Make It Count
What's not being discussed in the early primary states
Illustration by Peter Noonan
Next year the New Hampshire primary will celebrate its 100-year anniversary. If the primary wants to continue to be the first-in-the-nation contest, it will have to change. The good news is that what is wrong with the primary can be changed by what is right with the primary; however, everyday New Hampshire citizens will have to implement the change.
The problem: Every four years New Hampshire voters become less representative of the nation as a whole. New Hampshire’s population is 94 percent white, while nationwide it is 78 percent and dropping. New Hampshire embraces its rural heritage, while 80 percent of the nation’s population lives in urban areas. New Hampshire residents are also more highly educated. Studies find that children here grow up in much better circumstances and there is a higher median income. Add it all up and New Hampshire residents live different lives and have different concerns than those in other parts of the country. This bolsters the argument by critics to dump our primary status.
I’m certainly not suggesting that New Hampshire should no longer hold its traditional role in vetting presidential candidates. In fact, the state’s small size, politically engaged population and traditions of conducting relatively open and transparent elections make it a better place to start than anywhere else.
Our local charm may be our brand, but we need to be less parochial and embrace our role as a place where a serious national conversation takes place. Of course, serious national conversation also takes place in Washington, but in New Hampshire it is a conversation with everyday Americans and it’s conducted without pre-conditions.
The two national political parties have designated four states to start the presidential primary process. When candidates go to Iowa, they must talk about corn-based ethanol. In South Carolina, they must speak to the state’s strong military installations. In Nevada, candidates are asked to speak against placing nuclear waste inside of Yucca Mountain. While New Hampshire does have a quirky political culture, we don’t ask candidates to pander on a local issue.
At house parties and town hall meetings in New Hampshire this year, there have been questions about the economy, health care and troubles in the Middle East. This is a good thing, but there are important issues that aren’t discussed. Few at these house parties asked about the nation’s race problem, even as there are protests about police mistreatment of blacks. Conservatives may ask about the Common Core educational standards, but rarely do we discuss the crisis in urban school districts. Some joked to candidates about mountains of snow last February, but no one talks about the historic drought situation in California that impacts one in 12 Americans.
What we talk about during the New Hampshire primary season needs to change, not only to prove the value of the primary, but also for the country. We live in a time when money is driving politics and defining political access. No one in the country gets better access to politicians than New Hampshire residents do. When we have that access, when politicians want to talk to us, we need to make it count.