CONWAY — “In Iowa, they pick corn; in New Hampshire, they pick presidents.”
That’s an old political saying often proffered by pundits in the Granite State, which has been home to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary since 1920.
In this part of New Hampshire, flanked by the Presidential Range, it’s especially true that we voters take our task of selecting the nation’s top leader seriously.
Everyone who lives in New Hampshire knows what we are talking about when we say primary fever is here. It is evidenced by the presence of the national and even international media. The repeated visits by candidates (it’s still true that you can’t make up your mind until you’ve shaken a candidate’s hand at least three times under New Hampshire-style retail politics).
The random phone polls and candidate supporter campaign calls. The friendly (and sometimes heated) debates at local coffee shops about whom you like. The tradition of midnight voting in tiny Hart’s Location, Millsfield and Dixville Notch. It’s all part of living here and being a citizen.
And, here at The Conway Daily Sun, getting to hold editorial boards with the candidates is not only a journalistic civic duty, it also gives us all a chance to meet the candidates up-close-and-personal.
(They also get to sign our Ice Box 2 refrigerator and gaze at our photographic gallery of past candidates who signed Ice Box One before the space ran out, forcing Sun Publisher Mark Guerringue to buy a second refrigerator — the first one is now on display with photographs of the candidates on the first floor of our office within easy view of visitors when they stop by).
With our primary coming up fast — it takes place Feb. 11 — we took time to walk through a history of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary as it celebrates its 100th anniversary.
But wait, some readers may be asking: Didn’t we already celebrate the centennial a couple of years ago?
According to New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, regarded by many as the dean of the primary’s cherished history, we did, but that was a different 100th.
“We had a big birthday cake on May 21, 2013,” Gardner said. “Then we celebrated in 2016. We have not had a cake this year so far, and I don’t know if we will, but we might,” he told the Sun.
The first cake celebrated the state law creating the New Hampshire presidential primary. The second one commemorated the actual voting (as 1913 wasn’t an election year.) But it wasn’t until 1920 that voting got moved up, giving the Granite State balloting its first-in-the-nation status.
Possible 100th birthday cake notwithstanding, in honor of this milestone, Gardner and friend Dean Dexter have produced a centennial commemorative poster, which Gardner has made a point of sharing with candidates when they have filed for this year’s primary in Concord.
“I told Mayor Pete (Buttigieg) when he filed that had things stayed the same as they were back in 1916, he could have been filing back home in Indiana instead of New Hampshire, because back then they held their primary one week ahead of us in March,” Gardner said.
“But then in 1920, they switched to a caucus and moved it ahead to May, behind us. (Buttigieg) said no one had ever talked about that with him. (Indiana is holding its primary this year on May 5.)
“And the same with Minnesota, for Sen. (Amy) Klobuchar, as that state held its first presidential primary the same day as us (on March 16, 1916) as well.”
(Minnesota held presidential primaries three different times after that, switched to caucuses in 1996 but is holding a primary once again this year on March 3).
In fact, it was thanks to those two states that New Hampshire became first in the nation in 1920, which was when Indiana switched theirs to May and Minnesota discontinued its primary.
Through the aid of Democratic state Rep. Tom Buco of Conway, who was returning home from his legislative duties in Concord, a copy of the poster was delivered as a gift from Gardner to the offices of the Sun this week.
It’s an impressive salute to New Hampshire’s primary history, with a banner across the top boasting that “since the primary ballot included, for the first time, a direct vote for president beginning in 1952, EVERY PRESIDENT HAS WON AT LEAST ONE NEW HAMPSHIRE PRIMARY.”
The poster shows 12 photos of U.S. presidents from New Hampshire’s primary past, starting with 1952 and 1956 GOP primary winner and eventual overall winner Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 in front of the Old Man of the Mountain; continuing with JFK (Democratic primary winner in 1960) at the Nashua Rotary Club; President Lyndon B. Johnson (Democratic winner in 1964 and 1968) at the Carpenter Hotel in Manchester; Richard Nixon at the University of New Hampshire campus (he was GOP primary winner in 1960, 1968 and 1972, and elected president in 1968 and ’72; President Gerald R. Ford at Representatives Hall at the State House in 1976; 1976 Democratic primary winner and eventual winner Jimmy Carter at Webster Valve in Franklin in 1976; 1980 and 1984 GOP primary winner Ronald Reagan at the Milan Town Hall; 1988 Republican primary winner and eventual general election victor George H.W. Bush at the University of New Hampshire; 1992 runner-up to Sen. Paul Tsongas but overall general election winner and 1996 Democratic primary winner Bill Clinton in Dover; George W. Bush, 2000 N.H. primary runner-up to Pat Buchanan but eventual 2000 winner and 2004 primary and election winner; Barack Obama, 2008 New Hampshire primary runner-up to Hillary Clinton but eventual overall general election winner and 2012 primary winner, shown in 2004 at Concord High; and finally, Donald J. Trump, winner of the 2016 GOP primary and elected the nation’s 45th president in the general election.
Other facts highlighted on the informational poster:
• Gen. Leonard Wood, born in Winchester in 1860, won the 1920 first-in-the-nation primary. He was commander of the Rough Riders; Army chief of staff; recipient of the Medal of Honor, and governor general of the Philippines; plus he captured Geronimo and was a confidant of Teddy Roosevelt’s.
• State Rep. William Bullock (D-Richmond) in 1913 authored the law creating the New Hampshire presidential primary to choose national convention delegates, to be held on the third Tuesday of May, 1916. Delegate selection was the sole purpose of the New Hampshire primary for the first 32 years.
• The state Legislature passed a bill suggested by state Rep. and House Speaker Richard Upton (R-Concord) in 1949 that “modernized” the primary by allowing candidates to have their names on the ballot in addition to the delegates. The law became effective for the 1952 primary, and immediately increased interest in the contest. The bill requested by Speaker Upton was sponsored by Rep Reuben Spaulding Moore of Bradfield. (Since 1980, voters cast their ballots only for candidates not for party convention delegates.)
• Rep. John G. M. Glessner (R-Bethlehem) in 1915 amended Bullock’s previous law passed in the earlier session, changing the primary election from May to town meeting day in March.
• Former Gov. Hugh Gregg (R-Nashua) became involved as a presidential campaign adviser in the 1952 primary and spent his life championing the cause.
• Rep. James Splaine (D-Portsmouth) wrote the 1975 law requiring the N.H. primary to be the “first-in-the-nation” and allowing the secretary of state to set the date earlier than the March election day by seven days, if necessary, to guarantee our “first” status.
• Rep. Natalie S. Flanagan (R-Atkinson) in 1995 sponsored and in 1999 co-sponsored legislation to provide critical flexibility to the secretary of state in setting the primary date to maintain the state’s first-in-the-nation tradition.
According to Gardner: “Unlike other states, the people of New Hampshire have continued to fund their primary all these years. It has lasted through wars and depressions. It had lasted through states’ attempts to take it from us and by the national parties that have been helpful at times and not so helpful at others.
“Some believed television would diminish the value of the primary in the 1960s and ’70s, but it didn’t happen. Others thought the internet and social media would diminish the primary at the beginning of the century, but that didn’t happen, either. We’ve made it 100 years with no scandals, blemishes or miscounts. It will last another 100 years if the people of our great state have the will to keep it.”