New Hampshire leapfrogs SC to hold nation’s 1st presidential primary

By: - November 17, 2023 11:16 am

New Hampshire Secretary of State Dave Scanlan holds a press conference to announce the date of the 2024 New Hampshire presidential primary on Nov. 15, 2023. (Ethan DeWitt/New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story was originally published on New Hampshire Bulletin.

Defying the wishes of the Democratic National Committee, New Hampshire’s secretary of state announced Wednesday that the Granite State will hold its presidential primaries Jan. 23, making it the nation’s first on the 2024 schedule.

Speaking at a press conference flanked by Republican and Democratic state party leaders, Dave Scanlan said the primary date would fulfill New Hampshire’s tradition and statutory requirement that the state hold the first-in-the-nation primary.

“If you have the childhood dream of growing up to be president of the United States, you can try and make that a reality in New Hampshire,” Scanlan said. “That fact, after all, is the purest form of the American Dream.”

The announcement puts New Hampshire Democrats at odds with the Democratic National Committee, whose members voted in February to approve a primary calendar that advocated for South Carolina taking the first primary position on Feb. 3. That calendar saw New Hampshire and Nevada sharing the second position on Feb. 6. The shuffle was made after criticism among Democrats about New Hampshire and Iowa’s lack of diversity compared to the rest of the country.

State Democratic leaders had vowed that New Hampshire would hold its primary before other states regardless of the DNC’s decision; Wednesday’s announcement makes that official. New Hampshire’s Jan. 23 voting day will be a “rogue primary,” a status that could lead to the national party penalizing Democratic presidential candidates who campaign here by reducing or the number of New Hampshire delegates they receive at the party nominating convention in August.

President Joe Biden, who is running for re-election, will not appear on the Democratic primary ballot after declining to file last month, citing New Hampshire’s lack of compliance with the DNC calendar that he had proposed. Democratic supporters of Biden have launched a write-in effort to make him the state’s nominee anyway.

In total 21 Democrats and 24 Republicans filed to run for president in the state, Scanlan said.

New Hampshire’s Jan. 23 primary date places the state’s election one week after the Iowa Republican Caucus, which will be held Jan. 15, and 11 days before the South Carolina Democratic primary on Feb. 3.

The Republican National Committee has committed to keeping the traditional presidential primary calendar next year: Republicans will vote in Iowa on Jan. 15, New Hampshire on Jan. 23, Nevada and the Virgin Islands on Feb. 8; and South Carolina on Feb. 24.

Democrats, meanwhile, will vote in New Hampshire on Jan. 23, in South Carolina on Feb. 3, in Nevada on Feb. 6, and in Michigan on Feb 27.

Some states, like South Carolina, Iowa, and Nevada, are holding each party’s primary or caucus on separate dates; New Hampshire state law does not permit a split primary.

Scanlan argued the early primary date would ensure New Hampshire residents could remain central to the election of the president.

“At stake is who gets to determine the nominee of the party: elites on a national party committee by controlling the nominating calendar, or the voters,” Scanlan said.

Scanlan made the announcement in the Hall of Flags, the large marble foyer in the State House lined with battle pennants and flags from the Civil War and other conflicts.

Standing behind him were heavyweight political figures in both parties, including state Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley, Republican Party Chairman Chris Ager, and Jim Splaine, a former Democratic state representative who co-authored the 1975 law that requires the New Hampshire secretary of state to schedule the presidential primary before any other state’s similar contest.

“We haven’t changed a thing in New Hampshire,” Gov. Chris Sununu said in his own remarks. “We’re going first and the law says so because we’ve earned it. We are the ones that are trying to be amazingly consistent.”

Gov. Chris Sununu addresses reporters as Secretary of State Dave Scanlan announces the 2024 presidential primary date. (Ethan DeWitt /New Hampshire Bulletin)

The New Hampshire Democrats’ “rogue primary” status has driven a wedge between some in the party over whether – and how much – to support the president.

Buckley has been adamant for months that the state would host the first primary, despite the DNC’s wishes. But he has also continued advocating for Biden, and has predicted the president will win the nomination in New Hampshire on a write-in vote despite declining to file.

“The reality is that Joe Biden will win the NH FITN Primary in January, win renomination in Chicago and will be re-elected next November,” he wrote on X, the social media network formerly known as Twitter on Oct. 24, the day Biden sent a letter to the New Hampshire Democratic Party announcing he would not be running in the state.

Other Democrats, like Splaine, are less supportive of that approach. Splaine worked on President Lyndon Johnson’s write-in re-election campaign in 1968, in which Johnson won just under 50 percent of the vote in New Hampshire but was upstaged by Eugene McCarthy’s strong 42 percent second-place finish.

In an interview, Splaine argued something similar could happen to Biden if he comes up short on a write-in vote.

“The story is going to be that he didn’t achieve a majority,” Splaine said. “And that will hurt because it shows weakness.” He said he wished the president would decide to drop out of the race entirely, but that he would vote for Biden in the general election if he were the nominee.

Some Republicans like Sununu have argued that the write-in campaign rewards Biden when Democrats should instead punish him for advocating for the calendar change and nominate someone else.

“There’s no doubt that citizens all across New Hampshire, especially independents and Democrats, are taking notice that they’re being pushed aside by a national party,” Sununu said. “No one takes very kindly to that.”

But whether New Hampshire retains the first-in-the-nation primary – and whose fault it is if lost – may not be the most pressing concern to voters here, noted Dante Scala, professor of politics at the University of New Hampshire. In a December UNH poll held shortly after the Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee first voted to approve a plan putting South Carolina before New Hampshire, 56 percent of Democratic voters said they thought New Hampshire’s first primary position was “somewhat” or “very” important, while 44 percent said it was “not very important” or “not important at all.”

“Broadly speaking, I think the order of the primaries is a drop in the bucket compared to other things that most voters think about,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

In any case, Scala argues, the real test for New Hampshire is not 2024 but 2028, when both the Republican and Democratic presidential fields will be wide open.

“Will the DNC change its mind and say ‘New Hampshire is too much trouble; let it go first’? Or would New Hampshire change its law?” he said. If the answer is no, he added, “then it really comes down to the candidates.”

“Would Democratic candidates participate in the primary and risk being penalized delegates, risk perhaps public pressure from Democratic activists elsewhere in the country?” Scala said.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.