John E. Sununu

No state can out-primary New Hampshire

By John E. Sununu
February 28, 2011

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FOUR YEARS ago the Michigan Democratic Party, determined to make their 2008 presidential primary more prominent, pulled the election forward from early March to Jan. 15. Although their ultimate goal was to upstage the traditional first-in-the-nation status held by New Hampshire, they failed miserably. Both of the national parties imposed sanctions for violating their rules, candidates pulled their names from the ballot, and the Michigan primary was reduced to an afterthought.

Adding insult to injury, Hillary Clinton came from behind to defeat Barack Obama in New Hampshire, initiating one of the most competitive nominations in recent memory. As a result, the defining contests occurred March 4 when Barack Obama held his own in Texas and Ohio and solidified his delegate lead. Had the original March date been kept, Michigan would have played a pivotal role, potentially restoring momentum to the Clinton campaign. Instead of being the single most important contest in the 2008 presidential election, Michigan became an unfortunate lesson in political arrogance.

For those with really short memories, no need to worry. Florida is about to repeat many of the same mistakes. Florida’s position as a swing state and host for the 2012 Republican Convention may put it in a somewhat different light, but its party bosses seem to be buying into many of the same misperceptions. As a New Hampshire voter, I have a natural bias toward our first-in-the-nation primary. But it may save a good many Floridians embarrassment, and Granite Staters aggravation, to take a hard look at reality.

Let’s start with results. The primary process is intended to help parties measure candidates and choose the best possible nominee. For Democrats, the current system enabled both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to build an organization and national profile and overcome popular, well-funded frontrunners. For Republicans, Ronald Reagan, George Bush 41, and George Bush 43 all emerged from crowded fields to take both the nomination and presidency. Regardless of how you feel about their service in office, it seems pretty clear that these individuals, and by extension their parties, benefited from the modern primary set-up.

New Hampshire’s relatively small size levels the playing field for lesser-known and underfunded candidates. It also allows candidates to present a message and agenda directly to voters without having to rely disproportionately on 30-second sound bites. In a smaller state, hard work, local campaigning, and good organization can overcome the advantages of a big war chest or high name ID. The face-to-face nature of personal campaigning better reveals the candidates’ strengths as well as their weaknesses.

Equally important, the state is without a single dominant economic interest. It isn’t a big energy producer, or financial center, or dependent on agriculture. A diverse economy ensures that competing interests are more fairly represented. We also avoid the embarrassing scene of otherwise serious politicians going to Iowa and immediately promising to protect ethanol subsidies.

Candidates — and reporters — also love the fact that New Hampshire voters take their job extremely seriously. Year after year the numbers prove it. In 2008, 526,571 ballots were cast in a state with a total population of roughly 1.3 million. No state can match that record.

Ironically, this level of engagement often leads candidates to mistakenly assume they have more support than they actually do. In 2000 and 2008, I made this point to friends in both parties running for the presidency. They drew wonderful crowds and had a great time campaigning, but neither made it into February. In New Hampshire, just because someone is enthusiastic to meet you, hear your message, and talk politics doesn’t mean they are going to vote for you. We do this every day.

As the Republican and Democratic leaders in states like Florida or Michigan contemplate a new primary date to grab a little spotlight, they should first think long and hard. New Hampshire’s unique tradition, size, and engagement create value for voters nationwide by putting candidates to the test and revealing the results for all to see in real time in an age of digital media.

They should also be wary of another very basic truth: we will hold the primary whenever we need to in order to be first. In fact, the New Hampshire legislature — which happens to be Republican — has invested our secretary of state — who happens to be a Democrat — with the power to set the election on any day he chooses in order to maintain that status. We’ll hold it on New Year’s Eve, or the week before Christmas, or Thanksgiving Day. And voter participation, interest, and turnout will be just as high as ever.

In New Hampshire, the primary is what it should be — a process for interaction, conversation, and selection, not just a date on the calendar. States that view it simply as a date all but guarantee that they will fail to recreate, and certainly never supplant, our role. Like Michigan, however, the chances will be excellent to be embarrassed yet again.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.