My first memory of the New Hampshire primary dates from 1964, back when the primary was still in March (much more sensible than its present date). That year, New Hampshire Republicans voted for former UN Ambassador and 1960 vice-presidential nominee Henry Cabot Lodge, who wasn’t even formally campaigning, who in fact was then serving the Democratic Johnson Administration as the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam. A high school student with great interest in (but limited grasp of) politics, I was fascinated by Lodge’s win and the hope that it might somehow derail Barry Goldwater’s projected progress toward his party’s nomination. (Spoiler: It didn’t!). Four years later, New Hampshire made news again when upstart Eugene McCarthy, challenging incumbent Lyndon Johnson, captured 42% of the vote in the Democratic primary. Math being math, that meant that McCarthy lost and LBJ won. But politics being politics, it was LBJ who was perceived as having lost and McCarthy as having won a « moral victory. » Within a week, Robert F. Kennedy had « reassessed » and entered the race against LBJ. And soon enough, on March 31, LBJ withdrew.
Partly because it is the first primary, partly because it highlights candidates’ « retail politics » skills (which makes covering the campaign there so much fun), partly because of its highly educated, independent electorate, and partly because of the state’s history of favoring moderates (sometimes surprisingly breathing new life into seemingly failing campaigns), New Hampshire has long exercised an outsized influence on the presidential nominating process. For better or for worse (probably for worse), the Democrats decided this year to treat South Carolina as their first primary and not to count New Hampshire. Hence, President Biden is not even on the ballot in the Democratic primary (against such luminaries as Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips). There is a write-in campaign for Biden in NH, and the media will surely over-interpret its outcome, but in the end it will not matter.
Neither, most likely, will the Republican contest. Former President Trump’s one remaining Republican challenger is Nikki Haley, whose appeal is almost exclusively confined to « moderate » and college-educated voters, which makes New Hampshire a good state for her – and virtually the only state for her to have any actual hope. (NH ranks eighth in four-year college attainment, and « independent » voters are permitted to participate in the primary of their choice.) It is hard to imagine Haley actually defeating Trump in NH. And it is hard to imagine a McCarthy-like « moral victory » getting her any closer to the nomination than it did for him 56 years ago. Admittedly, strange things can happen in politics. But, barring the strangest of strange things, Trump will be the nominee of his party, as Biden will be of his; and the election will be a rematch of 2020.
None of that will prevent wall-to-wall breathless coverage of the NH primary, as if it were somehow decisive. Our elections have become very much a show, and NH has a starring role in the performance, regardless of its actual significance.
When historians replace journalists in accounting for this election, the crucial question will undoubtedly become whether Trump’s renomination was always inevitable or whether if at some specific point (perhaps when Democrats started indicting him?) his renomination became inevitable. What to make of the also-rans will depend in large measure upon how that prior question gets answered.