What is the point of the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary?
Usually the answer to that goes something like this: Starting the process of campaigning in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire subjects would-be presidents to voters’ up-close-and-personal scrutiny. A significant percentage of voters get to meet, question, and carefully assess the candidates.
Donald Trump’s victory makes a mockery of this conceit. It turns out that you don’t need to do many town halls and retail stops shaking hands at small restaurants: As long as your competition is divided enough, you can win New Hampshire with celebrity-level earned media and demagogic speeches to arena-sized audiences.
Worse, thanks to the open primary system, you don’t have to represent the views of the party nomination you’re seeking. Trump, like Pat Buchanan before him, has won New Hampshire with a brand of populism that is repellant to much of the Republican base. John Kasich has come in second, just as Jon Huntsman came in third in 2012 with a comparable percentage in a less fractured field, by running away from his conservative record: The former House Budget Committee chairman who in 1995 proposed a 5% budget cut and a spending freeze thereafter for the National Institutes of Health now calls for the NIH budget to be doubled.
When independents can vote in either party’s primary, it’s possible to win Republican delegates with deliberate appeals to non-Republicans.
The Democratic electorate is similarly unrepresentative, and not just because of independents. New Hampshire is more than 90% white. The Democratic electorate nationally is only 60% white. A candidate like Bernie Sanders can win here without appealing to minority voters in a party that’s full of them. There’s little evidence that the septuagenarian socialist has much to say to blacks and Hispanics; his instinct on issues of race is to reframe them as issues of class. Thus the contest for the Democratic nomination begins in a place where a giant bloc of Democratic voters — a bloc that has warm feelings for the Clintons (there’s a reason Hillary still leads national polls even as she’s crashed and burned here) — simply doesn’t get a say.
New Hampshire is a lovely place, and the unpredictability built into the open primary system can make it more fun for reporters and political junkies. But those aren’t good reasons to give the Granite State such an outsized role in the nomination process. It’s time for other states to get a crack at this. New Hampshire politicos sometimes talk as if they have a divine right to the first primary of any presidential election cycle. After last night, it’s not clear why leaders of either party should agree with them.