MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — The New Hampshire presidential primary has become a thing of legend. As the first primary in the nation, it’s seen as a temperature-taking for the rest of the country. If a candidate doesn’t do well in the Granite State, the trajectory of the rest of the campaign is easy to plot: downward. In his classic The Boys on the Bus (Random House, 1973), Timothy Crouse wrote of 1972 Democratic candidate Edmund Muskie: "If he took New Hampshire he would be hard to stop, but because he looked like the one and only contender, he could not afford to do poorly in that first primary."
But it’s not just the primary’s timing as the first in the nation that makes it so important. It also owes much of its near-mythical status to the voters of New Hampshire. In The Making of the President, 1964 (New American Library, 1965), Theodore White wrote: "Hampshiremen are earnest about their politics; they vote seriously; and in their perplexity, in their vacillating indecision, in the great pulses of changing mood ... one could see foreshadowed all the agony of indecision [of the whole country]."
The Iowa caucuses may come first, but as caucuses (in which party activists, and not regular citizens, cast votes), they don’t serve as a proxy for the nation’s hopes and political judgments. And next year, the New Hampshire primary will be even more important than the Iowa event, since exit-polling data may not be compiled from those who participate in the caucuses. (Given the snafus with the Voter News Service in 2000 and, more recently, in the 2002 midterm elections, news networks are forming a new entity to conduct polling.)
As of this writing, six candidates have already announced their intent to run in the Democratic primary (President George W. Bush is a sure bet for the Republican nomination; therefore, all the primary action will take place with the Dems): Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and John Edwards of North Carolina; Congressman Dick Gephardt of Missouri; former Vermont governor Howard Dean; and the Reverend Al Sharpton of New York. Others, such as former Colorado senator Gary Hart, General Wesley Clark, and Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware are also talking about getting into the race. The candidate who ultimately faces off against Bush will be decided, in good part, by the results of the New Hampshire primary, which is likely to take place in February 2004. (Next fall, New Hampshire secretary of state William Gardner will set the primary’s official date.) Of the important factors in the New Hampshire primary, candidates have control over two: field organization and chemistry with voters. But they have little control over two others that matter just as much: the expectations game and the will of independent voters. Below is a guide to each factor, and how the declared candidates are doing.
• Field organization. Vice-President Al Gore may have won the 2000 New Hampshire primary — and subsequent primaries, which fed on the New Hampshire–generated momentum — thanks to a traffic jam. At least that’s what many Democratic operatives with experience in New Hampshire seem to think. Today, when people look back at the 2000 Democratic-primary season, the prevailing memory is of Gore trouncing former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley. But he beat Bradley in New Hampshire by just four points, a relatively narrow margin of 6395 votes. The bulk of these votes — more than 3000 — came from Hillsborough County, home to Nashua and Manchester, as well as abutting suburbs like Bedford, Goffstown, and Merrimack. This is a small, relatively compact area where political foot soldiers can provide the margin of victory. And, many believe, during the last New Hampshire primary, they did.
As late as 3 p.m. that day, Gore operatives had access to exit polls showing the vice-president being defeated by Bradley. They also learned that while Democratic voters were voting in large numbers for Gore, independents, many of them upscale suburban voters, were voting for Bradley’s sophisticated brand of liberalism. Knowing that Bradley’s strength came from tony tech havens such as Bedford, the Gore team organized a caravan to clog highway I-93 with traffic so as to discourage potential Bradley voters from getting to the polls. (Michael Whouley, a chief Gore strategist, recounted the Gore team’s Election Day field efforts at a Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics symposium, and his comments are included in a book compiled by the Institute titled Campaign for President: The Managers Look at 2000. He knocked down the rumor that they considered overturning an 18-wheeler to clog up traffic.) The caravan — spoken of with awe by operatives who worked on the campaign — had the desired effect. It was harder for Bradley voters to get the polls.
Even as the traffic-jam caravan was making its way north, key Gore operatives, such as New Hampshire state representative Ray Buckley, were organizing efforts to get out the vote in Manchester and Nashua. "Field organization is identifying voters and getting them out to vote. Phone calls. Door knocking," says Buckley, who chairs the Manchester City Democratic Committee and knows much about the body-by-body battles on which elections can hinge. (Buckley’s Manchester office is adorned with scores of photographs depicting both long-deceased Democratic icons, such as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and current Democratic leaders, such as former president Bill Clinton, in attendance at Buckley’s birthday party.)
Aware of early polls showing just how close the race was, Buckley showed up at Gore’s election-night party and found some 100 would-be partygoers dressed up and eager to get into the festivities early. Buckley jumped on top of a table and roused the group out of its partying mood. He told them the election was too close for such a premature celebration and essentially ordered them out of the hall to go find a campaign sign to hold in front of the polls.
Throughout the campaign, however, the Gore team directed its efforts at working-class voters, who, polling data showed, were selecting either McCain or Gore. Gore campaigners focused their get-out-the-vote efforts on blue-collar urban enclaves like Manchester and Nashua, as well as on the Granite State’s trailer parks.
As Whouley recounted at the Kennedy School symposium, the Gore campaign hired paid phone banks so volunteers could leave the phones and hit the streets to do the nitty-gritty field work that New Hampshire voters famously expect: door knocking, holding signs, and helping voters get to the polls. With this tactic, the campaign actually "doubled the capacity" of the banks, Whouley said. In the process, the campaign learned "where our votes were: our votes were with registered Democrats."
The tactics worked, and Gore was on his way to a general-election match-up versus Bush. Hoping to benefit from the sort of help given to Gore by local New Hampshire politicos like Buckley, current candidates are working hard to court the support of the Granite State’s political activists. The Web site PoliticsNH.com has a tote board listing the allegiances of some 105 Democratic activists — activists who can form the backbone of a field organization. Of the last six contested New Hampshire Democratic primaries, four have been won by the candidate with the strongest field organization.
A caveat: as good as it is to have a strong field organization, it is not the be-all and end-all of a successful campaign. Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska forged an outstanding team for the 1992 presidential primary. He had inherited the cream of Gary Hart’s 1988 team. Tad Devine, later a top aide to Gore, served as Kerrey’s campaign manager; Manchester realtor Will Kanteres and Democratic operative Ken Robinson, who will head up John Kerry’s New Hampshire effort in 2004, also worked on Kerrey’s campaign. But however much Kerrey’s foot soldiers pounded the pavement, their candidate failed to take hold.
Early edge: John Kerry. The Massachusetts senator has been sending his staffers up to New Hampshire since last summer. He has sown up the support of Bill Shaheen, the husband of former governor Jeanne Shaheen, who, while not formally committed, knows more about New Hampshire field organizing than almost anyone. Whouley, who is based at Boston’s Dewey Square Group, is also backing Kerry, and Whouley was raised on the importance of getting out the vote. Still, Buckley and much of the Manchester machine remain uncommitted.