New Hampshire Democrats race to pull first-in-the-nation primary from uncertainty
Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, sits in the Anita Freedman room of party headquarters in Concord. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)
This story was updated at 8:40 a.m. to correct Bill Clinton’s finishing place in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. He finished second.
It’s no secret how revered Bill Clinton’s 1992 New Hampshire presidential primary comeback is by the state’s Democratic Party.
But in case anyone forgot, the party built a shrine.
Inside the Anita Freedman Conference Room in the state party’s headquarters in Concord hang hundreds of buttons from the Arkansas governor’s first presidential campaign, the colors still sharp behind the glass.
Clinton used New Hampshire to turn around a flailing campaign, rocked by claims of an affair and a fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. Through eight days of door knocking, handshakes, press conferences, and small-scale events, the campaign turned a 20-point polling deficit into a second place finish behind Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas.
That political turnaround – and New Hampshire’s role – has encouraged political heads in the state for three decades.
“It means that the voters (in New Hampshire) give every candidate a fair shake, and that campaigning one on one makes a difference,” said Ray Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, who also presided as chairman in 1992. “Bill Clinton’s energy level, that he’s able to campaign literally around the clock, hitting all-nighter Dunkin’ Donuts or bowling alleys or any of the places that he would go to, he put in the work to meet enough (voters) to revive his candidacy.”
It’s a message Buckley has been returning to lately. New Hampshire’s status as the first presidential primary state in the country has rarely passed an election cycle without scrutiny and criticism from other states. But this year, the state Democratic Party is preparing one of its biggest defenses of the position yet.
In a decision last month, a key subcommittee of the Democratic National Committee opted to put New Hampshire and all other early nominating states in the hot seat. The Rules and Bylaws Committee designed an application process by which all states – even those with 100-year first-in-the-nation primary histories – must apply for the top five positions.
Under the process, New Hampshire’s state party was required to send a letter indicating the state’s interest in being among those top five. Then, party leaders will submit presentations to explain and defend that interest by June 3. By July 15, the subcommittee will make its recommendation on the calendar order. The DNC will later vote on it.
Buckley sent the state party’s letter of intent to apply for the state’s spot last week. And state Democratic leaders, such as Joanne Dowdell, the party’s representative on the national Rules and Bylaws Committee, are working behind the scenes to convince the committee that New Hampshire’s small size, engaged electorate, and experience running the elections justify its primacy.
But New Hampshire’s bid is complicated by a growing interest within the DNC and among Democratic voters nationally to diversify its early primary states. While the state’s overwhelmingly majority white population has long made it the subject of criticism, that concern has become more vocal in recent years. In its resolution, the Rules and Bylaws Committee singled out those concerns, asking applicants to make the case based on “racial, ethnic, geographic and economic diversity and labor representation,” according to the New York Times.
Currently, 89.8 percent of Granite Staters are white, not Latino or Hispanic; 4 percent are Latino; 3 percent are Asian American; and 1.8 percent are Black, according to the U.S. census.
Nevada, one state making a play for the top spot, is 29.2 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 47.2 percent non-Latino white. New Jersey, another state eyeing the first primary, is 20.9 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 15.1 percent Black.
Buckley says the lack of population diversity is not a disqualifying factor for the state. The chairman has often argued that as long as New Hampshire is joined by South Carolina and Nevada as the early voting states, presidential candidates will still have to face diverse electorates.
But this time around, with the DNC pushing the early nominating states to directly prove their own diversity, Buckley has built on that argument, claiming that the state has diverse elected leaders, even if the population itself is less diverse.
“The number of elected officials that are LGBTQ, that are young people in the Legislature or elsewhere, people of color that hold county office, that hold state office, that hold local office, it’s been far above the population,” he said. “But what it means is that they may have the ability to have those one-on-one conversations with the candidates.”
One of those elected officials named by Buckley, Rep. Manny Espitia of Nashua, agrees that New Hampshire should remain first, citing the organization and efficiency of the state’s processes and the challenges presented to candidates. But while Espitia says he understands the concerns about diversity, he argued they sometimes feel like a lack of acknowledgement of the populations that do exist in the state.
“A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, New Hampshire is a very white state.’ In a way, whenever they say, ‘Oh, there’s no people of color who live there,’ it kind of makes us feel like the people who do live here are erased,” said Espitia, the House Democratic floor leader.
And he argued presidential primary candidates shouldn’t sideline those populations either.
“If people try to ignore the diverse populations in this state, then come primary day, they’ll see what happens,” he said. “I think one of the reasons Bernie (Sanders) did really well here in 2020 (is) he won a lot of the Latino districts, and he ended up doing really well in Nevada.”
Among national Republicans, meanwhile, diversity considerations have not driven concern about New Hampshire’s position. On April 14, the full Republican National Committee voted in Memphis to approve Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada as the first four states to vote – a day after the Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee opened the matter to applications.
To New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Steve Stepanek, the national party’s decision did not happen by accident. Stepanek, who was appointed party chairman in 2019, has worked to create an alliance with Republican state chairmen in those states specifically to shore up support for the traditional calendar.
“The four ‘carveout states’ actually put together a reception, invited all of the 168 members of the RNC,” Stepanek said in an interview. “Over 100 of them showed up and pledged their support to the carveouts there. So we’ve put together a very coordinated effort to make sure that things stayed the same in the Republican Party.”
From Stepanek and state Republicans’ perspective, the debates among Democrats might not ultimately matter. New Hampshire’s secretary of state is bound by statute to change the state’s primary date to as early as it needs to be in order for the state to hold the first primary.
“We are going to jump ahead as a state,” Stepanek said. “And that means the Democratic primary is going to jump ahead as well as the Republican primary, because it’s a state-run election.”
For now, reform-minded national Democrats appear to be more focused on Iowa’s position in the primary calendar than New Hampshire’s. In 2020, extreme technical disruptions to the state’s Democratic caucus attracted unwelcome attention and criticism of that state’s role.
That flawed election is the main driver of the DNC’s push for a re-evaluation this year, Buckley argues, and could lead to Iowa being scrapped from the Democrats’ lineup entirely.
“I think that there’s always an effort to be fair,” he said of the committee. “And so I think that might have caused some people to think: ‘Well … instead of just saying we’re doing this one thing to one state, let’s kind of create a conversation about all of the four or potentially five (early primary) states.”
The potential for national Democratic reform could splinter what has been a traditionally unified goal for New Hampshire Democrats and Republicans: defending the first primary.
If the DNC votes to remove Iowa from the start of the Democratic nominating calendar, Republicans will not follow suit, Stepanek said. In Iowa, parties run the caucuses, not the state, so their timing could theoretically be split.
“The Republican caucus will go off as scheduled, and then we will be behind them, because that’s been the commitment that the four carveout states have made,” he said.
And if New Hampshire is recommended for displacement by the DNC’s rules committee, the secretary of state will simply move the primary date ahead for both parties, Stepanek said. Whether the DNC could impose penalties on the state party or on presidential candidates who take part in that primary is an open question.
Asked if he was nervous ahead of the July decision, Buckley laughed.
“I’m always nervous,” he said. “I always expect the unexpected, when you lead a party in an evenly divided state.”
But he said primary doomsayers should have faith.
“I think that it’s important to understand that while a lot of this is played out in the public, the vast majority of it is not,” he said. “And a lot of it is about relationships, a lot of it is about conversations that occur.”
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