As former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) recently wrote in The Hill, in April, 19 potential and announced Republican presidential candidates gathered together to audition for primary voters in Nashua, New Hampshire. These Oval Office hopefuls traveled to the 358th largest city in the U.S. – a metropolis whose population is slightly less than Fort Smith, Arkansas and slightly more than Nampa, Idaho – to speak to the most pandered to voters in America. 

Any observer of the American political system, at least those outside the Granite State, should wonder why New Hampshire gets so much attention. Why the focus on the less-than-one-half-of-one percent?


Maybe New Hampshire voters have a magical skill selecting presidents that gives the state a unique role in picking nominees? But, alas, they do not. The New Hampshire primary’s prominence has to end.

The case defenders of New Hampshire’s “First-In-The-Nation” status make to support its time in the spotlight revolves around the state’s propensity for the element of surprise, history and tradition, a uniquely focused electorate, and simply the inherent good judgment of the voters.

If you think a small and “allegedly not representative” state should not have “this oversized role,” then it’s just “envy talking.” Those outside New Hampshire suffer from primary envy – the condition of gazing longingly at the small northeastern state, which hasn’t grown in years, and saying “why can’t my big state make an impact.”

According to Gregg and other defenders of New Hampshire’s place as lead-off in the presidential primary line, the state places demands on candidates that are unique and essential.

Unlike a caucus, “where ideological groups have disproportionate influence,” New Hampshire is the place where you see the real candidate, who they are and what they stand for. Political spinmeisters can’t hide their candidates from an electorate of “real folks” kicking the political tires. They have to go into living rooms and diners and town halls, and answer questions from the little guy. And then presidential candidates are rewarded for succeeding in this type of retail political campaign, which may be important for city councilors or local sheriffs but has little to do with successfully managing the huge executive branch of the federal government.

Ironically, the need of New Hampshire voters to see a candidate up-close and personal belies the events that helped create the impression that the state was important in the first place. In 1952, New Hampshire voters rose to prominence by writing-in Dwight D. Eisenhower as he sat in Europe as NATO Commander. On primary day, voters rejected Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio), who campaigned in the state.

A dozen years later, voters in New Hampshire again joined together for a write-in campaign. This time, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. won the Republican primary as he was ensconced in an embassy across the globe, far from voters in Manchester, Concord and Portsmouth. (Surprising, since New Hampshire is supposed to be “the only place where the candidates must actually go out, meet, talk to and answer the questions of everyday Americans.”) 

The case against New Hampshire goes beyond its small size, its lack of ethnic diversity or its stagnant population growth. The heart of the case is simply that New Hampshire just isn’t really very good at picking presidents.

On the Republican side, come 2016, it will be 36 years since New Hampshire voters propelled a non-incumbent (a non-sitting president or vice-president) Republican to the White House. That was Ronald Reagan in 1980. Instead, the likes of commentator Pat Buchanan (circa 1996) and Arizona Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? Trump pick brings scrutiny to 'revolving door' between Pentagon, industry Trump endorses McSally in Arizona Senate race MORE (circa 2000) went on to lose the nomination battle, while McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 won the nomination, but lost the election.

And it wasn’t like New Hampshire voters plucked Reagan, the former California governor, out of political obscurity; the state was simply the first to ratify the feelings of Republicans across the country. Despite narrowly losing a straw poll from the Iowa caucuses held in January 1980, Reagan easily won the Republican nomination, carrying 44 states and collecting 60 percent of the vote.

New Hampshire voters in Democratic Party primaries hardly fare better than their Republican counterparts. Since 1952, only two non-incumbent Democrats – John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter – won the primary and the presidency. In the ten primaries without a sitting president or vice-president,  Democrats in New Hampshire voted for the eventual party nominee four times, but three of those candidates – Kennedy, Gov. Michael Dukakis and Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryMellman: Are primary debates different? MSNBC's Hayes fears Trump military move during Democratic debates READ: Trump's full exclusive interview with The Hill MORE – hailed from neighboring Massachusetts. Other victors in New Hampshire like Estes Kefauver, Edmund Muskie, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton5 things to watch in the Democratic debates Democrats leery of Sanders plan to cancel student loan debt Mellman: Are primary debates different? MORE failed to win the nomination.

While Gregg and others point to many memorable political moments in New Hampshire primary history, those events are not reasons to allow New Hampshire to continue its current role. Unforgettable happenings can occur in more ethnically diverse places too. Microphones are not only grabbed in states with 94 percent white populations. Politicians don’t only complain about others mischaracterizing their records in states where African-American residents comprise two percent of the population and Hispanic-Americans amount to three percent. A “comeback kid” can arise in most places across a country where the demographics are more representative – far less white and far more African-American, Hispanic and Asian. New Hampshire does not have a monopoly on political drama – history can occur in larger states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado or Virginia as well.

In the sixty-plus years New Hampshire has held its position in the American political universe, only one time has the state’s voters made an “unpredictable” choice and voted for an unknown candidate who ended up in the Oval Office. It was 1976. New Hampshire voted for a little known politician and he went all the way to the White House. One wonders if Judd Gregg really thinks the nation was better off because his neighbors launched Jimmy Carter into the political stratosphere?

Feld is principal at PowerBase Associates, a strategic communications and research firm based in Alexandria, Virginia.