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How New Hampshire Got Its Primary And Held On Tight

Voting gets under way at Broad Street Elementary School in Nashua, NH. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Voting gets under way at Broad Street Elementary School in Nashua, NH. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

As N.H. voters head to the polls, we look back at the history of the state’s outsized influence in presidential elections and whether it’s time to loosen the Granite State’s grasp on primary politics.


Lauren Chooljian, politics reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio and host of the Stranglehold podcast. (@laurenchooljian)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Megan Messerly, politics reporter for the Nevada Independent. (@meganmesserly)

We Called Out To Listeners: ‘Where Should The First-In-The-Nation Primary Be Held?’

Voters by phone

Jill from Portland, Maine called and proposed an alternative to the current primary system. Instead of one state gripping on the title of first-in-the-nation, she thinks the position should be shared.

“I’ve been thinking about this and it just hit me. Why is it the same two states every year? Why couldn’t it be rotated? And, I really can’t say which state it should be instead of New Hampshire, because I don’t think it should be any one state. I think it would be really interesting over the next 20 years or so to try rotating to different parts of the country. And let two states, let’s say from the South, two states from the West. Or maybe mix it up: South and West, East—you know, whatever. But it just blows my mind that for so long, we’ve been relying on Iowa and New Hampshire. Why?”

Nancy from Tinmouth, Vermont called us to make the case for either a bigger state or a group of states to claim the first-in-the-nation primary. 

“Like many, I think that the first two primaries are in states far too small and far shy of a sense of diversity to make a good lead into the primary season. … My argument is that it should either be a state large enough and diverse enough to reflect a broader collection of thought and opinion, in the least. Or, like Super Tuesday, should be enough states to be representative of the nation.”

Voters on social media

Cathy Kirchner: “The first in the nation primary should be the last. All should occur at the same time on the same day so everyone gets an equal say.”

Bonnie Here: “No single state should be first. There should be either regional primaries, or — like another person suggested — states from different Census Bureau regions should be grouped together for primaries. There is too much importance placed on the individual early states. I also believe we should have ranked-choice voting.”

Jeff Johnston: “Maryland and Illinois, because both are more demographically similar to the racial and economic medians in the rest of the U.S.”

From The Reading List

The New York Times: “‘Losing Friends’ Over How She Covers The New Hampshire Primary” — “The other day, Lauren Chooljian received a text from her father, a lifelong New Hampshire resident, that said: ‘You’re losing friends in nh.’ She knows, Dad.

“Ms. Chooljian, 32, has become a divisive figure in her home state because of her job: co-host of ‘Stranglehold,’ a podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio that, as its name suggests, takes a not always flattering look at the Granite State’s treasured first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

“So far, ‘Stranglehold’ has had 16 episodes of varying lengths. An 11-minute episode included a discussion of how the botched Iowa caucuses may affect the New Hampshire primary, which takes place Tuesday. A deeply reported 55-minute episode revealed how the election sausage is made in Dixville Notch, the White Mountains community celebrated by national news outlets for its tradition of midnight voting.

“The primary is ‘protected and upheld by powerful people who stand to benefit from its survival,’ Ms. Chooljian said in one episode. ‘And so reporting that doesn’t interrogate that institution, well, it seems to apply a different standard to the primary than to other important political forces.'”

The Boston Globe: “Kill the tradition: N.H. and Iowa should not vote first” — “A hundred years ago, New Hampshire blazed a trail as the first among 20 states to hold a 1920 presidential primary election. It is a tradition that has endured for the century since, and will repeat on Feb. 11 — a fact owed not just to custom, but to the state’s leaders and voters clinging to their power to shape elections, and thus, the nation.

“In Iowa, where chaos has ensued since Monday night’s caucus results have been called into question, leaders have been just as reluctant to relinquish their decades-long disproportionate influence over the country’s presidential elections as the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

“The first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire has also, frankly, been a source of influence for the Globe, a way for this editorial board to play kingmaker alongside New Hampshire voters. But this year, we are holding our endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate until after the New Hampshire primary.

“Sometimes, it’s more important to stand up for what’s right than what’s in one’s own interests: More important than wielding our influence on a single small state’s primary, we believe, is to call for the end of an antiquated system that gives outsized influence in choosing presidents to two states that, demographically, more resemble 19th-century America than they do the America of today.”

NBC News: “Dixville Notch keeps its historic place for the New Hampshire primary” — “After months of suspense and uncertainty, the first-in-the-nation midnight voting tradition in Dixville Notch will continue for the 2020 primary.

‘”We’re thankful that it is,’ Tom Tillotson, one of the remaining residents of Dixville Notch and son of Neil Tillotson, the orchestrator behind the town’s midnight voting tradition, told NBC News. ‘When when we started, we had nine voters. Now we’re down to five, and this is the smallest we’ve ever gotten.’

“The midnight vote has captured international media attention since 1960, allowing news outlets to report the first ‘results’ of the primary cycle from the famed Balsams Resort after the poll closed once every resident had cast a ballot. But it almost didn’t happen this year, after Dixville Notch nearly missed the minimum threshold for residents of voting eligibility to be deemed a township.

“After the 2016 election, the state attorney general scrutinized the Dixville Notch voter checklist amid concern that not all of its voters were residents of the town. Election officials mandated that the town must have five residents to fill the state-required positions to oversee an election.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.