Sunday, December 18, 2022

New Hampshire Congressional Delegation Defends First-in-the-Nation Presidential Primary

And folks, why would they not? 

It is completely natural for New Hampshire Democrats like Sen. Hassan, Sen. Shaheen, Rep. Kuster and Rep. Pappas to defend this particular piece of political real estate. Every New Hampshire politician, regardless of party, has done so for at least the half century of the post-reform era. But it is worth considering -- on this side of the decision by the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC) to strip Iowa of its position altogether and shunt New Hampshire's presidential primary into the second position alongside Nevada -- whether the old arguments have grown stale. New Hampshirites will likely argue no, but 2024 represents the first cycle that New Hampshire's position in the pecking order has not been directly protected in the Democratic process since 1980 (and the first time in the post-reform era that its first-in-the-nation status has not been at least indirectly protected).

Things are different. But the arguments have remained largely unchanged from past cycles when the primary came under threat. 

Retail politics
The congressional delegation starts by making the claim that the New Hampshire presidential primary occupying the first position makes both the country and democracy stronger. That having given power to voters and not party bosses in the process over a century ago has allowed the state to nurture and harness a certain participatory culture. In combination with the small size of the Granite state that all makes retail politics maximally possible. 

Sure, it takes time to develop a culture like that, but retail politics is possible elsewhere. In South Carolina, for instance. The Palmetto state is bigger than New Hampshire, but it is not bank-bustingly bigger. Candidates can meet face to face with voters, hear their concerns cheaply and easily, and be tested just the same. South Carolina Democrats have been a part of the pre-window since the 2008 cycle, and no, that is not a century's worth of experience, but it offers an electorate that is more diverse than what the Granite state has to offer. And it is debatable whether an unrepresentative primary is better for the country or democracy in a narrow or broad sense. The DNCRBC has placed a bet that diversity matters in the Democratic (and democratic) process. 

Another part of the New Hampshire primary culture that the four member congressional delegation leans on is blackmail. That will be read in a negative light, but it is not intended in that way. Look, New Hampshire decision makers across the board have taken a "protect the first-in-the-nation position at any costs" approach for a very long time. Decision makers in any other state under the same conditions would do and would have done the same thing that folks in New Hampshire have been doing for the last 50 years. 

But part of that effort has definitely been blackmail through organizing candidate boycotts when other states have threatened to encroach on the New Hampshire primary's primacy. The threat to candidates has always been some form of "pledge that you will not campaign in the aggressor state or you are done here in the Granite state." In other words, cross New Hampshire and prepare to have your presidential aspirations kneecapped. That happened in 1996 in a standoff with Delaware and again in 2012 when Nevada Republicans tried to carve out an early spot once pushed there by a rogue Florida primary.

The problem in the 2024 cycle is that the DNCRBC has turned the tables on New Hampshire. By locking the presidential primary in the Granite state in the second position behind South Carolina in the rules, a New Hampshire shift would open the state up to penalties. But more importantly, candidates who campaign in a potentially rogue New Hampshire would then not only be stripped of any delegates won in the state, but also be subject to possible prohibition from candidate debates for campaigning in the state.

Of course, the New Hampshire congressional delegation does not broach the topic of unofficial candidate boycotts. That is not the particular blackmail they bring to the table. Instead, they raise the prospect that New Hampshire Republicans will use state Democrats' supposed negligence against the state party and lure crucial independents into the still-first Republican presidential primary. Furthermore, they argue that those same independents may stick with the GOP in a general election, potentially tipping the balance against Democrats in a narrowly divided state, and by extension, possibly costing the party Senate control and/or electoral votes. 

All of that is true. Those things could happen. But it could also be that President Biden seeks reelection, ends up running largely unopposed, and New Hampshire independents flock to the competitive Republican presidential primary anyway. Is it a gamble for the president and the DNC to potentially irk a sliver to a lot of New Hampshire voters by coming down hard on the state Democratic Party for fighting to maintain its traditional position? It undoubtedly would be if it is not already. But are independents, Democratic-leaning or otherwise, going to vote for a Republican nominee in the Trump mold (or Trump himself) over Biden because of the primary? The answer is maybe (or if one is in New Hampshire, YES!). But that seems to be a gamble the president and those around him are willing to take in this fight. There are very few scenarios where New Hampshire's four electoral votes serve as the tipping point in the electoral college. It is possible although less probable than other, bigger states. And neither New Hampshire US Senate seat is up until 2026. Is that gamble worth it? Time will tell that tale. 

The Nevada pairing
Dipping back into the well of retail politics, the congressional delegation also draws attention to the injurious impact that not only the New Hampshire primary not being first, but pairing it with the Nevada primary will have. That is not wrong, but the group missed an opportunity to point out a major drawback in the president's calendar proposal. It is not just that the New Hampshire/Nevada pairing will put a cross-country strain on campaigns, but that three contests (including a leadoff South Carolina primary) in the proposed calendar's first four days turns a typical slow build up through small states into a more nationalized event. 

The New Hampshire/Nevada pairing would have an impact on the retail politics that the process has typically known, but three contests on top of each other as proposed would further hamper face-to-face contact with voters and have implications for how the field of candidates winnows. The winnowing issues are less problematic if Biden runs for reelection and is largely unopposed. But setting the precedent of an early calendar cluster in 2024 may lay the groundwork for a repeat of the untested experiment in 2028 when it may matter substantially more in a competitive environment.

State law
Finally, the New Hampshire congressional delegation defends the state's first-in-the-nation primary with the trump card decision makers in the state ultimately end up pulling every time a threat arises: state law. There is a state law. It does require the secretary of state to schedule the New Hampshire presidential primary for a position on the calendar at least seven days in advance of any other similar contest. And lest one forget, the state law also codifies how the parties are to select and allocate delegates based on the results of the primary. So while it is tempting to argue that the secretary of state is the actor bound by the law, the state parties are tied to it as well. 

Granted, it is also true that the courts have continually sided with political parties under free association grounds when these sorts of conflicts arise between law and party rules. The New Hampshire Democratic Party could fight elements of this law as well. But in so doing, the party would further undermine the statute and the position of the New Hampshire presidential primary on the calendar. Plus, the party can allocate delegates under DNC rules, but it cannot unilaterally change the date of the presidential primary. That decision is out of the party's hands. 

And that is the predicament New Hampshire Democrats find themselves in on this issue. For the first time their first-in-the-nation primary is neither directly nor indirectly protected by DNC rules. And their arguments come down to basically a state law that could be challenged in court by the state party (if it did not want to further threaten the primary's position) and a variation on the blackmail New Hampshire actors have made for half a century. The conditions are different for 2024 and the arguments look different in that light.

The New Hampshire presidential primary will be first. But it will be first in the Republican process. The secretary of state will see to that. But the question remains whether New Hampshire Democrats will break in the unprecedented standoff with the DNC.


No comments: