HAS NEW HAMPSHIRE'S PRIMARY OUTLIVED ITS USEFULNESS?
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
LOS ANGELES -- The Democrats may be rethinking the primary system - that strange process where Iowa and New Hampshire get to tell the rest of the country who the presidential candidates are going to be - and the Des Moines Register is sounding nervous.
The story broke early in December, as the Register explained in a Dec. 9 story by Thomas Beaumont:
The credit some Democrats gave Iowa for launching John Kerry's presidential campaign has turned to disdain since the Massachusetts senator's loss to President Bush. But scorn alone can't undo a 30-year tradition, Iowa Democrats say as Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe prepares to unveil a commission charged with recommending a 2008 nominating schedule
New Hampshire's Union Leader chimed in with a Dec. 11 article written by John Distaso (www.theunionleader.com/Articles_show.html?article=48193&archive=1). Distaso explains:
McAuliffe agreed in 2003 to establish the commission as part of a deal to end a serious challenge by Michigan Democrats to New Hampshire and Iowa's joint role as leadoff states for the Presidential nominating process. Iowa traditionally holds a caucus a week before New Hampshire's primary. Michigan Democrats, led by Sen. Carl Levin and DNC member Debbie Dingell, were preparing to hold a primary on the same day as New Hampshire's, when McAuliffe stepped in and agreed to set up the commission to study the entire nominating process. The panel was formally created by the Democratic National Convention last July.
The story has surfaced in the world of weblogs (where I found it, actually), as Mickey Kaus, writing in Kausfiles, remarks, "The ‘30-year tradition' of Iowa's first-in-the nation caucuses is in jeopardy! That can't be. After all they've done for the party. ..."
There are a few possible reasons why the Democrats might want to keep the first primary in New Hampshire and the first caucuses in Iowa, but they tend to break down under scrutiny. The most obvious reason for maintaining the status quo is that the system is already in place, to change it would require lots of effort, and it would certainly engender bad feelings among the party faithful in Iowa and New Hampshire. One might refer to this as the argument of inertia.
Another argument made by the New Hampshire faithful is that the residents of that state are special. They don't exactly put it that way, but the sense of entitlement shines through. The Union Leader story quotes former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen:
"But the best argument for New Hampshire is how engaged in the process the voters here are," Shaheen said. "If you look at some of the other states that moved up their primaries and caucuses to earlier dates this year, they didn't have the kind of participation that we did. "Everyone involved in the process, from candidates to national reporters, talked about how important the process is here and how unique New Hampshire is. We give a rare opportunity for voters to question candidates about their visions for the country one-on-one in their living rooms and town halls and town squares," Shaheen said.
Apparently the citizens of Maryland or North Carolina would not be capable of participating at the marvelous level that the wise and learned residents of Manchester, N.H. can generate. We should look forward to seeing how this argument plays out in the new commission's deliberations.
Maintaining the current system might be justified if it could be shown that it produces decent results, even if one simultaneously objects to it on egalitarian grounds. This turns out to be the most laughable of all the arguments. As evidence, one merely has to type these few words: Muskie, Hart, Dukakis, Tsongas, Kerry. This is not to challenge them as bad people, but just to point out that none ended up as the resuscitator of liberalism in the White House.
Michigan's excuse for challenging the New Hampshire primary's position is based mostly on demographics. As quoted in the Union Leader story, "Michigan officials' biggest complaint about New Hampshire and Iowa are that they lack racial and ethnic diversity. They also complain that no two states should have such a huge influence on the nominating process."
Overall, the arguments pro and con sort out into what we might call the opportunistic and the egalitarian. As to the first, perhaps one might more charitably use the term "practical" rather than "opportunistic," but the idea is simple: Does it work for the Democratic Party and, more importantly, does it work for the country? The second class of arguments are more theoretical - arguments of fairness in essence - but important nonetheless.
The practicality argument falls flat for obvious reasons. The presidential election defeats of 1972, 1984, 1988, 2000 and 2004 show that something is wrong. These obvious failures might be enough by themselves to replace Iowa and New Hampshire, but it may also be useful to consider why they failed.
Yes, it is true that Iowa and New Hampshire are peculiarly white and caucasian compared to the national average. The United States as a whole is approximately 75 percent white, 12 percent Black and 12 percent Hispanic. By contrast, Iowa is 94 percent white. New Hampshire is 96 percent white. (see Infoplease.com or the U.S. Department of Agriculture site.) This is probably more an issue of fairness than practicality. Democratic candidates have run well in minority precincts. It is the white males they need to win over.
But what is even more peculiar about these two states, something largely ignored by the press, is their high fraction of rural voters. Using a set of criteria based on whether people live in or near a city, the Dept. of Agriculture categorizes the states by fraction of "metropolitan" residence. The average for the country as a whole is 79 percent.
In other words, just under four-fifths of Americans are city dwellers or suburbanites. Only about one-fifth live away from urban areas.
New Hampshire is considerably more rural than the national average. At 62.5 percent urban, and with it's urban population living in relatively small cities - Manchester, the largest has a population of 109,000 - it is substantially different from the industrial states that traditionally were the strongholds of northern Democrats. Iowa is even more rural. It scores as only 44.5 percent urban.
By contrast, among states that were thought to be "in play" during the last election, the following all have urban populations in excess of 80 percent: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada.
In other words, Iowa and New Hampshire are whiter and less citified than the big-city industrial states that vote Democratic in the North, the Midwest and the West.
Perhaps this shouldn't matter. After all, the traditionally Democratic states mostly voted for Kerry the last time around. Adding a little rural taste to the nominating process while holding onto the industrial urban strongholds would be a defensible strategy if it worked, but it obviously has not worked all that well.
There is another reason, almost unnoticed among the pundit class, that may explain a little better why this system has not worked well for Democrats. I think of it as the Yankees vs. the Rebels.
Right after the election this November, a few Kerry supporters began circulating the map of the pre-civil war era states, the free vs the slave states if you will. If you add the territories of the mountain-west (not yet admitted as states) to the slave states, what results is a pretty good approximation of the red states in the 2004 election.
Northern and western Democrats looked on the maps with anger and resentment. They took it as some sort of residual racism, anti-north animus, lingering religious hostility or all of the above. What they didn't do was to consider things from the other side.
If you turn the telescope around, so to speak, you will notice things a little differently. Let's look at the map. New Hampshire is bordered by Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont. Much of its population lives close enough to Boston to get Boston television and radio.
Guess who wins the New Hampshire primary most of the time? If we look at the last ten winners of the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, we find three U.S. Senators from Massachusetts, one Governor of Massachusetts and one Senator from Maine. (If you're treating this as a quiz, the answers are Kennedy, Tsongas, Kerry, Dukakis and Muskie.)
One might think about the special qualities of the New Hampshire voter so praised by its former governor and then consider that these geniuses rarely manage to discover any political talent beyond driving distance of Manchester and Nashua.
Even Bill Clinton lost the New Hampshire primary in 1992 and only won it in 1996 while running as an incumbent.
From the perspective of the rest of the country, it is discomfiting that this one little corner of the far northeast has, in effect, dictated who our presidential candidates are going to be a considerable part of the time. From a southern or western perspective, it might be stated like this: If you insist on offering us a candidate from your little region of the country, then it is up to you to convince us to vote for him. So far, you haven't done a very good job.
That is the practical side of things. There is also a question of fairness. It can be summarized simply: Who appointed New Hampshire to be the most important state in deciding the next president? Nobody. They just took it. They hold onto it by our inertia, and because they retaliate at the polls against any candidate who would dare to suggest changing the primary season.
What particularly rankles is the fact that running for president, as practiced for several decades, has become the practice of candidates kissing enough Granite State posteriors to win a plurality. Let's look at the former governor's remarks once more: "We give a rare opportunity for voters to question candidates about their visions for the country one-on-one in their living rooms and town halls and town squares, Shaheen said."
This is a remarkable sort of conceit covering a really remarkable privilege. Wouldn't the rest of you like to share in that privilege once in a while?
For this reason alone, it is worthwhile to give other states a chance to go first. It is long since time that New Hampshire stops having the right to make all the rest of the states wallflowers at the dance. It is a great luxury to have the next president of the United States visit you in your home or over pancakes at the diner down the road. It is a luxury that should be passed around.
On this note, it is particularly important that the press keep a close watch on the deliberations of the new commission. There will be enormous pressure to maintain the status quo by those who have a vested interest in it. For there to be reform, public pressure will be required, and for this to happen, the media will have to find out what is going on at the new commission and publish it.