MANCHESTER, N.H. – New Hampshire’s renowned for its mountains and lakes, its independent libertarian streak, and for its quadrennial tradition of being the state that holds the first primary in the race for the White House.
And this cycle, the state’s celebrating the 100th anniversary of its first-in-the-nation primary status.
The Granite State held its first presidential primary in 1916. But four years later – after Indiana decided to move their primary to May – by chance New Hampshire voted first.
In those days there were no candidate names on the ballot. New Hampshire primary voters elected delegates to go to the Republic or the Democratic convention.
But that changed in 1949, when state legislative leaders pushed to place the names of the presidential candidates on the ballot. Three years later – in the 1952 primary – voters for the first time had a chance to cast a ballot directly for a candidate. While that ‘beauty contest’ didn’t have any direct impact on the nomination race, the results were reported nationwide, giving New Hampshire plenty of attention.
The 1952 primary put New Hampshire on the map for another reason – thanks to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Estes Kefauver. The Tennessee senator was the first to make stops to meet and greet voters and court reporters. It was the start of New Hampshire’s famed retail-style politics.
And the primary grabbed even more attention that year – as Kefauver won the primary that year in a landslide, easily topping incumbent President Harry S. Truman, who later withdrew his bid for re-election.
Fast forward to 1975 – and the state legislature passed a bill allowing the New Hampshire secretary of state to set the presidential primary date earlier than any other similar contest by seven days if necessary. The law, which was later updated, has allowed longtime Secretary of State Bill Gardner (who took office in 1976) to fight off challenges to New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status from other states.
New Hampshire and Iowa – which for half a century has held the first caucus in the presidential nominating calendar – have long fought to keep their positions as the kick-off contests. They’ve spotlighted their ability to level the playing for all candidates – regardless of their campaign war chests – thanks to their small size and populations and emphasis on retail-style candidate-to-voter contacts.
But with critics pointing to the lack of diversity in the two overwhelmingly white states – as well as the states’ lack of large urban areas – the fight to keep Iowa and New Hampshire first gets tougher each cycle.