Apolitical is not a word you could use to describe the people of New Hampshire. Ever presidential election year, the residents of the granite state see the candidates and the media descend upon them in a flurry of rallies, polls, and pundits leading up to the first-in-the-nation primary.
Primaries were implemented by several states in the early 20th century, but they wouldn’t be recognizable today.
The modern primary truly began back in 1952 with New Hampshire House Speaker Richard Upton, who wished voters were more engaged with the democratic process.
Upton proposed a bill that would put the names of the presidential candidates on the bill, instead of unknown party representatives.
In historical footage from WGBH’s vault, Upton describes his desire to “quicken the interest of the voters” and to create a “lively contest” that would put New Hampshire on the map.
Upton was right – voter turnout in 1952 doubled, and Americans across the country saw the campaigns and voting for the first time on their new television sets.
As news organizations began to see the possibilities in covering the minutiae of elections, candidates began to realize that primaries could make or break their campaigns.
Republican Robert Taft never committed to meeting and spending time with the electorate, and New Hampshire voters chose the more personable Dwight D. Eisenhower, who went on to become president. On the Democratic side, incumbent President Harry S. Truman proved to be too slow enter the race in the state primary – in a big upset, he lost to relatively unknown Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver and decided not to pursue his party’s nomination again.
Though Kefauver didn’t end up clinching the democratic nomination in 1952, his meet-and-greet style of campaigning and subsequent win set the precedent for the kind politicking needed to win over New Hampshire voters.
Andy Smith is director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire. He says the New Hampshire primary has become a forum in which real voters voice their concerns and test the candidates: “There’s expectation that candidates have to talk with voters — that they can’t just run a tarmac campaign or a TV campaign."
New Hampshire’s primary is now recognized as key to any candidate’s future. That’s due in part to a 40-year streak of streak of New Hampshire primary winners obtaining their party’s nominations – however unlikely it may seem – kicked off by John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Bill Clinton finally broke the tradition in 1992, when “The Comeback Kid” managed to become the Democratic presidential nominee despite losing in the granite state.
The fact that the New Hampshire primary continues to command considerable attention year is a testament to residents’ notorious unpredictability. The people of New Hampshire have shown that despite what the polls say, there’s always likely to be surprises on election day.
You can listen to WGBH Morning Edition host Bob Seay take you through the history of the New Hampshire primary with historical footage from WGBH archives at the top of the page.