The New Hampshire Presidential Primary began modestly as a little-noticed reform act of the state legislature in 1913 as a way to select delegates for the national party conventions.
Lying mostly dormant for some four decades, the primary grabbed its first national headlines in 1952 when it began direct voter balloting. The major names on the ballot included President Harry Truman who was upset in the Democratic primary by Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee who endeared himself to the local population by riding around in a snowmobile in a coonskin cap.
On the Republican side, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II hero, won the contest while not sitting foot in the state. He was busy serving overseas as commander of NATO while the Korean War raged on in Asia. Ike used the primary victory as a stepping stone to winning the nomination and the presidency in the general election. He oversaw a cease fire agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953.
In 1968, the primary attracted wide attention when Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn, ran an anti-war platform against President Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy’s young campaign volunteers cut their hair and dressed well to be "Clean for Gene." Johnson did not formally enter the primary but though he won the primary with 50 percent of the write-in votes, he had been politically wounded. Johnson became the first "winner" of the primary to lose the political and media expectations contest. It happened to Democratic primary winner Edmund Muskie of Maine in 1972, who was remembered for his emotional reaction to stories in the Manchester Union Leader, and later to President George H. W. Bush in 1992, who defeated insurgent candidate Patrick Buchanan but showed political vulnerability).
The breakthrough win in 1976 by Jimmy Carter, the former Georgia governor and peanut farmer who was virtually unknown on the national stage, cemented the primary’s status as a major player in the nominating process — and a solid candidate predictor for the rest of the nation.
Carter’s campaign showed how a lesser known but highly organized candidate could utilize the state’s smaller geographic size and accessible, active citizenry to gain national recognition and overcome money and stature hurdles.
In 1977, the state legislature sanctioned the primary’s first in the nation status by enacting a law that "eliminates any possible future encroachment on the state’s being first" by being held "on the Tuesday at least seven days immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election, whichever is earlier." Over the years, primary date has changed from early March to various dates in February and finally into January in the 2004 primary.
Due to dramatic changes with the primary process — when John. F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon won the 1960 primary, New Hampshire was one of 15 holding primaries — the state’s first in the nation status has been targeted repeatedly during the past two decades by challengers and a political parties determined to "frontload" the schedule to benefit establishment candidates.
In 1983, the state abolished signature filing requirements for the primary. Any American citizen willing to pay the filing fee $1,000 can be listed on the ballot. This has led to an increase in the eclectic citizen candidates, some who campaign vigorously (at least until they run out of money) and some who never show up, who add to the primary’s unique atmosphere.
It’s a theatrical atmosphere which has fed as well by an ever-increasing national and even international media presence. The reason for this is simple: the primary has been the scene of some of the memorable sound bites and events during the past half-century of American political history. Ronald Reagan barely lost to President Gerald Ford in the 1976 primary but he went on to win a tough primary skirmish against George H. W. Bush in 1980. During a campaign debate he took control of a dispute over who would take part in the forum by telling the moderator "I paid for this microphone."
In 1988, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas lost to Vice President George Bush but reacting to the tough campaign tactics, told Bush "to stop lying about my record." Dole, who lost in 1980, would lose again in 1996 to Pat Buchanan, though he eventually won the party nomination that year. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, won primaries in 1960, 1968, and 1972.
Buchanan, a television commentator and staff member for Presidents Nixon and Reagan but someone who never held elective office, has been the only outsider to actually break through to victory. Television evangelist Pat Robertson finished fifth in 1988 and millionaire publisher Steve Forbes spent an estimated $3 million of his own money to finish fourth in 1996.
The primary has had its share of upsets, candidates who make a splash in public opinion polls before diving to defeat, surprising results and match ups. In 1984, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado upset the heavy favorite, former Vice President Walter Mondale. Hart also bested Sen. George McGovern, whose presidential campaign Hart ran in 1972. Hart’s win was orchestrated by Jeanne Shaheen of Madbury, who would later become N.H. Governor in 1996.
Before his infamous Iowa defeat "scream" in early 2004, and eventual primary lost to establishment favorite Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean made an insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination with innovative uses of the Internet as a fund-raising and organizing tool.
Dogged by scandal allegations, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton fought on and finished second to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas in the Democratic primary of 1992. He proclaimed himself the "comeback kid" and went on the win the nomination and the general election against President Bush, the elder. Clinton became the first successful presidential candidate since 1952 not to have first won the N.H. primary.
The second primary "loser" to become president was Bush’s son, George W. who was the prohibitive favorite in the 2000 Republican primary. But Bush ran a lackluster campaign and was easily bested by the "straight-talking" style of Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Bush later won the general election against former Vice President Al Gore.
It’s impossible to predict what will happen until voters head to the polls in January 2008. New Hampshire has proven reliably subversive to the best laid plans of campaign experts.