By Jim Splaine
Here is a warning to Nevada: Talk of New Hampshire setting our First-In-The-Nation Presidential Primary in December isn't a bluff, and it has some advantages.
Having been involved in the issue about the setting of our presidential primary since the early 1970s, I am aware of the impact on politics and our nation’s history that our voters have. I have also seen, dating back to my first participation in 1960, the seriousness and intensity that our citizens have taken in their responsibility.
Among other attributes and reasons for New Hampshire being first and foremost in the presidential selection process every four years is our record voter turnout – second to none. In other words, our residents really care about who will become president, and they're anxious to go to the polls and make their choice known.
Another reason, and really the most important for maintaining our lead-off status is that here, in our small state, we give candidates of all philosophies and ideologies of any political party an opportunity to make their case. We listen. We ask questions. We look them in the eye. We feel the firmness of their handshake. We watch carefully for their evasion of our questions or their fuzzy answers. We want to learn about who they are as human beings, not just what their consultants and years of image-making want to project.
So keeping us first and relevant is important to those of us who call New Hampshire “home.” And none of us takes it lightly when other states, whether Florida or Nevada this year or Delaware or Michigan in years past, try to reduce our relevance by piggy-backing or leapfrogging us, or squeezing us into a place we don't want to be.
The New Hampshire presidential primary isn't about us. Nor is it about taking away from the time and attention candidates spend elsewhere. It’s about keeping an important feature of American democracy where candidates stand a chance to become president not on the size of their bank account but on the persuasion of their message.
When I wrote our primary law in the mid-1970s and several updates since, I had a reason to specifically give our secretary of state the sole authority to set our date “7 days or more” before another major event. To keep politics and deal-making out of scheduling our primary, one person, our state’s top election official, makes that decision. Secretary of State Bill Gardner has used his authority carefully and well for decades. He makes no back-room agreements. He bows to no political party. His interest is only in preserving our tradition, for New Hampshire and our nation.
I'm sure he's not bluffing when he says he will set our date in December if necessary to guarantee not only that we will be first, but that we will also be relevant. And in looking at December vs. January, there are some good reasons for the earlier date. I offer a few here:
1. CANDIDATES HAVE BEEN CAMPAIGNING FOR A YEAR: They have been here and elsewhere, actually back to 2008 after the last election. What more can they say? It's about time we have an election and move to the next steps. All we need to hear are the so-called closing arguments of the candidates, and they can do that in the next six or seven weeks. By holding our primary in early December, we move the process up a notch by making our choice known.
2. A MONTH OF ANALYZING THE RESULTS: If New Hampshire’s primary is held Tuesday, Dec. 6 or Tuesday, Dec. 13, there will be up to a month of media analysis considering the results. The “Who’s-On-First?” of the polls will be replaced by “Who-Did-Well?” headlines and news stories. That makes our state even more important for all the candidates – whoever tops the ballot and whoever comes in second or does “better than expected" will have a lot to talk about. Our impact will be felt for a month instead of just a week or so. That's the reason candidates want to be on New Hampshire's ballot.
3. NEW HAMPSHIRE WILL BECOME THE VERY FIRST EVENT: If our primary is held in December, I suspect that the candidates, and the media, will spend considerable time here throughout November into December, with a brief break for Thanksgiving Day. But if we go the first two weeks of January, we will be following Iowa by a few days. Since the candidates essentially suspend their campaigning during the final two weeks of December for the holidays, we will hardly see them.
By New Hampshire moving into December, candidates get more personal time with our voters – telling us their points of view, and learning from us about real-people problems. And I have no doubt our residents can focus on Thanksgiving festivities and still pay attention to the candidates. Perhaps in other states there may be a problem, but New Hampshire voters can surely do two things at once.
What is my preference? Well, it’s not my choice. But I do see advantages to holding our primary in December. And I have worked with Bill Gardner long enough to know that Nevada officials should never consider that he is making a bluff about anything.
Secretary Gardner, under our law, has options, and one of them is the December scenario. It’s a good one. But there is another solution. Nevada moving, as he has said, “just 72 hours” from its announced date of Saturday, Jan. 14 to Tuesday, Jan. 17 or a little later gives us the chance to hold our election on Tuesday, Jan. 10. The latter date might be more appealing to many of us, and with Iowa already taking Tuesday, Jan. 3 as their caucus date it spreads the three events out by a week each.
But, Nevada: don't kid yourself. The December date for New Hampshire has advantages. We might do it. And the national Republican leadership and the candidates who would prefer that New Hampshire’s primary not be in December need to talk with Nevada's powers-who-be.
Whatever he decides, I trust that Bill Gardner’s decision will be a good one for preserving the future of an important feature of American democracy – having a small state where candidates who would be president can have a chance of launching their campaigns without lots of staff or advertising dollars. I know he accepts his responsibility with intelligence, a bit of grit, and a lot of courage to do the right thing.
From 1920 until the 1970s, New Hampshire had a primary that came first by default, but beginning in 1975 and in amendments since, we said in our state statutes that ours would be “…7 days or more" before other events that challenge our lead-off status. As a New Hampshire State Representative in 1975, Jim Splaine authored the first law that put New Hampshire's First-In-The-Nation Presidential Primary status into state statute, and has sponsored several updates since then including in 1999, 2006, and 2010.