An ongoing challenge to the timing of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary could fundamentally reshape the event for Democrats in 2024 and beyond, transforming it from a reliable political ritual to an unpredictable exercise in political brinksmanship.
Earlier this month, the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws committee voted to create a new primary schedule in which South Carolina would go first, on Feb. 3, with New Hampshire and Nevada following on Feb. 6. The plan is backed by President Joe Biden, and designed to giving Black and Latino voters an increased role in the Democrats’ nominating process
But New Hampshire’s proposed new position comes with an asterisk: it’s contingent on the state expanding early voting and repealing or overriding a state law that says New Hampshire must hold its presidential primary a week before any other state.
If those steps aren’t taken by Feb. 1, 2023, the DNC plans to strip New Hampshire of its role in early voting entirely. That would leave the Granite State in a similar position to Iowa, which fell out of the DNC’s proposed early voting schedule after a disastrous showing in its 2020 caucuses.
“They clearly think it’s full steam ahead,” Chris Galdieri, a professor of politics at Saint Anselm College, said of the DNC.
Right now, though, the chance of New Hampshire making the changes the DNC is seeking seems almost nonexistent. Republicans currently control the New Hampshire State House, and Gov. Chris Sununu and GOP legislative leaders have scoffed at the DNC’s proposal. In addition, top New Hampshire Democrats — including U.S. Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jean Shaheen and New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Raymond Buckley — have condemned it.
As a result, the most likely scenario for 2024 involves New Hampshire going rogue and holding yet another first-in-the-nation primary, thereby complying with state law while defying the DNC’s wishes. In response, the DNC could refuse to seat some or all of New Hampshire’s delegates at the party’s 2024 convention, and bar Democrats who campaign in New Hampshire from participating in DNC-sponsored debates.
What happens next would be relatively straightforward if Biden seeks a second term, according to Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. Put simply, Biden would likely skip the New Hampshire primary altogether.
“He or one of his representatives will not come here,” Scala said. “Biden’s laid down the law and said New Hampshire needs to get in line, or else. So I’m hard pressed to see Biden … going to the secretary of state’s office and doing all the traditional signing ceremonies that take place.”
"Biden's laid down the law and said New Hampshire needs to get in line, or else."Dante Scala, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire
While that would be a stinging blow for New Hampshire — which has boasted the first primary in the nation since 2020 — the picture could become far more complicated if Biden doesn't seek reelection.
With the nomination up for grabs, Democratic hopefuls would then have to weigh whether a strong showing in New Hampshire warrants the risk of being denied a debate slot — and whether the party would really impose the aforementioned penalties.
In the end, Galdieri predicts, many Democratic candidates would likely choose to campaign in New Hampshire anyway, and the DNC might be forced to back down.
“The kinds of candidates who would be most tempted to come here in the face of sanctions would be folks who are banking on support from upscale white liberals with college degrees and master’s degrees,” Galdieri says. “That’s the Bernie Sanders voter. Those are the voters who hate the fact that the DNC acts like it’s in charge of the Democratic Party.”
In 2016, Galdieri notes, Sanders supporters staged sustained, damaging disruptions of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia because they felt the nominating process was skewed in Hillary Clinton’s favor.
“You don’t let [their] candidate on the debate stage [in 2024], you’re going to have a massive, massive, massive headache,” Galdieri said. “Plus, you’ll give the candidate this amazing opportunity to do a media tour right before the debate, talking about how awful it is. ‘I’m not being allowed to be on stage — all I did was talk to voters!’”
Arnie Arnesen, a former New Hampshire state representative and gubernatorial candidate, foresees a similar dynamic, with progressive hopefuls campaigning in a rogue New Hampshire primary despite the risks.
“If you’re a Democrat in South Carolina, you’ve been bludgeoned by conservative, reactionary politics forever,” Arnesen said. “The Democrats there have … a more warped view of Democratic politics because of the environment in which they’re in. So if you are a progressive, you already know that it’ll be hard to get a footing.
“At least, in New Hampshire … you would get a level of enthusiasm, some kind of response, an opportunity to talk your talk and play out your vision in a way people can hear,” Arnesen added. “If I were a progressive candidate … I would want to show what I could do in New Hampshire, and then turn a hairy eyeball at the DNC and say, 'You sure you don’t want to seat me? You sure you don’t want to allow me in the debates?'"
Past precedent suggests the DNC’s current stance could soften later. In 2008, the party ultimately allowed delegates from Michigan and Florida to be seated at the convention after those states defied the party and held unsanctioned primaries. However, they were only given half a vote each, which dealt a blow to the candidacy of then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Still, Scala suggests that anyone doubting the party’s determination does so at their own peril.
“I think the national Democratic party is quite, quite serious this time,” Scala said.
The brewing standoff between the DNC and New Hampshire raises other questions. For example, might national Democrats’ decision to attack a prized Granite State ritual offer a long-term boost to Republicans in a state that’s recently shifted from red to purple? And could it help nudge New Hampshire — which Clinton won narrowly in 2016 and Biden won handily in 2020 — into the Republican column in 2024?
While Galdieri doubts that the current standoff will be a boon to the GOP, he notes that Hassan and Shaheen’s condemnations of the DNC’s plan were unusually sharp.
“These were fiery, fiery dissents … from people whose entire political persona is being very low-key and measured, for the most part,” he said. “I think they’re trying to head that off.”
But James McKim, the president of the Manchester branch of the NAACP, suggests New Hampshire Republicans may “weaponize” the primary fight against Democrats, especially given its echoes of conservative themes of states’ rights and federal overreach.
In addition, McKim suggests, the DNC’s proposed changes could have unintended consequences when it comes to the politics of race.
“Are you now setting up the Black vote versus the Latino vote as a battleground for the Democratic Party?” McKim asked “It’s [an] interesting calculus that’s going on ... We don’t want to pit those two races against each other as we go into the primary.”
Speculation about how a revamped New Hampshire Democratic primary might play out will likely intensify in 2023 in advance of the DNC's upcoming meeting from Feb. 2-4, at which the new electoral calendar will be up for a final vote.
For now, though, some of the people who traditionally find themselves at the primary’s epicenter are unaware of the pending change.
At the Red Arrow Diner in downtown Manchester — a go-to stop for stumping candidates and the media hordes that trail them — manager Emilia Morrissette pursed her lips when informed of the DNC’s plan.
“It’s a big deal,” she said “New Hampshire’s first. So why would we change it?”
Another Red Arrow employee, Robin Deary, had already heard about New Hampshire’s possible demotion, and struck a dispirited note.
“What else do we have?” Deary asked. “We don’t have the Old Man [of the Mountain] anymore. We’re the only state in New England that doesn’t have legalized weed. We’re screwed!”