New Hampshire: A Proven Primary Tradition

Every four years the world turns its attention to New Hampshire’s presidential primary. In this small New England state, little-known candidates have moved to center stage while front runners have seen their hopes dashed. As each primary election draws near, the Granite State itself—its people, landscape, cities, and towns—shares the limelight on the first stop of the long road to the presidency.

Early in the 20th century progressive reformers introduced measures in a number of states to provide for popular participation in presidential elections. They were hoping to undermine the influence of the good ol’ boys network that saw presidential nominees emerge from backroom deals at party conventions without any reference to the will of the people.

Several of the most progressive states adopted laws that allowed voters to select their state’s delegates to the convention, a modest beginning to increase public participation. Begun in Oregon in 1910, these presidential preference primaries had little real impact on maneuvering at party conventions. New Hampshire held its first such contest in 1916 and, in 1920, with 20 states holding presidential preference primaries, held its election before any other state. From that year forward, New Hampshire would hold the first primary in the country for every presidential election.

In 1948 the state legislature changed the law once again, concerned about low voter turnout. In future presidential primaries, residents would vote directly for the candidates themselves. The new law created the modern New Hampshire presidential primary with only minor revisions in the ensuing years. Legislators also decided to hold the presidential primary on the same day as town meeting to save towns the expense of mounting two separate elections in a single year. Since New Hampshire’s town meeting day was in March, well before any other states held their presidential primaries, it solidified the Granite State’s role as the first-in-the-nation primary.

The first presidential contest under the new law took place in 1952. From the beginning, it proved to be both popular and significant. Voter turnout more than doubled from the 1948 election. The media also covered the campaign extensively, bringing national attention to New Hampshire and making the results all that more important.

On the Republican side, supporters of General Dwight D. Eisenhower placed his name on the ballot, even though they hadn’t quite convinced Eisenhower to run on the Republican ticket yet. Eisenhower remained in Europe, still actively serving with the U.S. Army. He was not expected to win in New Hampshire. The favored Republican candidate, Ohio Senator Robert Taft, campaigned actively in the state with apparent success. The media routinely reported that he was far ahead in the polls.

For the Democrats, all eyes turned to President Harry Truman, who had not yet committed to run for another term in part because of low popularity ratings. He was challenged in the New Hampshire primary by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.

Truman dismissed the New Hampshire primary lightly, saying it was unimportant and just so much “eyewash.” While Truman remained aloof, Kefauver campaigned hard across New Hampshire, wearing a coonskin cap, going door-to-door, and meeting the electorate. Kefauver’s personal approach was entirely new to presidential politics, but it became the standard for the New Hampshire primary, a style of campaigning called retail politics.

Both parties were in for a surprise on election day. Eisenhower beat Taft handily, demonstrating the strength of Eisenhower’s political appeal even when he wasn’t personally present. His victory convinced him to actively run for the presidency. Kefauver’s victory over Truman convinced Truman not to seek reelection. It became clear quickly that New Hampshire was an early and important testing ground of a candidate’s electability, and it marked the beginning of a new era in the American process of electing a president.

The 1952 election also demonstrated what has become a truism—that pollsters and prognosticators had best be careful in their rush to make judgments. Time and again the press has predicted that a candidate is about to win the New Hampshire primary by “the largest margin in history” only to find the candidate narrowly winning or even losing. Underdogs have a history of connecting with New Hampshire voters, and several front runners have found that neglecting the Granite state can be costly. Even sitting presidents have learned not to take New Hampshire for granted. The state’s large contingent of independent voters—those not committed to one party or another—has made the primary an even better test for candidates hoping to appeal to a national audience eventually.

The New Hampshire Historical Society has extensive holdings of campaign memorabilia and political artifacts from the state’s long history with the presidential primary. The images below in this online exhibition are a sampling of our collection.

We also invite you to enjoy these additional resources on the New Hampshire primary:

  • Autographed copies of The First Primary: New Hampshire's Outsize Role in Presidential Nominations, written by University of New Hampshire scholars David W. Moore and Andrew E. Smith, are available for purchase through the Society's store. The First Primary, published by University of New Hampshire Press in September 2015, offers a comprehensive history of the state’s primary, an analysis of its media coverage and impact, and a description of the New Hampshire electorate, along with a discussion of how that electorate reflects or diverges from national opinions on candidates and issues. The First Primary ably fills the gaps in our understanding of New Hampshire’s outsize role in the nomination process. Autographed copies of The First Primary are on sale now for a limited time. Original retail price $29.95; sale price $20.
  • Listen to or read our special issue of Historical New Hampshire that focuses on the history of the New Hampshire primary. The audio version of this publication is available to download for free, and the printed publication can be ordered through our online store.
  • Visit the Discovering New Hampshire exhibition at our headquarters at 30 Park Street, Concord, to see political objects and photographs from New Hampshire’s history, including campaign material from Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign.

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