Why New Hampshire’s Primary
Tradition Is Important By
William Gardner, New Hampshire Secretary of State October
Every four years Americans elect the most powerful leader in the world.
We go to the polls and select the man or woman who will be President of
the United States. It is probably the most important political decision
each of us makes because our choice can affect the lives and happiness
of ourselves and our children for years into our future.
DEMOCRACY IS HARD WORK. Protecting American democracy has been a cause
of freedom in our nation for over two centuries, and our fellow
citizens who have gone before us dedicated their lives, and in some
cases lost their lives, in that fight. The principles of democracy and
freedom are worth every bit of that fight.
One vital way that we preserve our democracy is to have an election
system that allows for the long-said American dream that just about
anyone can grow up to be President of the United States. Our boys and
girls just starting to go to school should feel that regardless of
their wealth or other limitations, they too could become president, or
whatever else they aspire to.
For nearly 100 years, the New Hampshire First-In-The-Nation
Presidential Primary has had meaning and relevance to American
politics. It has allowed for candidates regardless of national standing
or financial capability to begin their launch into presidential
politics by winning or doing well here. Several aspiring Americans
likely would not have become president if they weren’t first able to
make their case door-to-door, face-to-face, eye-to-eye with New
Hampshire voters who meet them at our homes, in our backyards, and on
our sidewalks away from the microphones and cameras that create a
barrier between human beings.
NEW HAMSHIRE IS FIRST FOR A REASON. While New Hampshire has had a
presidential primary since 1916, and has been first since 1920, it
wasn’t until 1975 that our status was put into state law. The law now
requires that our primary is 7 days or more before similar elections
that would challenge our traditional position.
What that law requires is that I look at the nominating events of other
states where presidential candidates run, and then set our primary a
week ahead of them. Since New Hampshire citizens pay for our primary,
we can hold it whenever we wish.
It is up to the candidates themselves to decide whether to campaign
here. Ours is the first event where voters go into the privacy of the
voting booth to make a choice for a candidate on the ballot. It tells
the nation something about their support.
CONSIDER THE ALTERNATIVES. It used to be that delegates for national
political conventions were chosen in secret mainly by party leaders,
out of view of the public. Would we tolerate that kind of process now?
And without having caucuses and primaries in smaller states, larger
states would have the exclusive major role in the nominating process.
Worse yet, if a national primary was held, or if the role of small
states was eliminated, only the very rich or famous candidates would be
able to put on the major campaigns needed for victory or to exceed
expectations. In a state like New Hampshire, candidates can run without
a large staff or heavy advertising and consulting budgets if they have
a message, meet directly with voters, and explain why they should be
president. Examples abound.
OPTIONS FOR NEW HAMPSHIRE’S PRIMARY DATE. With Florida moving its
primary earlier than originally planned to January 31st, and South
Carolina making a move to set its primary ten days earlier to January
21st, that began to limit options for setting our date in January. When
officials in Nevada set their caucus for Saturday, January 14th, that
left Tuesday, January 3rd as a possibility for us, but Iowa officials
tentatively decided that their caucus would be on that day.
My job as NH Secretary of State is to follow our law, which mandates
that I set our election 7 days or more before any event that would
threaten our traditional lead- off status. So if Nevada does not adjust
its caucus date to a later time, I cannot rule out the possibility of a
We cannot allow the political process to squeeze us into a date that
wedges us by just a few days between two major caucus states. Our
primary will have little meaning if states crowd into holding their
events just hours after our polls have closed.
The date of our primary is decided by state law, not by the rules or
desires of political parties. Since Nevada’s caucus is similar in the
eyes of our statute, it means the New Hampshire primary can be set no
later than Saturday, January 7th.
IT’S REALLY UP TO NEVADA. If Nevada does not accept a date of Tuesday,
January 17th or later for its caucus, it leaves New Hampshire no choice
but to consider December of this year. The dates of Tuesday, December
13th, and Tuesday, December 6th are realistic options, and we have
logistics in place to make either date happen if needed. Candidates
have been campaigning here, and elsewhere, for months, and it is about
time we begin the next stage of the presidential nominating process.
The political parties did not give New Hampshire its presidential
primary. Traditionally, it has been the first in the nation for almost
a hundred years, and our state law protects our tradition. We have the
largest turnout in the country, and our citizens take their roles and
But the parties do have an important role in that they can discourage
other states from trying to leapfrog onto our tradition. Right now, the
problem is the date of Nevada. We will respond as we need to in order
to honor New Hampshire’s tradition, and to keep our primary relevant.
Not to do so would allow us to lose an important element of American
democracy forever. New Hampshire will not let that happen.