The New Hampshire primary always shifts me out of scholarly political-scientist mode and into political-news-junkie mode. And when I say ‘always’ I mean ‘always.’ I remember uninformed arguments on Portsmouth playgrounds during the 1980 campaign, when I was eight. By the time of the ’84 Hart-Mondale race I was fully a part of the culture: Meet lots of candidates, argue with them about your own pet issues, carefully consider your own preference (mine was for Hart) even if for some arbitrary reason (e.g. being twelve years old) one isn’t eligible to vote. Indeed, lots of the New Hampshirites I knew had clearly articulable preferences in both parties’ primaries, though they could only vote in one. I argued about drugs with Pete DuPont and national service with Dick Gephardt. I don’t study American politics or elections, but growing up around the New Hampshire primary surely pushed me toward political science in the first place.
New Hampshirites like to think that our primary is decisive or nearly so. Only one Democrat (Clinton ’92) and one Republican (Bush ’00) have won the White House without winning the N.H. primary since the primary system began. No one has won his party’s nomination without coming in first or second in the Granite State.
But the odd truth about the New Hampshire primary is that it doesn’t pick Presidents anymore. It doesn’t even pick nominees. What it does is put a good scare into the eventual nominee.
Consider: In 1984 Gary Hart beat Walter Mondale. In ’88 George H.W. Bush–a sitting vice-president–only managed a nine-point win over Bob Dole. In 1992, as a sitting president, he only beat Pat Buchanan by 16 in a two-man race; and Bill Clinton lost to Paul Tsongas (though narrowly enough that he was able to anoint himself “The Comeback [...]