Judd Gregg: Why New Hampshire matters

Judd Gregg: Why New Hampshire matters

On a recent weekend, nineteen people who happen to be Republicans and think they should be president gathered in a hotel in Nashua, New Hampshire to begin to make their case to the voters of that state.  

If history is a precursor of the future, the New Hampshire primary will play the critical role in deciding the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees.  

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The first serious impact of New Hampshire was felt in 1952. Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio) — “Mr. Republican,” as he was known — was on track to become the party’s nominee. 

He came to New Hampshire and campaigned aggressively in what was then the quiet, opening round of the presidential nominating process.  

New Hampshire held its town meetings in March and in order to save money decided to hold its presidential primary on the same day. It was not planned to be the first primary in the nation, it just ended up that way.

To the surprise of both Taft and the nation, a small, upstart group headed by the then-Governor of New Hampshire Sherman Adams (R) initiated a write-in campaign for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who was in Europe running NATO.  

Eisenhower won, even though he never campaigned in New Hampshire. He went on to become president. New Hampshire had found its place as the pivotal picker of presidents.

The tradition was built on in 1964 when Sen. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.) and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller joined an epic battle for the soul of the GOP.  

Once again, New Hampshire surprised the nation as Henry Cabot Lodge, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam and did not campaign in New Hampshire, won on a write-in.   

More important, however, was what happened in the Democratic primary in 1968. A little-known senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, received such a significant vote against sitting Democratic President Lyndon Johnson that Johnson decided to not stand for reelection. This was a seismic political event and lead to the chaotic Democratic convention of 1968 in Chicago.

In 1972, the expected Democratic nominee, Sen. Edmund Muskie (Maine), gave a speech in front of the Union Leader newspaper in Manchester, which had been attacking him. He defended his wife and was reported as crying during the speech.  

It was a less sensitive time in American politics and crying by major candidates was not allowed. Although Muskie claimed people had incorrectly said he was crying when instead snow was hitting his face and melting, he never recovered from the event. He lost the nomination to Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

In 1976, a governor and former peanut farmer from Georgia with no national standing or reputation, Jimmy Carter, came to New Hampshire and ran and ran and ran in the Democratic primary. He went everywhere in the state and talked to everyone. People in the Democratic Party liked him and he won. He came out of nowhere; he went on to be president.

At a high school auditorium in Nashua, N.H., in 1980 before a massive and raucous crowd, Ronald Reagan essentially grabbed the Republican nomination by grabbing the microphone of the moderator and saying, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.”  The comment was in response to the moderator’s attempt to shut off Reagan’s microphone.    

It was a classic, unscripted New Hampshire event that changed national views dramatically.

By 1988, George H.W. Bush was Reagan’s vice president and running for the top job himself. He was supposed to cruise to the GOP nomination but something happened in Iowa: He lost to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole

Bush came into New Hampshire in serious political trouble. But he had campaigned there a great deal, over many years. People knew him and liked him. 

He beat Dole in the primary. That night, Dole was asked what he had to say to Bush. His comment, tinged with deep resentment, was “Tell him to stop lying about my record." The Dole challenge was over. New Hampshire had struck again.

In 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHoward Schultz must run as a Democrat for chance in 2020 Trump says he never told McCabe his wife was 'a loser' Harris off to best start among Dems in race, say strategists, donors MORE looked down and out. He had been accused of having numerous affairs, most memorably with a singer named Gennifer Flowers, and his campaign was waning. He came to New Hampshire, he campaigned hard, and his wife, Hillary, said she “would stand by her man”.  

Clinton came in a surprising second to Sen. Paul Tsongas from the neighboring state of Massachusetts. Clinton became the “comeback kid.” New Hampshire made it so and probably made him president.

This is just a partial list of New Hampshire’s unique impact on the way we elect presidents in this country. Some argue that because it is a small state and allegedly not representative of many parts of the rest of the country, it should not have this oversized role in choosing who leads us. This is envy talking.

The fact is that New Hampshire’s primary is critical to sorting out who should be president. It remains the only place where the candidates must actually go out, meet, talk to and answer the questions of everyday Americans.  

It is not a caucus where ideological groups have disproportionate influence. It is an election where, although the media is important, candidates cannot hide behind their Washington image-makers. They must come out and show who they are and what they really stand for. 

Without New Hampshire, our process would be even less open and more manipulated by the national anointers than it already is. 

New Hampshire is where real folks get to kick the tires of candidates. It is the place where the only thing you can predict is that something unpredictable will happen, and the nation will be better for it.

Judd Gregg (R) 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 Foreign Operations subcommittee.