The New Hampshire primary is the first in a series of nationwide party primary elections and the second party contest (the first being the Iowa Caucuses) held in the United States every four years as part of the process of choosing the delegates to the Democratic and Republican national conventions which choose the party nominees for the presidential elections to be held the subsequent November. Although only a few delegates are chosen in the New Hampshire primary, its real importance comes from the massive media coverage it receives (along with the first caucus in Iowa). Spurred by the events of the 1968 election, reforms that began with the 1972 election elevated the two states' importance to the overall election, and began to receive as much media attention as all other state contests combined. Examples of this extraordinary coverage have been seen on the campuses of Dartmouth College and Saint Anselm College, as the colleges have held multiple national debates and have attracted media outlets like NPR, Fox News, CNN, NBC, and ABC. The publicity and momentum can be enormous from a decisive win by a frontrunner, or better-than-expected result in the New Hampshire primary. The upset or weak showing by a front-runner changes the calculus of national politics in a matter of hours, as happened in 1952 (D), 1968 (D), 1980 (R), and 2008 (D).
Since 1952, the primary has been a major testing ground for candidates for both the Republican and Democratic nominations. Candidates who do poorly frequently drop out, while lesser-known, underfunded candidates who do well in New Hampshire suddenly become serious contenders, garnering large amounts of media attention and campaign funding.
It is not a closed primary, in which votes can be cast in a party primary only by people registered with that party, in that state. Undeclared voters—those not registered with any party—can vote in either party primary. However, it does not meet a common definition of an open primary, because people registered as Republican or Democratic on voting day cannot cast ballots in the primary of the other party.
New Hampshire state law stipulates that the presidential primary shall be on the second Tuesday in March (the date when town meetings and non-partisan municipal elections are traditionally held), but that the Secretary of State can change the date to ensure that the New Hampshire primary will take place at least seven days before any "similar election" in any other state. The Iowa caucuses are not considered to be a similar election. In recent election cycles, the New Hampshire primary has taken place the week after the Iowa caucus.
The community of Dixville Notch traditionally opens its polling place in the ballroom of The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel at midnight, usually in front of a crowd of journalists, where the village's handful of voters cast their ballots before the polls close about less than ten minutes later. This has led many presidential candidates to visit the area before the New Hampshire primary in hopes of securing an early-morning boost.
New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary status was threatened in 2007, when both the Republican and Democratic National Committees moved to give more populous states a bigger influence in the presidential race.
Several states also sought to move up the dates of their 2008 primaries in order to have more influence and dilute the power of the New Hampshire primary. Originally held in March, the date of the New Hampshire primary has been moved up repeatedly to maintain its status as first. The 2008 primary was held on January 8.
There is consensus among scholars and pundits that the New Hampshire primary, because of the timing and the vast media attention, can have a great impact and may even make, break or revive a candidate. Controlling for other factors statistically, a win in New Hampshire increases a candidate's share of the final primary count in all states by 27 percentage points.
Since 1977, New Hampshire has fought hard to keep its timing as the first primary (while Iowa has the first caucus a few days sooner). State law requires that its primary must be the first in the nation (it had been the first by tradition since 1920). As a result, the state has moved its primary earlier in the year to remain the first. The primary was held on the following dates: 1952-1968, second Tuesday in March; 1972, first Tuesday in March; 1976–1984, fourth Tuesday in February; 1988–1996, third Tuesday in February; 2000, first Tuesday in February (February 1); 2004, fourth Tuesday in January (January 27). The shifts have been to compete with changing primary dates in other states. The primary dates for 2008 (January 8) and 2012 (January 10) continued the trend - they were held the second Tuesday in January both years.
Before the Iowa caucus first received national attention in the 1970s (Republicans began caucusing in Iowa in 1976), the New Hampshire primary was the first binding indication of which presidential candidate would receive the party nomination. In defense of their primary, voters of New Hampshire have tended to downplay the importance of the Iowa caucus. "The people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents," said then-Governor John H. Sununu in 1988.
Since then, the primary has been considered an early measurement of the national attitude toward the candidates for nomination. Unlike a caucus, the primary measures the number of votes each candidate received directly, rather than through precinct delegates. The popular vote gives lesser-known candidates a chance to demonstrate their appeal to the electorate at large.
Unlike most other states, New Hampshire permits voters who have not declared their party affiliation to vote in a party's primary. A voter does have to officially join a specific political party before voting; however, the voter can change his or her affiliation back to "Undeclared" immediately after voting, and hence he or she only has to belong to a party for the few minutes it takes to fill out and cast a ballot. Voters who are already registered members of a political party cannot change their affiliation at the polling place; that can only be done before the checklist is closed several weeks prior to the election. New voters can, however, register at the polling place. All voting is done with paper ballots; however, most of the paper ballots are counted by machine.
New Hampshire's status as the first in the nation is somewhat controversial among Democrats because the ethnic makeup of the state is not diverse and not representative of the country's voters. This is shown in the 2010 Census data, with the percentage of minority residents being nearly five times smaller than the national average (New Hampshire is 92% non-Hispanic white, versus 64% nationally). Politically however, the state does offer a wide sampling of different types of voters. Although it is a New England state, it is not as liberal as some of its neighbors. For example, according to one exit poll, of those who participated in the 2004 Democratic primary, 4-in-10 voters were independents, and just over 50% said they considered themselves "liberal". Additionally, as of 2002, 25.6% of New Hampshire residents are registered Democrats and 36.7% are Republicans, with 37.7% of New Hampshire voters registered as "undeclared" independents. Also, New Hampshire was the only state in the Northeast to vote for George W. Bush in 2000. This plurality of independents is a major reason why New Hampshire is considered a swing state in general U.S. presidential elections.
Recently, media expectations for the New Hampshire primary have come to be almost as important as the results themselves; meeting or beating expectations can provide a candidate with national attention, often leading to an infusion of donations to a campaign that has spent most of its reserves. For example, in 1992, Bill Clinton, although he did not win, did surprisingly well, with his team dubbing him the "Comeback Kid"; the extra media attention helped his campaign's visibility in later primaries.
New Hampshire's political importance as the first-in-the-nation primary state is highlighted in the documentary film Winning New Hampshire. The film focuses on John Kerry's comeback in 2004 and the decisive effect of the New Hampshire primary on the presidential selection process.
The three most recent presidential election winners (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama) finished second in the New Hampshire primary before later being elected to the presidency, while the previous four before that won the New Hampshire primary.
New Hampshire has held a presidential primary since 1916, but it did not begin to assume its current importance until 1952. This was after the state simplified its ballot access laws in 1949 seeking to boost voter turnout. Dwight D. Eisenhower demonstrated his broad voter appeal by defeating Robert A. Taft, "Mr. Republican", who had been favored for the nomination, and Estes Kefauver defeated incumbent President Harry S. Truman, leading Truman to abandon his campaign for a second term of his own. The other president to be forced out of the running for re-election by New Hampshire voters was Lyndon Johnson, who, as a write-in candidate, managed only a 49-42 percent victory over Eugene McCarthy in 1968 (and won fewer delegates than McCarthy), and consequently withdrew from the race.
The winner in New Hampshire has not always gone on to win their party's nomination, as demonstrated by Republicans Leonard Wood in 1920, Harold Stassen in 1948, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. as a write-in candidate in 1964, Pat Buchanan in 1996, and John McCain in 2000, and Democrats Estes Kefauver in 1952 and 1956, Paul Tsongas in 1992, Hillary Clinton in 2008, and Bernie Sanders in 2016..
From 1952 to 1988, the person elected president had always carried the primary, but Bill Clinton broke the pattern in 1992, as did George W. Bush in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008. In 1992, Clinton lost to Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire; in 2000, George W. Bush lost to John McCain in New Hampshire; and in 2008 Barack Obama lost to Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary.
In November 1967, McCarthy declared, "there comes a time when an honorable man simply has to raise the flag" to gauge the country's response and conduct a candidacy for the presidency of the United States by entering the New Hampshire Democratic primary. On March 12, 1968, McCarthy, who was the only candidate on the ballot, came within 7 percentage points of defeating President Lyndon Johnson, a write-in candidate who was technically still exploring his candidacy and had not bothered to file. Just a few days later, on March 16, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy announced he was entering the race for President. Johnson subsequently withdrew from the election with this Shermanesque statement: "I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
The 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary was one of the crucial events in the politics of that landmark year in United States history. Senator Eugene McCarthy began his campaign with a poem that he wrote in imitation of the poet Robert Lowell, "Are you running with me Jesus":
Bill Clinton was able to declare himself the "Comeback Kid" after posting a surprise second-place finish behind Paul Tsongas in the Democratic primary. Clinton's support had been flagging for weeks since being hit by allegations of infidelity with actress Gennifer Flowers. On the Republican side, Pat Buchanan garnered an unexpected 37% showing behind incumbent President George H. W. Bush. Buchanan did not win a single state, but revealed some doubts about the moderate president among conservative voters.
George W. Bush's campaign, which for months had dominated in polling, money and endorsements on the Republican side, suffered a blow when John McCain, who had been surging in late polls, ended up beating the governor in the Granite State by more than 18 points. The result forecast a tough two-man race for the GOP nomination, which would carry on until Super Tuesday in March. Al Gore helped himself with a narrow win in the Democratic primary, which somewhat assuaged his supporters' concerns about Bill Bradley's insurgent campaign.
Hillary Clinton managed an upset win over Barack Obama in New Hampshire, despite polls showing her as much as 13 points behind in the run-up to the vote. The win helped Clinton get back some of the momentum she lost the week before when Obama carried the Iowa caucuses—though Obama did eventually win the Democratic nomination. John McCain won the Republican primary, sparking an unexpected comeback for the senator whose long-shot campaign had been written off as a lost cause months before. He went on to win the GOP nomination.
Bernie Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton by 22 points. Sanders claimed 151,584 votes in total, earning him 15 delegates, while Clinton managed 95,252 votes with 9 delegates. Together with Donald Trump's double-digit win in the GOP race, the primary results revealed voter frustrations with mainstream "establishment" politicians.
Notes: Winner is listed first. Candidates in bold went on to win their party's nomination.
|February 9, 2016||Senator Bernie Sanders (60.40%)||Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (37.95%)|
|January 10, 2012||President Barack Obama (80.91%)||No other candidate received 4%|
|January 8, 2008||Senator Hillary Clinton (39.09%)||Senator Barack Obama (36.45%), former Senator John Edwards (16.93%), Governor Bill Richardson (4.61%), Congressman Dennis Kucinich (1.36%), Senator Joe Biden (0.22%), Governor Mitt Romney (0.21%), and former Senator Mike Gravel (0.14%)|
|January 27, 2004||Senator John Kerry (38.39%)||Former Governor Howard B. Dean III (26.28%), General Wesley K. Clark (12.43%), Senator John Edwards (12.05%), Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (8.60%), Congressman Dennis J. Kucinich (1.42%), Congressman Dick Gephardt (0.19%) and Reverend Al Sharpton (0.16%)|
|February 1, 2000||Vice President Al Gore (49.74%)||Former Senator Bill Bradley (45.60%)|
|February 20, 1996||President Bill Clinton (84.37%)||The next closest candidate was write-in choice Republican Patrick J. "Pat" Buchanan (3.68%)|
|February 18, 1992||Senator Paul Tsongas (33.20%)||Governor Bill Clinton (24.78%), Senator Bob Kerrey (11.08%), Senator Tom Harkin (10.18%), former Governor Jerry Brown (8.15%)|
|February 16, 1988||Governor Michael Dukakis (35.89%)||Congressman Richard A. "Dick" Gephardt (19.94%), Senator Paul Simon (17.16%), Reverend Jesse L. Jackson (7.82%), Senator Al Gore (6.83%), Governor Bruce Babbitt (4.59%), and former Senator Gary Hart (3.98%)|
|February 28, 1984||Senator Gary Hart (39.28%)||Former Vice President Walter Mondale (29.35%), Senator John Glenn (12.49%), Reverend Jesse L. Jackson (5.53%), former Senator George McGovern (5.43%), President Ronald Reagan (5.27%), and Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (3.73%)|
|February 26, 1980||President Jimmy Carter (47.61%)||Senator Edward Kennedy (37.69%) and Governor Jerry Brown (9.68%)|
|February 24, 1976||Governor Jimmy Carter (28.57%)||Congressman Mo Udall (22.87%), Senator Birch Bayh (15.29%), former Senator Fred R. Harris (10.83%), and former Ambassador R. Sargent Shriver (8.24%)|
|March 7, 1972||Senator Edmund Muskie (46.40%)||Senator George McGovern (37.15%), Mayor Samuel William Yorty (6.078%), Congressman Wilbur Mills (4.01%) and Senator Vance Hartke (2.72%)|
|March 12, 1968||President Lyndon B. Johnson (49.80%)||Senator Eugene McCarthy (42.10%), former Vice President Richard Nixon (4.58%)|
|March 10, 1964||President Lyndon B. Johnson (95.26%)||Only Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1.58%) received more than 1% of the vote.|
|March 8, 1960||Senator John F. Kennedy (85.21%)||Businessman Paul C. Fisher (13.46%)|
|March 13, 1956||Senator Estes Kefauver (84.61%)||Former Governor Adlai Stevenson (14.84%)|
|March 11, 1952||Senator Estes Kefauver (54.62%)||President Harry S. Truman (43.93%)|
* - write-in candidate
|February 9, 2016||Donald Trump (35.34%)||Governor John Kasich (15.81%), Senator Ted Cruz (11.68%), former Governor Jeb Bush (11.02%), Senator Marco Rubio (10.57%), Governor Chris Christie (7.42%), businesswoman Carly Fiorina (4.12%), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (2.29%), former Governor Jim Gilmore (0.05%)|
|January 10, 2012||Former Governor Mitt Romney (39.26%)||Congressman Ron Paul (22.89%), Governor Jon Huntsman (16.89%), Senator Rick Santorum (9.43%), former Speaker Newt Gingrich (9.43%), Governor Rick Perry (0.71%)|
|January 8, 2008||Senator John McCain (37.00%)||Former Governor Mitt Romney (31.55%), former Governor Mike Huckabee (11.23%), former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (8.48%), Congressman Ron Paul (7.65%), former Senator Fred Thompson (1.23%), Senator Barack Obama (0.83%), Senator Hillary Clinton (0.76%), Congressman Duncan Hunter (0.50%)|
|January 27, 2004||President George W. Bush (80.96%)||No other candidate received 5%|
|February 1, 2000||Senator John McCain (48.59%)||Governor George W. Bush (30.39%), Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, Jr. (12.68%) and former Ambassador Alan Keyes (6.38%)|
|February 20, 1996||Pat Buchanan (27.26%)||Senator Bob Dole (26.23%), Governor A. Lamar Alexander (22.60%), Steve Forbes (12.24%), Senator Richard G. "Dick" Lugar (5.19%), former Ambassador Alan Keyes (2.67%) and Morry Taylor (1.4%)|
|February 18, 1992||President George H. W. Bush (53.19%)||Patrick J. "Pat" Buchanan (37.53%)|
|February 16, 1988||Vice President George H. W. Bush (37.70%)||Senator Bob Dole (28.48%), Congressman Jack F. Kemp, Jr. (12.79%), former Governor Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont IV (10.10%), and Reverend Marion G. "Pat" Robertson (9.40%)|
|February 28, 1984||President Ronald Reagan (86.42%)||Only Democrat Gary Hart (5.27%) and former Governor Harold E. Stassen (2.06%) also polled more than 2%|
|February 26, 1980||Former Governor Ronald Reagan (49.86%)||Ambassador George H. W. Bush (22.94%), Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. (12.98%), Congressman John B. Anderson (9.91%), Congressman Philip M. "Phil" Crane (1.80%), Governor John B. Connally (1.54%) and Senator Bob Dole (0.42%)|
|February 24, 1976||President Gerald R. Ford (50.06%)||Former Governor Ronald Reagan (48.62%)|
|March 7, 1972||President Richard Nixon (67.61%)||Congressman Paul N. "Pete" McCloskey, Jr. (19.79%) and Congressman John M. Ashbrook (9.69%)|
|March 12, 1968||Former Vice President Richard Nixon (77.61%)||Governor Nelson Rockefeller (10.82%), Senator Eugene McCarthy (5.30%), President Lyndon B. Johnson (1.71%), Governor George Romney (1.68%)|
|March 10, 1964||Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.* (35.54%)||Senator Barry M. Goldwater (22.28%), Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller (21.99%), and former Vice President Richard Nixon (16.78%)|
|March 8, 1960||Vice President Richard Nixon (89.28%)||The next highest candidate was Governor Nelson Rockefeller (3.76%)|
|March 13, 1956||President Dwight D. Eisenhower (94.11%)||Of the more than 57,000 GOP votes cast only 600 were not for Eisenhower|
|March 11, 1952||General Dwight D. Eisenhower (56.31%)||Senator Robert A. Taft (31,18%), former Governor Harold E. Stassen (7.93%) and General Douglas MacArthur (3.89%)|
* - write-in candidate
|February 26, 1996||Investment analyst Harry Browne (35.00%)||Tax protester Irwin Schiff (18.33%)|
|February 18, 1992||Former Alaska state representative Andre Marrou (100%)||No other candidate received a vote|
A Vice-Presidential preference primary was also formerly held at the New Hampshire primary. New Hampshire State Senator Jack Barnes, who won the 2008 Republican contest, co-sponsored a bill in 2009 which would eliminate the Vice Presidential preference ballot. The bill passed both houses of the state legislature and took effect in 2012.
The only time a non-incumbent won the Vice Presidential primary and then went on to be formally nominated by his or her party was in 2004, when Democratic U.S. Senator John Edwards won as a write-in candidate. Edwards, who was running for President at the time, did not actively solicit Vice Presidential votes.
In 1968, the sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic Vice Presidential primary, and then later won the Presidential nomination after the sitting President Lyndon B. Johnson dropped out of the race.
The following candidates received the greatest number of votes at each election.
|2008||January 8||John Barnes, Jr.||Raymond Stebbins|
|2004||January 27||Dick Cheney*||John Edwards*|
|2000||February 1||William Bryk||Wladislav D. Kubiak|
|1996||February 20||Colin Powell*||Al Gore*||Irwin Schiff*|
|1992||February 18||Herb Clark Jr.||Endicott Peabody||Nancy Lord*|
|1988||February 16||Wayne Green||David Duke|
|1984||February 28||George Bush*||Gerald Willis|
|1980||February 26||Jesse A. Helms||Walter Mondale*|
|1976||February 24||Wallace Johnson||Auburn Lee Packwood|
|1972||March 7||Spiro Agnew*||Jorge Almeyda*|
|1968||March 12||Austin Burton||Hubert Humphrey*|
|1964||March 10||Richard Nixon*||Robert Kennedy*|
|1960||March 8||Wesley Powell*||Wesley Powell*|
|1956||March 13||Richard Nixon*||Adlai Stevenson*|
|1952||March 11||Styles Bridges*||Estes Kefauver*|
* - write-in candidate