The image on television and in the papers is of a civics teacher's wet dream: A state of ordinary citizens coming out en masse to pick the top contenders to lead the nation but only after they have soberly and carefully vetted each candidate.
"Are you going to vote for candidate Smith?" "I don't know, I've only met him twice," goes an old and oft-repeated joke about New Hampshire.
The reality is less inspiring. Now, New Hampshire residents do come out to vote. Turnout hit an all-time high of 53.6 percent in 2008. That sounds impressive until you realize that that was a year with two highly contested primary races and Barack Obama at the height of his messiahhood. The previous cycle, when only the Democratic race was contested, turnout was just 23.5 percent.
In any event turnout in the general election was 64 percent in 2008, meaning that Granite State primary turnout still lagged behind the national average. They're not any more attentive than the rest of us, maybe less.
Those that do come out to vote do not help the notion that this is pure grassroots politicking. Go to one of the candidate events in the state and you'll see why. The attention these voters regularly receive every four years from politicians and journalists is unlike anything people in any other state get expect for Iowa. It warps the process.
I'm leaning to Candidate X because I chatted with him at my neighbor's barbeque this summer, one resident might tell you. Then again, they might vote for Candidate Y because that's what they said when they were interviewed on MSNBC.
Famous reporters greet veteran local activists like old friends from years back, because that's what they are. Talk to these voters and they're likely to respond in perfect soundbytes because they've been talking to reporters since at least Reagan's day. In New Hampshire everyone is the love child of Karl Rove and James Carville.
Who are they voting for? Well, that's tough. Many genuinely agonize. Others just refuse to make up their minds. And why should they? All the attention is placed on the undecideds, so why give that up? Ever wonder why the number of voters who cannot make up their mind in New Hampshire polls is always so high?
Candidates lavish attention on these voters in the hopes that they can catapult them to front-runner status. So they forego campaigning in other states in the hope that everything can start here. Sometime next week Jon Huntsman will wake up and realize he wasted six months of his life trying to persuade stubborn Granite staters to like him.
That's assuming you can even find voters to talk to. It is not uncommon for the number of reporters, campaign staff and various activists to completely dwarf the amount of ordinary people at an event. And some of those probably aren't even from New Hampshire.
That's because the candidates don't campaign like this in other states, so political junkies come up here to see them. Reporters swap frustrated stories of conducting interviews with undecided voters only to discover that they live in Boston or somewhere else.
And yet it all matters. Bill Clinton managed to win the presidency in 1992 without winning either the Iowa Caucus or New Hampshire primary but he is the only president in recent decades to do that. His second place finish in New Hampshire was successfully spun as a win anyway because it followed the Gennifer Flowers scandal. (Remember "The Comeback Kid"?)
The sane thing to do would be to scrap Iowa and New Hampshire's right to the early contests and rotate them among different states each election cycle. Why should the presidential primaries be less democratic than the Super Bowl?
Other states have periodically tried to do exactly that by setting their primaries earlier. New Hampshire party leaders have typically acted like the other states had just hit their wives. These officials jealously guard the state's status and the attention they get from wanna-be presidents. It is actually state law that the New Hampshire primary be first in the nation. They've strong-armed the Republican National Committee into accepting this too. Party rules ensure that Iowa and New Hampshire always go first.
Don't expect the local media to upset the status quo. Do you think the Manchester Union Leader wants to diminish its role as a Republican Party kingmaker?
The major national newspapers and networks won't do anything either. Most of them have long since bought into the myth of New Hampshire as a great example of pure grassroots democracy.
As I write this Mitt Romney has a double-digit lead in most primary polls. A win here will cement his status as the Republican Party front-runner, giving him a solid boost going into the South Carolina primary. How many of you readers think that is the best possible outcome for the party or the country?
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