Is the New Hampshire Primary Losing Its Raison d’Etre?

New Hampshire sometimes takes some flack for zealously protecting its “first in the nation” presidential primary status. The rejoinder commonly offered is that Granite State residents take the process seriously by going out to meet the candidates personally in intimate settings, and this is part of the justification for New Hampshire’s de facto gatekeeper role in the campaign.

But what if those meetings between voters and candidates aren’t so personal or intimate this time around? That’s an issue broached in an article on the front page of Saturday’s Boston Globe that notes the trend toward bigger campaign gatherings in the state, which puts the whole point of the exercise in question. After all, if people are going to be deciding whom to vote for based more on TV debates and commercials, why not hold the crucial primary in a more diverse, representative, populous state? Here’s part of the Globe piece.

New Hampshire party officials and activists say they are pleased that so many voters are interested in seeing the candidates, a factor some said is pushing the contenders to hold huge events. But they worry that the trend could undermine the special nature of the primary, which has historically served as a testing ground by weeding out candidates who cannot win over voters by answering direct questions in small, intimate settings.

Kathy Sullivan , chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, acknowledged that the party itself is promoting some big events where candidates are invited to speak, including a large dinner next month. But she said she is concerned about the way the campaign appears to be changing.

Fortunately, the article later adds that, “candidates say they plan to move on to smaller crowds after the initial flurry of post-announcement campaign activity wanes.” That seems likely, considering there are still 11 months remaining until the vote. Proponents of New Hampshire’s early status had better hope that’s how things go because if this flurry of big events persists, their case for retaining the state’s desirable spot in the primary schedule will look a lot less persuasive.

On a personal note, I have visited New Hampshire in the lead-up to the primary in the last two campaigns. In 2000 I met George W. Bush in someone’s living room, but the crowds were bigger in 2004, where I had to go into a video overflow room for a Howard Dean event, for example. That may not be an entirely fair comparison, though, because in 2004 I was there over the weekend before the primary, whereas in 2000 I was there during the week before. I hope to make another such visit in early 2008, assuming I can handle another New Hampshire January (in 2004, I awoke to -8 degree weather one day).

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