Mark Shields: We need the New Hampshire primary

Mark Shields

The three most recently elected U.S. presidents collected in private contributions for their respective campaigns that brought them to the White House $31 million [Bill Clinton], $96 million [George W. Bush] and $746 million [Barack Obama]. According to the reliable Center for Responsive Politics, total spending in the 2014 midterm elections amounted to a record $3.77 billion, which led, not coincidentally, to the lowest voter turnout since 1942. American politics has devolved, sadly, into a frenzied money chase, an uninterrupted arms race for big bucks.

Now, as we embark on a long 2016 presidential campaign, it is time to recognize the genuine national value to the country of the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire presidential primary. Money can drive candidates’ schedules and sometimes distort their positions, but New Hampshire emphasizes very different civic principles. The state’s voters take their responsibility seriously. They actually pay attention to what a presidential candidate says and stands for. They go to see the candidates to listen to them, to question them, to compare them. Because New Hampshire is so small — 45th among the states in square miles — with the great majority of its population within an hour’s drive of Manchester, conscientious residents often can evaluate four or five presidential candidates on a Saturday.

Here the underfunded underdog, capable of connecting personally with voters, really can spring the upset. Long shots can topple heavily funded front-runners. In 1952, the first time candidates’ names appeared on the primary ballot, New Hampshire voters chose Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee over President Harry Truman, who, shortly thereafter, announced he would not seek another term. In 1968, an anti-Vietnam War senator, Eugene McCarthy, came close to defeating President Lyndon B. Johnson. That led to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s entering the race and LBJ’s leaving it. In 1992, conservative challenger Pat Buchanan won a surprising 38 percent of the primary vote against President George H.W. Bush, indicating that the incumbent, who would lose to Bill Clinton in November, was in serious trouble.

New Hampshire voters have been as influential as they are conscientious. In the 10 presidential elections from 1952 to 1988, no one won the White House who had not first won the New Hampshire primary. In the past 64 years, America has not elected a president who did not either win or, at worst, finish second in New Hampshire. Imperial candidates with huge entourages are regularly humbled by Granite State voters.

New Hampshire, with only 1.33 million residents, has a state legislature with 400 members. It seems that every other individual you meet there — or her spouse — has run for, is serving in or has served in the Legislature. One state legislator represents just over 33,000 constituents. If the U.S. followed the same formula, the Congress would have 9,697 members. New Hampshire residents are used to campaigns and elections. They probably have more of each per capita than any other place in the Western world.

No better example of personal campaigning’s defeating a big bankroll and establishment endorsements exists than Sen. John McCain’s 2000 primary defeat — by 18 percent — of the heir apparent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. McCain held 114 town hall meetings in New Hampshire, answering every question by, refreshingly, saying exactly what he thought and meaning what he said.

New Hampshire — where presidential primaries are not auctions, where candidates cannot hide from demanding voters who care, where voters, as opposed to money, can still rule, where the overlooked can get a look — could well have the most important elections of 2016. Which is good for America.

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