Not all that long ago, America was at war. The Vietnam conflict of the 1960s and ’70s meant the deaths of our young people, then subjected to mandatory drafts to fill quotas. Over 50,000 Americans and allies died, with many others suffering lifelong injuries. An estimated 3 million-plus citizens of North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were killed. President after president got our nation more deeply involved, with no ending in sight—goaded in large part by the military-industrial complex.
In 1968, Eugene McCarthy, a little-known US senator from Minnesota, decided to run for president. Anti–Vietnam War activists became involved in his campaign in the first-in-the-nation primary that year. Underfunded, with little national name recognition and no political network of support, McCarthy did well in New Hampshire’s primary, encouraging New York Senator Robert Kennedy to announce his candidacy. Within two weeks, President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for reelection.
Richard Nixon won that November, but the movement to end the war continued. As 1972 drew near, another unknown, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, came to our state to challenge the candidate who had national support from establishment Democrats, Senator Edmund Muskie from neighboring Maine. On election day, Muskie received 46 percent of the vote, short of a majority.
Underfunded and not considered by the Washington powers that be of the time worthy of support, McGovern saw his 37 percent propel him onto the national stage, and he became the Democratic presidential nominee that year. He lost to Nixon but made opposition to the Vietnam tragedy the goal of a new, young, revitalized generation of voters. The war ended three years later.
Such is the special purpose of the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Our state has the special “asset of smallness,” and a less expensive media market. Our population of 1.4 million is one-third that of South Carolina, and a quick look at the map shows our much smaller size compared with Nevada. Both Georgia and Michigan have populations around 10 million each. In New Hampshire, a candidate with a sincere, meaningful message can visit voters face-to-face, and the impact of image-makers and flashy campaign ads paid for with mass amounts of dark money is minimized.
The case can be made that without the New Hampshire primary, Jimmy Carter, an unknown governor from Georgia, would never have become president. In 1988, the grassroots candidacies of Colorado Senator Gary Hart and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson received national attention they would not have gained without our primary being their first stop (the same is true of Jackson’s 1984 run).
Let’s also remember Bill Clinton, whose second-place showing in 1992 against a neighboring senator from Massachusetts made him “the Comeback Kid.” President Barack Obama was able to perfect his personable campaign skills here. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders twice made inroads in New Hampshire that gave him a chance for the nomination, which he wouldn’t have had if he couldn’t first make his case here.
Because of our primary, we helped stop the Vietnam War. Because of our primary, we have allowed candidates without vast national networking or access to unlimited dark money a chance to make their case. It is because of our unique asset of smallness that it is more difficult to buy our voters.
That’s why I sponsored the 1975 law protecting our lead-off status. The asset of smallness is a good thing for the democratic process, and for the Democratic Party.
Our secretary of state will follow that state law requiring him to set our date seven days or more before any other. He will invite all candidates—Democrats and Republicans—to have their names printed on our primary election ballots. Any political party attempting to disenfranchise voters, or to prohibit or punish candidates who run here, will be met with both dismay and disgust.
New Hampshire’s primary isn’t about us. It’s about democracy in its purest sense.