Small But Powerful, New Hampshire Grips Its Primary Spot. But Does It Matter? A long-established tradition maintains the state holds the first-in-the-nation primary. But a changing landscape puts its relevance at risk like never before.
NPR logo Small But Powerful, New Hampshire Grips Its Primary Spot. But Does It Matter?

Small But Powerful, New Hampshire Grips Its Primary Spot. But Does It Matter?

Pins and bumper stickers of presidential contenders in the New Hampshire primary are displayed in the State House visitors center in Concord, N.H. Charles Krupa/AP hide caption

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Charles Krupa/AP

Pins and bumper stickers of presidential contenders in the New Hampshire primary are displayed in the State House visitors center in Concord, N.H.

Charles Krupa/AP

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner is expected to officially announce Monday that the state's 2020 presidential primary will be held on February 11th.

If all goes as expected, the date will be in line with a long-established tradition that puts the state's first in the nation primary a week and a day after the Iowa caucuses.

But in New Hampshire, the date isn't official until Gardner says it is.

For decades, picking that date has been central part of New Hampshire's strategy for keeping its grip on its first-in-the-nation spot. State law requires that the secretary of state not only picks a date, but that date must be a week ahead of any "similar election."

That power has helped Gardner, the nation's longest-serving top election official, build a legendary reputation as guardian of the New Hampshire primary. But a changing political landscape has put the relevance of New Hampshire's primary at risk like never before.

"Maybe it's not fair ... "

In Gardner's more than four decades on the job, he has faced down other states that tried to usurp the power and attention that comes from being first, not to mention the national political parties, most often the Democrats, which have also tried to take control of the election calendar.

New Hampshire's Secretary of State Bill Gardner walks by the historic desk where presidential candidates file their paperwork to be on the nations first presidential primary ballot, in Concord, N.H., in 2011. Jim Cole/AP hide caption

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Jim Cole/AP

New Hampshire's Secretary of State Bill Gardner walks by the historic desk where presidential candidates file their paperwork to be on the nations first presidential primary ballot, in Concord, N.H., in 2011.

Jim Cole/AP

But each time, Gardner came out of those battles looking like a hero.

As Gardner put it in 2000, "We understand the concerns in other states, you might think it's not fair that one state goes first all these times. Well, maybe it's not fair that A is the first letter of the alphabet or Sunday's the first day of the week or January is the first month."

A legendary battle

1999 was one of those years that people in New Hampshire truly believed could be the end of the New Hampshire primary as they knew it.

Gardner heard that Delaware wanted to move up their primary (you can hear that story in episode 4 of Stranglehold, the NHPR podcast about the NH primary), so he decided to announce that New Hampshire's primary date would be a week earlier than the political world was expecting.

It also conflicted with Iowa's plans for its first-in-the-nation caucus. Iowa had already announced their caucus date, but Gardner's date would ruin the traditional 8-day span in between the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. Iowa would be forced to move their date back, which put them right in the middle of an annual pork convention.

"Holy buckets, it was interesting," Rob Tully recalled in a recent phone interview. He was the head of the Iowa Democratic party at the time. "Basically it came down to this. I'm just going to cut to the chase. 'This is bulls***. We're New Hampshire. And God damn it, you should move.'"

In essence, Iowa party leaders were faced with a logistical nightmare — they'd have to redo all their plans for the caucus and holding it near this pork convention would be an additional headache.

"People come from all over the world to this convention here in Iowa. This isn't like you know hey we're having a stand and we're going to have some barbecue pork ribs out at the fairgrounds. I mean this thing is huge," Tully said.

But Gardner wasn't budging, and Iowa wasn't either.

Campaigns and reporters weren't sure when or where to book hotels. Iowa party leaders flew to New Hampshire to try and negotiate in person (more about this meeting, and other stories from primary history, in episode 1 of the Stranglehold podcast). The meeting was apparently so tense that the Iowa secretary of state had to be physically restrained from starting a fist fight.

But Secretary Gardner wouldn't budge. And in the end Iowa was forced to move their caucus.

"There was a lot of pressure on Bill, and he didn't, he really didn't even blink," said Steve Duprey, then head of the New Hampshire GOP. "Some will say he's a curmudgeon, he's inflexible. He was doing what he thought was right to defend the supremacy of the primary."

Existential threats

These are the kinds of stories that have built the legend of New Hampshire as this small but powerful state that's gripping tightly to its privileged spot.

That level of drama is not expected to accompany this year's announcement, but New Hampshire continues to face threats, only these days they're more existential. And sometimes its candidates picking the fight.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro has been openly criticizing both New Hampshire and Iowa for its lack of diversity.

"Demographically, it's not reflective of the United States as a whole, certainly not reflective of the democratic party, and I believe other states should have their chance," Castro said on MSNBC.

New Hampshire and Iowa have long faced criticism, often from Democrats, about the demographics of their populations, but 2020 marks the first time candidates are making the case while actively seeking the White House.

Another perceived threat: the Democratic National Committee's high thresholds for making the national debate stage. Some in New Hampshire worry that this process is becoming more nationalized, which takes away some of the first primary state's power to impact the race.

Some candidates, including New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton, have even cited those thresholds as reasons for dropping out before testing their candidacy in Iowa and New Hampshire.

It remains to be seen if these things will lead to actual change in the 2024 election calendar, but if past is any indication, New Hampshire would likely fight back.