“Never going to happen.”
That’s how New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu responded early last year to the prospect of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) stripping his state of its first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
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For more than 100 years, New Hampshire has held the first primary contest in the United States, giving state voters a hefty voice in the process through which candidates ultimately receive their party nomination.
It was such a source of pride that the state even enshrined its earliest-primary status in its laws.
But the Democratic Party, at the urging of President Joe Biden, was under pressure to rearrange its primary calendar and move forward states that better reflect US demographics.
So in February 2023, the DNC demoted the rural, largely white New Hampshire to second on its primary calendar, behind South Carolina, despite the state’s objections.
Now, as the primary season kicks off on January 23, the Democratic primary in New Hampshire is set to be a showdown — between state and national party officials as much as between the candidates themselves.
The state has refused to relinquish its top primary spot, and in response, the DNC has stripped the primary of its delegates, rendering it purely symbolic. Biden, who likely faces a tight reelection race in 2024, will also not appear on the New Hampshire ballot.
But why does going first matter? And with this year’s primary contests widely expected to confirm Biden as the Democratic nominee, will the brouhaha in New Hampshire have any effect?
‘Point of pride’
Liz Tentarelli, the president of the League of Women Voters New Hampshire, a non-partisan group, likens the state’s primaries to when “the circus comes to town”.
National media arrive in droves, and candidates crisscross the state, an area of just over 24,000sq km (9,300sq miles). Many presidential hopefuls hold small, in-person town halls and meet-and-greets, allowing some of the state’s 1.3 million residents to engage directly with candidates.
“Voting is a point of pride in New Hampshire,” said Tentarelli, a resident of the small town of Newbury, about 50km (30 miles) northwest of the state capital, Concord. Holding the first primary, she explained, is “a big deal”.
“I think it reflects that New Hampshire is the state that’s aware of politics more than some other states,” she told Al Jazeera, pointing to historically high voter turnout in primary and general elections.
“We’re also a small state that makes it easy for candidates who are not massively funded to campaign in the state. They can get around to different towns and hold these events, and the people turn out.”
According to Andrew Smith, a political science professor and president of the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Survey Center, holding the first primary is first and foremost “important culturally and historically to the state”.
“It’s what people from New Hampshire are known for,” he told Al Jazeera. “We never set out to have the first primary. It kind of happened by accident.”
To save money, the state’s early primaries were initially scheduled to coincide with Town Meeting Day, an occasion for community gatherings. New Hampshire held its first presidential primary in 1916, but it was four years later, in 1920, that the state began its first-in-the-nation tradition.
Since then, Smith said, New Hampshire residents have been willing to “fight” to keep their state’s first-place status.
Trump leading, Biden not on ballot
However, the 2024 primaries have been more muted than in past years, said Tentarelli.
That’s in large part because political observers expect this year’s presidential race to come down to a rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump, who lost the 2020 election.
Unlike its Democratic counterpart, the Republican National Committee has retained its traditional primary calendar, which began with the Iowa caucuses on January 15 and continues with New Hampshire holding the inaugural primary.
But one of his Republican rivals, former United Nations envoy Nikki Haley, has been gaining ground in New Hampshire in recent weeks, according to recent polls.
And on the Democratic side, Biden’s absence from New Hampshire’s primary ballot has highlighted tensions within the party itself. After the state’s row with the Democratic National Committee over the new primary calendar, Biden did not file paperwork to be on the ballot on January 23.
That schism was further underscored by a tense exchange between state officials and DNC representatives.
In a letter last week, obtained by Politico, the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee called the January 23 primary “detrimental”, “non-binding” and “meaningless” for Democrats.
The letter reiterated that New Hampshire’s vote could not be used to choose Democratic Party delegates, who represent the state in picking the party’s nominee for the general elections.
New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella responded on January 8, calling the DNC’s remarks “false, deceptive, and misleading”. He also warned that any attempt to discourage primary voters could constitute a violation of state law.
Biden has not campaigned in the state either, leaving long-shot Democratic candidates like author Marianne Williamson and Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips an opening to post higher-than-expected primary results.
Williamson and Phillips “have made some appearances, but they have not generated much interest this year because we know they’re long shots”, Tentarelli said. She added that, among Democratic voters, “there is a sense of annoyance, I think, that Biden is not on the ballot”.
Yet, despite the ongoing rift between state and national party officials, some top New Hampshire Democrats have backed a grassroots effort calling on voters to write in the president’s name on their primary ballots.
“While misguided DNC rules are leaving Joe Biden off the primary ballot here, New Hampshire Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents overwhelmingly support Joe Biden and plan to write him in,” the website for the Granite State Write-In campaign reads.
Approximately 65 percent of the state’s likely Democratic primary voters said they planned to write in the president’s name, according to a mid-November poll by the UNH Survey Center.
“Support for Biden has declined since September, but no strong challenger has yet emerged,” the survey said, noting only 10 percent support for Phillips and 9 percent for Williamson.
Meanwhile, a December poll from the Saint Anselm College Survey Center showed that Biden would beat Trump by 10 percentage points in New Hampshire in a hypothetical general election.
The centre noted that Trump faces a “looming problem” in the state: Supporters of his Republican rivals Haley and Chris Christie, who recently dropped out, would rather back Biden than Trump if the pair face off.
Expectations and momentum
The experts who spoke to Al Jazeera said that not taking part in the New Hampshire primary will have little effect on Biden’s ability to secure the Democratic nomination, or on his general election chances.
“I think by November, most voters will have forgotten the issue around the primary, and it’s a whole new ballgame,” said Tentarelli.
Raymond Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, echoed that sentiment. He said he does not expect the primary tiff to affect the general election.
“We’re still going to be ready for November and have a great year,” Buckley told Al Jazeera. He added that, while Biden’s absence on the ballot was “disappointing”, Democrats are still hoping for a “robust turnout” in the New Hampshire primary.
When asked whether Biden would have to answer for his decision to forgo the New Hampshire primary in his general election campaign, Buckley said that is still “a ways away”.
“I’m sure there will be some brainstorming down there on what that message will be, and I look forward to hearing it,” he said.
Still, Dante Scala, a political science professor at UNH who has observed the state’s primaries for more than two decades, said that if he were a member of the Biden campaign, he would be trying to downplay expectations ahead of the January 23 primary vote.
That’s because an underwhelming showing could raise scrutiny over whether “there [is] something to the idea that the Democratic base is really not thrilled with Biden”.
“That’s been a story off and on for months,” he told Al Jazeera. “Like, ‘Boy, a lot of Democrats say Biden’s too old.’ A lot of Democrats say, ‘I wish we had other choices.’ And now we actually [will] see some results.”
New Hampshire’s importance does not lie in the number of delegates it wields, Scala pointed out. Out of the thousands of delegates slated to appear at the Democratic National Convention, New Hampshire will only send about 33.
But Scala explained that the New Hampshire primary does play a significant role in helping presidential candidates build or lose campaign steam.
“The importance of New Hampshire is we’re the stage on which the candidates audition. And they audition not just in front of us any more, but they audition in front of the whole nation,” he said.
For his part, Smith, the UNH political science professor, said the power of the New Hampshire primaries is largely linked to “the story that is told in the media about what happened”.
If “the story coming out of New Hampshire is that President Biden loses in New Hampshire or almost gets beat by an unknown congressman from Minnesota, well, that is going to be a very difficult narrative to turn around”, he said.
“Because we’re already seeing a significant number of Democrats in New Hampshire and across the country wish they had somebody else as their nominee, but they don’t.”