By Judd Gregg - 12/12/11 10:15 AM EST
In January 1980, Ronald Reagan’s quest for the Republican nomination for president was on the ropes. He had lost the Iowa caucus to George H.W. Bush, and a pack of candidates that included Howard Baker, Bob Dole and Jack Kemp was hard on his heels. His campaign was in trouble.
Bush’s people, led by Jim Baker, wanted to make it a two-person race. They convinced the Nashua Telegraph, the second-largest newspaper in New Hampshire, in the second-largest city in New Hampshire, to set up a one-on-one debate at Nashua High School. The Reagan forces were put in a position where they had to accept the challenge or look as if they were hiding from the Iowa winner.
The crowd was enormous, with the basketball court that had been converted into a debate site charged with chanting supporters of either Bush or Reagan.
In a seminal act of American politics, John Breen, editor of the newspaper and moderator of the event, told the technicians to turn off Reagan’s microphone.
In a quip for history, Reagan responded by saying, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.”
Game, set, match. The campaign for the nomination was over, even though Reagan got Breen’s last name wrong. Republicans, especially those voting in New Hampshire, had found in Reagan the leader they wanted to take over the nation after the four years of drift and self-deprecation delivered by Jimmy Carter.
New Hampshire has continually played a key role in our process of selecting presidents. Over and over again it has allowed the nation an opportunity to observe candidates outside of the shelter of their managers and their media. It has exposed them in a light that is not filtered by campaign spin but actually shows who they really are and how they will really govern.
It also remains the only place in the process where candidates who have not been anointed by the Washington elite or who might not have significant resources have a chance to compete and, if they are serious and vibrant, make their case for why they should be in the mix.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter was a little-known governor of Georgia. He chose to run for president and campaigned throughout New Hampshire. Although he did not have the large financial resources necessary to run a truly national campaign, he had enough to deliver his message in person, in living rooms and luncheonettes across the state.
He won because he made his case in New Hampshire, without the imprimatur of the national media. In 1992, Bill Clinton replicated Carter’s use of New Hampshire as a place where an underfunded, underdog candidate could make an impact by actually going out and meeting people.
New Hampshire is the only place that creates this opportunity. Caucus states such as Iowa can be dominated by committed interest groups. New Hampshire is a primary state where there is an extraordinarily high level of participation by voters, and interest groups cannot dominate.
Those who push for regional primaries or large states to start the process miss the essential importance of New Hampshire. It allows underfunded, unrecognized but highly qualified candidates to have a forum where they can compete and have a chance.
The most recent example of this was John McCain’s win over George W. Bush in 2000. He came out of nowhere to defeat the presumptive nominee by going to every town in New Hampshire, answering questions and making his case to anyone who wished to come to his town meetings. He lost the nomination that year, but it set up his successful nomination in 2008.
The one predictable thing about the New Hampshire primary is that it is unpredictable. Because independents can and do vote in either party’s primary it is not overly influenced by the “base” vote. This produces candidates who have a much better shot at leading their party to victory in the November general election when independent voters decide the day.
New Hampshire has a track record that justifies its role in the nominating process.
In grade school, most students are taught that part of the American dream is that anyone can grow up to be president. That is an exaggeration. But it should still be possible for highly qualified people who are smart and driven to have a shot at making that dream work, even if Washington’s pundits discount them. New Hampshire is that place, and our system needs it.
Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations. He also is an international adviser to Goldman Sachs.