new designation of "favorable" which did not require the candidate’s consent.
      All of these additional provisions were first exercised in the 1952 election, which date is sometimes incorrectly considered as the beginning of the tradition of the state’s first-in-the nation presidential primary.
      In the first "beauty contest" in 1952, General Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Senator Robert Taft on the Republican ballot, 46,661 to 35,838. Senator Estes Kefauver upset President Harry Truman on the Democratic side by a vote of 19,600 to 15,957.
      In 1971 the number of signatures required from each of the two congressional districts was boosted from 50 to 500 and payment of a $500 fee became a further requirement for presidential candidate filings. By 1976 voter participation had grown so intense that 391 delegates and alternate delegates filed. With the ballot so cumbersome, the 1977 Legislature entirely eliminated delegate filings. In place, it provided that any presidential candidate who received 10% of the total vote cast by his party would be allotted his choice of a proportional number of the total delegates assigned to his party.
      The new system still in effect in 1996 requires each presidential candidate to submit, prior to election day, a list of those persons he wishes to represent him as his delegation to the party convention. Those individuals, in turn, are required to submit to the Secretary of State a certificate identifying their domicile, alleging their qualifications as voters, as registered members of the same party as the candidate, and a pledge to support that candidate at the National Convention for as long as that candidate remains before it.
      Following the election the Secretary determines the number of delegates won by each candidate and notifies the candidate, who must then select from the previously submitted longer list those who will be his designated delegates and alternate delegates at the convention.
      In 1975, after an unsuccessful effort was made to introduce a New England regional primary to be held on the first Tuesday of March, the New Hampshire Legislature moved its primary back to that date or, in the alternative, on the Tuesday immediately preceding the date on which any other New England state should hold a similar election, whichever is earlier. Consequently, in 1976, New Hampshire actually held its election on the last Tuesday in February, to precede Vermont and Massachusetts which held theirs on the first Tuesday of March.
      In 1977, to eliminate any possible future encroachment on the state’s tradition of being first, the Legislature further amended the law setting the election date to read, "On the second Tuesday of March, immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold -a similar election, whichever is earlier..... By taking this action the traditional town meeting date and the presidential primary date were once again identical as they had been in 1916.
      In 1983 the Legislature no longer required petitions for the presidential candidates to qualify for ballot listing, but the filing fee was increased to $1,000. This change made it convenient for so-called "fringe candidates" to join the race.
      In 1992 the state of Delaware, anxious to share in the limelight of New Hampshire’s proven success, passed a law providing that its presidential primary would be held on "the first Saturday after the presidential primary conducted by the State of New Hampshire." New Hampshire always felt it necessary to preserve a full week between its event and that of any subsequent primary to allow the candidates sufficient time to restructure their campaign strategies based on the New Hampshire returns. A lesser candidate could get an enormous boost from an unexpected victory, or even a near-victory. Conversely, losers may decide to quit the race, thus winnowing the field. The media gain ample time to analyze the election results, particularly in Sunday newspaper editions and weekend television shows, which can also be very helpful to an unexpected victor.
      For these reasons, the 1996 Legislature tightened the law once more by providing the primary would be held "on the Tuesday at least seven days immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election, whichever is earlier." In 1996, because some other states had moved their primaries up to February 27, New Hampshire’s Secretary of State set the date of February 20 for the election.
      Nonetheless, Delaware persisted and held its primary on February 24, the Saturday following the New Hampshire primary. New Hampshire came to terms with that decision because the Secretary of State determined the Delaware primary was not "similar" within the meaning of the law. Six of the nine major Republican candidates, and Democratic candidate President Clinton, had chosen not to file in the Delaware primary in deference to New Hampshire’s tradition and its request they not campaign there. Moreover, Delaware failed to recognize the Libertarian Party, whereas there were two Libertarian candidates on the New Hampshire ticket.
      It is a bit of ironic history that when candidates sign up for the New Hampshire primary at the office of the Secretary of State, they do so on a repatriated bird’s-eye maple desk which had been repurchased by the State of New Hampshire from a Delaware museum in the 1970s for $5,000. The antique piece, which the state commissioned for $16, had been created in 1819 by a Concord craftsman as a furnishing for the opening of the New Hampshire State House.
      Also in 1996 the New Hampshire presidential primary allowed election-day registration for the first time. This resulted in 26,622 new voters, with 74% of the registered Republicans participating and, even when incumbent President Clinton was not substantially opposed on the Democratic ballot, 45% of the Democrats voted. This national high-record turnout, almost twice that of any other state, is a tribute to the accumulated legislative changes made over the years to stimulate voter participation in the state’s presidential primary process. The state has consistently led the nation in voter turnout. The popularity of the New Hampshire Primary has been further demonstrated by the fact that 67 presidential candidates filed in 1992, and 45 in 1996.
      Another significant feature to the state’s case for ease of ballot access is that New Hampshire is the only state in the country that permits a candidate to file for the office of Vice President. In fact, by paying the filing fees, the same candidate is allowed to file for both the presidency and the vice presidency. In 1984 Gerald Willis and in 1988 David E. Duke, both Democrats, did file simultaneously for both offices. Willis got fifty votes for president and 14,870 for vice president. Duke got 264 for president and 10,531 for vice President. | privacy policy | accessibility policy | site map | contact us Copyright (c) State of New Hampshire, 2012