The Iowa caucuses, followed now rapidly by New Hampshire and many other primaries, might have resulted in a leading presidential contender sewing up the nomination early. So far, that is not the case.
The Iowa victors, Republican Mike Huckabee and Democrat Barack Obama, have received intense nonstop coverage in the few days since the caucuses, but neither has vaulted into a commanding lead. The much-headlined “Obama surge” in attention and public enthusiasm did not prevent a New Hampshire victory by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Huckabee’s relative lack of money and organization is a drag on his still-promising grass-roots effort. New Hampshire is also less congenial than Iowa to his brand of evangelical Christian conservatism.
Losing in Iowa has weakened Republican contender Mitt Romney, who invested enormous sums of money, organizational effort and time there as well as in New Hampshire. Romney’s loss of momentum was helpful to John McCain, who has racked up an impressive initial New Hampshire primary victory. However, McCain has made the state a priority focus, taking a pass in Iowa.
The Arizona senator also has a strong long-term track record in New Hampshire as a presidential contender. In 2000, McCain decisively defeated George W. Bush in the Republican primary by 49 percent to 30 percent. The Bush organization appeared to be staggered by the loss but recovered quickly to win the South Carolina primary, in a particularly ugly campaign, and go on the take the Republican nomination.
In 1992, Bill Clinton was able to capitalize on a second-place finish in New Hampshire to become the “Comeback Kid,” emerge victorious in the primary sweepstakes that followed, captured the Democratic nomination and defeated incumbent President George H.W. Bush. In a similar manner, the state was extremely important in boosting the candidacies of relative unknowns George McGovern and Jimmy Carter in 1972 and 1976.
Since 1920, New Hampshire has held the first primary in each presidential election cycle. In historical context, the vote at times has been profoundly important. In 1952, the first year in which candidates’ names were listed on the ballot, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower received an enormous boost for the Republican nomination by winning the primary. Republican political and business leaders who strongly supported his candidacy tended to be concentrated in the Northeast. Ohio Sen. Robert Taft — “Mr. Republican” — had a far greater claim on the nomination through a professional lifetime of service, leadership and effort on behalf of the party.
In 1968, a relatively poor showing against insurgent Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary was followed by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to not seek the nomination. The enormous Tet Offensive launched by the Viet Cong just before the voting gave McCarthy’s anti-Vietnam War campaign a significant boost. Johnson actually won the primary, but McCarthy’s relatively strong showing, combined with the certainty of losing the upcoming Wisconsin primary, led to LBJ’s decision.
While McCarthy and Sen. Robert Kennedy went on to fight for Democratic convention delegates in the relatively few primaries, Vice President Hubert Humphrey collected enough support to secure the nomination while avoiding most of these elections. Following Kennedy’s assassination and the violent Democratic convention in Chicago, pressures greatly escalated to expand the number of primaries.
In the decades since, New Hampshire has fought hard, so far successfully, to remain first of a much larger collection of primary elections.
(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War”; NYU Press/Palgrave Macmillan. He can be reached at acyr(at)carthage.edu.)