New Hampshire Losing Influence (reprinted from Newsday, January 9, 2000)

By Darrell M. West

With the New Hampshire primary less than a month away, commentators are rushing to decipher all the latest pre-election polls and debates. Will Arizona Sen. John McCain upset Texas Gov. George W. Bush? Can former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley defeat Vice President Al Gore? How is the overall race shaping up between the major parties?

But all this breathless coverage of New Hampshire contest omits a crucial point: With changes in the primary calendar and the strategies major candidates are pursuing over the long haul, New Hampshire has lost its importance in the nominating process. Candidates no longer have to win the first primary in order to become their party's nominee.

All the scrutiny of this year's New Hampshire primary has induced many reporters and political professionals to overlook the recent signs of the state's slippage out of political prominence. In 1992, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton lost the New Hampshire primary to Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, but went on to become the Democratic nominee. In 1996, Republican commentator Pat Buchanan defeated frontrunner Bob Dole, yet Dole easily secured the GOP nomination.

Indeed, it has been more than a decade since New Hampshire played the dominant role that we still ascribe to it today. The 1988 election was the last that saw the each of the candidates winning the Democratic and Republican New Hampshire primaries (Dukakis and Bush, respectively) go on to capture their party's nomination. And even that year may have been an aberration: In 1984, for example, the eventual Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, lost New Hampshire to Gary Hart.

What accounts for the diminishing importance of this once hotly contested political territory? There is, first of all, the matter of temperament. New Hampshire is more independent-minded than much of the rest of the country. Specializing in ``sending them a message,'' New Hampshire voters love to confound the experts and surprise frontrunners who have taken them for granted. Candidates who do not spend days and weeks in the state leading up to the primary often lose, to the glee of the locals. But while these defeats may embarrass front-runners, they are far less fatal than they once had been.

There's also the question of demographics, an increasingly vital element of our political process. Here, too, New Hampshire doesn't even begin to resemble the leading demographic profiles at work in contemporary politics. Southern Republican primaries feature a heavy preponderance of fundamentalists; Democratic industrial-state primaries draw many minorities and union members to the polls. But New Hampshire is a mostly white, non-union state featuring a low proportion of fundamentalist voters. Since New Hampshire is not a microcosm of the entire country, candidates who run well here often cannot translate their success to other regions. And conversely, candidates who have lost there rarely see their failure diminish their performance in other primaries.

In 2000, New Hampshire also finds itself crowded out of the center of the action. This primary season is more front-loaded than ever, with Delaware, South Carolina, Arizona, Michigan, Virginia, Washington, New York, California and most other Southern states staging primaries within five weeks of the New Hampshire vote. Roughly three-quarters of all delegates to the major party conventions will be chosen by the end of March, a remarkably short interval for the selection of delegates.

In this frenetic schedule, it is harder for dark horses to break out of the pack and earn a bounce from a surprise victory in the Northeast. Either Bradley or McCain, or possibly both of them, could win in New Hampshire and not have the time to build organizations and develop support in other states, given the rush of early primaries elsewhere.

In the past, when New Hampshire played a more dominant role, a surprise winner there had several weeks to raise funds before having to compete in the big states with lots of delegates at stake. The long nominating process gave dark horses more of a chance to compete nationally if they did well early in the process.

This year, nobody has the luxury of much time after New Hampshire. As challengers, both Bradley and McCain have been forced to employ the common presidential dark-horse strategy of having to target a handful of states early in the process. When challengers face a front-runner with stronger organizations and national visibility, they invariably have to focus their resources in early states to remain competitive.

While this approach makes sense as a political strategy, it can also be a big obstacle to building the kinds of organizations effort in other states that are needed for national victory. Both Gore and Bush could lose New Hampshire, but run well in other states later in the electoral calendar owing simply to their superior organizations.

Even with a loss to Bradley in New Hampshire, Gore holds the advantage of strong support from the party establishment and elected officials around the country, although Bradley has done well at raking in his own campaign money. Gore leads in the race for super-delegates, the convention seats set aside for party leaders and elected officials. Around 520 of the 799 super-delegates, or 65 percent, have already committed to the vice president, compared to a fraction who have announced support for Bradley. Two-thirds of Americans feel the country is headed in the right direction, which bodes well for a sitting vice president. Unlike past years, which have seen New Hampshire upsets derail front-runners, there is not much voter anger present among the electorate.

On the Republican side, Bush has money and organizational strength to compensate for a New Hampshire loss. His major rival, McCain, who is not even competing in the Iowa caucus, has organizations in place in only a handful of states. McCain also has only one-quarter the cash the Texas governor has amassed, which will make it difficult to capitalize on a New Hampshire upset. A number of Republican primaries also feature winner-take-all elections, which will allow Bush to wrack up big delegate totals even if he wins narrowly over McCain.

At the start of any presidential campaign, it's natural to elevate the stakes of the first primary in which real voters cast ballots. After months of polls and straw votes, we all are curious to learn who is going to lead the country into the next century. But that doesn't change the long-term consideration that our first primary voters no longer determine who will win the nominations of the major parties.