Poor New Hampshire? Don’t Bet Against the Granite State

by Stuart Rothenberg October 5, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

Seeking to add states with large minority populations into the Democratic presidential primary mix, the Democratic National Committee has added Nevada and South Carolina to the party’s early calendar.

Does this mean the demise of the New Hampshire primary and the dilution of the state’s influence in the nomination process — especially if the state defies the DNC and moves its primary to an earlier date?

Don’t bet on it.

Democratic presidential candidates, as well as political operatives and journalists I’ve talked with, leave little doubt that New Hampshire once again will be a battleground for the party’s nomination, whenever the primary is held.

The DNC has added Nevada between Iowa and the Granite State and scheduled South Carolina for the Tuesday after New Hampshire. Both of the new contests are caucuses, so New Hampshire’s status as the first primary state isn’t compromised. Still, the Granite State’s secretary of state may take action to ensure that the state isn’t leapfrogged by Nevada.

If New Hampshire moves up its date, the DNC has promised to punish it by refusing to recognize the state’s delegates. In theory, that should encourage Democratic presidential hopefuls to bypass the state rather than expend time and resources in a state with no delegates at the national convention. It won’t. All the early potential candidates have indicated they will campaign in New Hampshire, whenever the primary is held.

“There will be an election. People will vote. Reporters will cover it. And the results will influence results in subsequent states. There’s nothing meaningful the DNC can do about it,” said one veteran Democratic strategist with presidential campaign experience.

New Hampshire really isn’t about delegates, although campaigns obviously hope to win some in the primary. Rather, the primary is all about momentum. That means candidates and journalists will show up even if delegates are not at stake.

“It’s preposterous to think that we wouldn’t cover New Hampshire in the same way we always have,” a network political director said to me recently.

Journalists have spent more than 30 years learning how to cover the New Hampshire primary, and that’s a strong incentive for them to continue to cover the primary as if it is a premier political event. Reporters have sources in the state and loads of history in the back of their minds, enabling them to compare what’s happening in 2007 and 2008 with what happened in 1976 and 1992.

But what if New Hampshire keeps the same date? Won’t Nevada eclipse it? Again, don’t bet on it.

While the South Carolina primary is likely to get plenty of attention from candidates and the national media in 2008, it’s unlikely that Nevada caucuses will get anything close to Iowa and New Hampshire in terms of attention.

First, like the well-established Iowa event, Nevada is another caucus, not a primary. Journalists are likely to flock to one event where campaign organization and base voters are important, but are they really going to do it a second time, after all of the hullabaloo around Iowa? Probably not.

And for the campaigns of presidential hopefuls, Iowa’s caucuses are a known commodity. Political operatives know who is going to participate and how the caucuses will work. They don’t have a clue about how Nevada’s caucuses will work, and that means they’ll invest far less time and effort in that state, even if it is early in the process.

True, Nevada is a state with a considerable Hispanic population, and that guarantees candidates and some media will be there. But New Hampshire, not Nevada, is likely to be seen as the second big test of the presidential nominating process.

Cost certainly will be an issue for the TV networks. They will devote considerable resources to the first caucuses and the first primary, but they are less likely to treat Nevada like a major league happening, especially since it is likely to be a Democrats-only event.

“Nevada will be semi-big,” insisted a veteran Democratic operative who has played in the Democratic presidential sandbox. “It won’t be as big as New Hampshire, even if New Hampshire comes after it. It may not even be as important as South Carolina.”

South Carolina is likely to get more coverage than Nevada because it is on the East Coast, because both parties will have primaries the same day and, once again, because reporters and candidates already have come to regard the Palmetto State as an early test. Moreover, the state’s considerable African-American population makes it both an interesting story for journalists and a test of candidates’ appeal.

I don’t know if New Hampshire will challenge the DNC by moving its primary earlier than the DNC allows, but it might. A number of smart people I talked to firmly believe it will. Some even think the Granite State will have no choice but to move up to December or even November.

And if that happens, the irony is that the DNC will have succeeded in forcing Democrats to choose a nominee earlier, rather than changing the states that have the most impact in selecting the party’s standard-bearer.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.