Save the New Hampshire primary

By Tim Murphy

It’s a strange election cycle indeed when the one man who seems to be making sense is Newt Gingrich.

This summer, the former speaker of the house, in a rare moment of clarity, called the present campaigning process “insane” and “stunningly dangerous,” and decried the increasingly lengthy primary season. And while the system is perhaps laudable for saving America from the specter of a Gingrich presidency, the former speaker is spot-on in his assessment: The current presidential election process is in dire need of reform, and both parties can start by rejecting proposals from other states and ensuring that New Hampshire will remain the nation’s first primary.

Proponents of an earlier primary season for other states argue that New Hampshire has too great an influence for a state so small—and odd. They are only half right. The Granite State is indeed quite odd. For whatever reason—maybe New Hampshirites are bitter because Franklin Pierce was real and the West Wing’s Jed Bartlett wasn’t—New Hampshire is the one original colony that never quite outgrew its adolescent angst. It’s the only state in the northeast with a NASCAR speedway, its lawmakers and voters still insist on just the bare minimum for public education, and New Hampshire actively embodies its motto, “Live Free or Die,” more than any other state (with the exception of maybe Tennessee, with its remarkably direct slogan of “Agriculture and Commerce”). No other state is more unlike its neighbors than New Hampshire.

Rather than serving as an obstacle, though, the state’s quirkiness makes it an ideal barometer for the road to the White House. Because of its size and fickleness, the first primary tests political skills that rarely come into play during the later primaries, but are nonetheless essential. Stump speeches are constructed and refined in the high-school gymnasiums of Concord and Nashua, and campaigns turn from hastily assembled organizations to well oiled machines. The ability to win over a crowd that hasn’t been screened and may know very little about you requires certain qualities of composure, personality, and an ability to improvise and adapt to sudden challenges.

The state’s tourism board proudly lists “Switzerland of America” as one of the state’s four nicknames, but while the not-so-catchy moniker is intended to stir comparisons between the White Mountains and the Swiss Alps, the comparison might hold more weight with respect to their enduring political cultures. Both are among the last places on the planet whose municipalities are still governed by town meeting, and that governmental ethos is carried over into the election process, where candidates engage prospective voters on a more direct and personal level. Along with Iowa, New Hampshire is the one stop on the campaign trail where the relationship between candidates and the electorate is not entirely one-sided.

At this stage in the campaign, more than 13 full months away from election day, we already are aware of crucial factoids, such as how Mitt Romney treats his Irish setter, Seamus, on family road trips (not well). Candidates have dealt with so many hypotheticals—Should we nuke Iran? Should we nuke Pakistan? Should we nuke both Iran and Pakistan and then end the trade embargo with Cuba?—that many Republicans have tricked themselves into thinking the only man fit to lead them is one who deals with false realities on a daily basis: Law & Order’s Fred Thompson. The idea that anything should be done to make the presidential election cycle last a little bit longer is nothing short of preposterous. Elections aren’t Harry Potter books; when they come to an end, no one immediately starts to clamor for the next one, or begins to re-watch old primary debates just to satisfy their election fix.

When all else fails, the New Hampshire primary can always fall back on the type of unscripted drama that most other states can only dream of. It’s the primary that set Pat Buchanan on the path to the White House 10 years ago, rejected George W. Bush back before rejecting him was in vogue, and introduced the world to Joe Lieberman’s indelible slogan, “Joe-mentum,” which is apparently just like real momentum, but without the forward progress.

As much as it hurts to type, Newt Gingrich is right. The Shire must be saved.