"Once upon a time there was something called 'The New Hampshire First-In-The-Nation Presidential Primary.'"
Hopefully that line won't be written in a future history book, relating a long-lost election process that kicked off with our Presidential Primary. We have had our "first" status for decades only because we vigorously defend it when it is threatened. When we begin to negotiate it away, we stumble down the path toward losing it. Our Primary itself can become past history if we let some politicians put their interests ahead of the interests of democracy.
I go back a long way on this cause. As a little pup in 1960 I passed out brochures in my neighborhood for a young presidential candidate from a next-door state who seemed to talk to my generation, although he seemed mighty old. In 1968 I supported his younger brother because a needless war was killing my college friends. In that election, I saw first-hand the importance of our Primary.
So in 1975, when our lead-off status was being widely threatened, I sponsored a bill in the NH Legislature that wrote into law that our Primary would be scheduled by the Secretary of State "...7 days or more..." before others. Through the years I sponsored four updates to that law to protect our tradition, including most recently this past June, to guarantee that we will hold the first primary AND that it would not be followed within a week by any state.
Our state law mandates that our Secretary of State must set our Primary "...7 days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election..." . The bill I sponsored this year, signed by Governor John Lynch, further requires the Secretary of State to "protect the tradition of the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation presidential primary." That "tradition" is that our Primary be at least 7 days earlier than any other event other than the Iowa Caucus, because that has indeed been our tradition since the 1970s.
We have the first primary because we pay for it, and thus we can schedule it when we wish. It has never ever been a "gift" from the political parties. In fact, both national Republicans and Democrats have for decades tried to figure a way to eliminate our Primary, but they cannot because we have it in our law that we will hold it before others. Since we're a small state and have much experience in holding elections on short notice, we can wait until late in the Presidential election season to schedule our date, which keeps others from being able to piggy-back on us.
Unfortunately, national political interests are at it again, and earlier this month the Democratic National Committee -- with the blessings and cooperation of our New Hampshire DNC delegates -- has approved a schedule that if not challenged would set a Nevada Caucus just four days after New Hampshire's Primary in 2012. For the first time ever there would be another major event within the seven days after New Hampshire.
Why do we have to keep this from happening? It is our relevance and impact, not just that we are first, that makes our Presidential Primary important. Candidates come here and work hard to win because they get a bounce, a launch, for their campaigns that will affect the next round of primaries and caucuses. But if the impact of New Hampshire's choice is felt for just four days, from a Tuesday to a Saturday when the national story of the election is re-written by another contest, then we become less meaningful.
It is the actual power of doing well in New Hampshire that has rocketed some presidential candidates into success on the national political scene. Consider that if Ronald ("I paid for this microphone...") Reagan had not won here in 1980, he likely would not have received the nomination. If Jimmy Carter had not won in 1976, or Bill ("the Comeback Kid") Clinton had not done "better than expected" with his 2nd place finish in 1992, history would have been different -- for better or for worse.
Consider how victories or "beating expectations" helped Gene McCarthy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, Gerald Ford in 1976, Gary Hart in 1984, George Bush in 1988, and what about John McCain in 2000 and 2008? Plus, in 2008 Hillary Clinton's victory over Barack Obama, which followed Obama's win in Iowa just a few days earlier, changed the Democratic nomination season and likely made Obama a stronger candidate for the November election.
The national parties cannot eliminate our Primary, so now with the DNC approach, their attempt is to make New Hampshire less important. If we don't challenge their attempt, in 2016 a series of states could line up with their events immediately following New Hampshire. It could get to a point that candidates pick-and-choose as to whether they want to compete here. If they know that they could put their energies into winning an event or two just a couple of days after New Hampshire, our Primary would soon become a footnote. We might still be "first," but we could be meaningless.
While the Democrats played games with our Primary, the Republican National Committee did the right thing, and came up with a schedule that simply sets aside February, 2012 for the states of New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada to hold their events, thus leaving it to the states to finalize the dates. The Democrats should have done the same.
But there is still time to correct their error. All Democratic candidates for national or state office from top to down -- and Republicans too -- should pledge to support our current state law protecting the tradition of our Primary. There may be efforts to change it in the 2011 Legislature, and a Democratic Party leader has already indicated there is time for more "tinkering." Our candidates should pledge not to allow that to happen. Our law has preserved our status well, and we should not allow anyone to deal away, negotiate down, or compromise on the New Hampshire First-In-The-Nation Presidential Primary.
Our Primary doesn't belong to Democratic Party insiders. They can't play "Let's Make A Deal" with us. Don't let them tinker with it. Our Primary belongs to the people.
NH State Representative
Rockingham District 16
Portsmouth & Newington