New Hampshire grabs a clumsy handoff from Iowa

ROCHESTER, N.H. – So now it is up to New Hampshire.

The Iowa caucuses debacle is in the rearview mirror, the first primary is days away, and still there is no clarity in the struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination. Iowa failed the Democrats, and it failed America.

This is politics’ second chance.

“New Hampshire,” presidential candidate Andrew Yang proclaimed in a campaign stop here, “you are among the most powerful people in the country right now.” The man who wears a “MATH” lapel pin spelled out the political arithmetic: “Do you know how many Californians each New Hampshire voter is worth? One thousand.”

The baton now has been handed to this thousand-to-one state, unrepresentative in its demographics (90 percent of the state is white), in its average age (second oldest state in the country), in its lack of foreign influence (the percentage of foreign-born people is less than half the national average) and in its economic profile (seventh highest median household income). And yet so often it has been the great arbiter of our politics.

A decades-old account of the primary here acknowledges the quadrennial critique of New Hampshire’s shortcomings:

“Every four years the state gets a fresh diagnosis from the political pundits trying to psychoanalyze us. Some say there aren’t enough of us for a fair sample, others say we all speak in the same Yankee twang, which nobody understands. The consensus is that our folkways defy description.”

The principal folkway now in play comes in four letters: FITN. Everyone in these parts knows it means “first in the nation.”

Over the years, Iowa’s caucuses – a far different procedure, as we discovered this month – had one important function: to cull the field of White House aspirants. Instead, this year’s muddle in the middle of the country only extended the life of presidential campaigns that otherwise might have ended a few blocks from the state capitol in Des Moines hours after the results were posted. Because the results were not known for more than a day after the caucuses ended, the usual departures were replaced by faux statements of triumph and brave vows of perseverance.

Robert Frost, a poet by avocation but a New Hampshire political scientist by inclination, used to speak of the “cornmeal mush” distributed by politicians. Here there is little tolerance for such mush. Frost spoke of “first answerability.” Here the residents demand that their questions be answered in town forums, breakfast meetings, meet-and-greets on the town green, encounters on the state’s mushy streets. Indeed, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who tramped the state’s mountain trails, said it was “the best of humanity that goes out to walk.” A lot of the campaigning here is out on a walk. 

On that walk – there will be many in the days before Tuesday’s voting – the personal nature of campaigning here will be on display.

“This one-on-one thing pays off,” Gov. Hugh Gregg (1953-1955), one of the greatest boosters of the state’s primary, told me before he died 16 years ago. “We pick the candidates with an open mind. We don’t always concentrate on the issues. We always concentrate on the character of the candidates. It works here. We serve the nation in a way no one else can.”

That has been the mantra, invoked for decades, repeated often enough that it is a devout conviction here. It’s mostly true, and though other small states surely have the capacity to make these choices, none has the experience and the cultural imperative to match New Hampshire’s. “We’re independent,” Republican Sen. Warren Rudman, who died seven years ago, once told me. “We’re self-reliant. It’s even true of the people who move into the state. They take on the character. It’s what draws them here, and what keeps them here.”

Candidate scrutiny is part of the state’s DNA, as much as cheap liquor (in state stores conveniently planted just beyond the highway toll barriers), low taxes (the only state without both sales and income taxes), and a set of mountains called, poignantly, the Presidential Range. (One peak is called Mount Clinton but, in classic New Hampshire nonconformist style, not named for the 42nd president but instead for DeWitt Clinton, a governor of New York who never was president but who ran for the office in 1812.)

“There is a culture of service here,” former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, told a crowd in North Conway. “There’s an expectation of involvement.”

One element that has resonance today: Even as a blue state in contemporary times, New Hampshire remains a conservative place with a mischievous soak-the-rich impulse, evident in its business-profits levy and its meals and rooming taxes. 

But the greatest tradition is of the town hall meeting. It is where government decisions are made at the local level. The events are raucous, but serious. Everyone gets a chance to speak. Town officials have no place to hide, no means of evading tough questions. And the presidential candidates respect that tradition. 

Indeed, in the last week of this year’s primary, the 2020 presidential candidates have scheduled 38 sessions they describe as town hall meetings. Yang, the entrepreneur at the bottom of the polls, has scheduled 17 of them. 

“Folks, it’s good to be back in New Hampshire, more than you know,” former Vice President Joe Biden told union members in Concord in just such a session after the Iowa debacle. “You know 24 hours later, they’re still trying to figure out what happened in Iowa. At this rate, New Hampshire might get the first vote after all.” That’s the kind of line that wins applause here. Soon we will see if it wins votes as well.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.