Magazine article The American Prospect

Primary New Hampshire

Magazine article The American Prospect

Primary New Hampshire

Article excerpt


NASHUA, NEW HAMPSHIRE--Political lore says that George Bush (pere) lost the 1980 primary when he sat grinning dumbly as Ronald Reagan proclaimed that he had "paid for this microphone" during a debate here.

Of course, that this is not true (the debate merely helped turn a loss into a rout) matters less than its being part of the political culture in the state where Ed Muskie cried (or perhaps didn't) in the snow, George Romney said he was brainwashed, Eugene McCarthy's antiwar students stunned Lyndon Johnson, and a minor candidate named Ned Coll held up a rubber rat during a nationally televised debate.

The bit of lore that most worries George Bush (fils), as well as Al Gore, is this: New Hampshire voters take a perverse joy in bringing down early front-runners.

Once again, the lore is a tad off, though Barry Goldwater, Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, and Bob Dole might not think so. The decline of early front-runners here says less about the perversities of New Hampshire voters than about the inanity of early polls: They measure a public opinion that does not yet exist. The results would be the same no matter which state went first; the numbers would change once people started paying attention.

Which is not to deny that this place is weird. Campaigning here is personal, an invigorating contrast to the television-dominated, consultant-driven politics of everyplace else. New Hampshire voters insist on physical presence--it's their own version of habeas corpus. (The state's signature joke: Old-timer Number One: "Who ya gonna vote for?" Old-timer Number Two: "Dunno yet. Only met each one of them twice so far.") This kind of personal contact also renders money less important, giving an underfinanced candidate a chance to become a serious contender.

The first primary is fun. The political community--the candidates, their staffs, the academics, the reporters--takes over for a week. They party. The hotel lobbies in Manchester and Concord become political kibitzing centers. The restaurants are full of leakers and leakees performing their rituals over expense-account meals. Locals flock to the hotel bars at night to see the celebrities. No, not the candidates. The anchormen.

But why New Hampshire? Why should these 1.2 million people--four-tenths of 1 percent of the country, 98 percent of them white, none of them required to pay a state income or general sales tax, and many of them influenced by the absurdly right-wing Manchester Union-Leader--be granted this much influence every four years?

Well, despite a study revealing that most New Hampshire primary voters do not meet the candidates in person, the fact is they could if they wanted to. There is hardly a citizen here without a friend or neighbor who hosted a coffee klatch for a candidate. The same cannot be said for residents of Illinois or

New Jersey, California or New York. More important, the folks in those other states might not be up to the job. …

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