MAY 15, 2017
THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, with its tides of rage, party divisions, and Russian meddling, was always going to howl for the kind of radical treatment given to earlier historic campaigns, like Norman Mailer’s and Joe McGinniss’s books on the 1968 race, Hunter S. Thompson’s and Timothy Crouse’s dispatches from 1972, and David Foster Wallace’s profile of John McCain’s 2000 bid.
Now former Huffington Post reporter Scott Conroy has given us one of the first of an expected horde of books on the 2016 election, but with a soda-straw view that delivers intriguing results. Vote First or Die: The New Hampshire Primary: America’s Discerning, Magnificent, Absurd Road to the White House — a mouthful of a title, perhaps — offers a good helping of telling particulars about the most eccentric and often most important stop on the presidential nomination calendar.
Like those earlier works, Conroy’s account is highly personalized, and much of the fun comes from seeing this peculiar place through the eyes of an often-tentative intruder. Speaking directly to the reader, for example, he recommends the Errol Motel as a cozy option if one needs “to dispose of a corpse.” Of a man he meets during a protest, Conroy writes, “as nice as he was, Bill seemed like the kind of guy who might mistake me on a foggy morning for a tasty looking wild turkey and take a shot at me.” A revealing New Hampshire idiosyncrasy he uncovers is the local prestige associated with low-numbered license plates, and how former Governor John H. Sununu used to offer one of these coveted items to sway a state senator’s endorsement toward a particular candidate.
The quadrennial New Hampshire roadshow, with all its quirks, is now 65 years old. Not long ago, when relatively few states held primaries that bound delegates to a specific candidate, it was the party conventions that revealed the subterranean rhythms, along with providing the drama, of the American electoral process. Would, for example, Ronald Reagan’s candidacy in 1968, officially announced at the Republican convention in Miami, draw enough Southern delegates to forestall a Nixon victory on the first ballot? Would some twist in the Democratic proceedings in Chicago deprive Hubert Humphrey of the nomination?
In his account of those conventions, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer wrote, “A delegate’s vote is his holding — he will give it up without return no more than a man will sign over his house entire to a worthy cause.” This politics-as-property naturally lent itself to much wheeling and dealing. In 1960, Lyndon Johnson, at the time the most powerful Democrat in the country, ignored the primaries altogether, believing that the upstart John Kennedy wouldn’t be able secure enough delegates through that process, and that the nomination would be decided by party bosses in the convention’s backrooms.
The shift toward a more transparent and democratic process of selecting the nominee began in 1949, when the New Hampshire legislature passed a law requiring a direct vote in primaries for presidential candidates. The revolution made itself known in the next election, when Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver’s unexpected and sizable victory over incumbent Harry Truman in 1952 might have prompted the president’s decision not to seek a second full term.
On the Republican side, General Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert A. Taft in New Hampshire brought the momentum to his campaign that took him to the White House. Eugene McCarthy’s strong second-place showing against President Johnson in 1968 encouraged Bobby Kennedy to enter the race, and LBJ to withdraw — the Granite State thus breaking its second presidency.
George McGovern’s strong second behind Ed Muskie in 1972, belying predictions of a Muskie romp, propelled him to the Democratic nomination. Jimmy Carter’s New Hampshire victory in 1976 started him on his path to the presidency. Ronald Reagan’s most iconic campaign moment in 1980 — I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green — occurred at a New Hampshire debate, proving him more self-assured than rival George Bush. Between 1952 and 1988, nobody won the presidency without first winning the New Hampshire primary (Trump is the first non-incumbent to do so since then).
The Granite State became all the more important after the Democrats, soon followed by the Republicans, reformed their rules to hold primaries or caucuses in every state and territory, making delegates little more than postmen for voters. Since then, New Hampshire’s influence has depended on its jealously guarded spot, enforced by state law, as the first primary on the calendar (following the Iowa caucuses).
Conroy chronicles various attempts, mostly on the Democratic side, to dethrone the state, from Nevada in 1969 to Utah in 2014. Before the 1984 election, the Democratic leadership sent a delegation, led by the DNC’s compliance and review committee chair Nancy Pelosi, to browbeat New Hampshire’s secretary of state Bill Gardner into agreeing to hold the New Hampshire primary on the same date as Vermont’s, going so far as to threaten the barring of New Hampshire’s delegates at the convention. He refused and overcame Pelosi’s efforts.
Live Free or Die, says the state motto. That libertarianism is dotingly expressed, among other things, in the absence of a state income or sales tax. It’s also a very white state, which has inspired legitimate concerns about whether, by failing to represent an increasingly diverse nation, its influence on a national election is still justified.
Indeed it can feel like another country. Conroy notes, “Where, after all, did meth kingpin Walter White go when he needed to move off the grid in the last season of Breaking Bad? New Hampshire. They’d never be able to find him there!” He could have also mentioned that other renegade, J. D. Salinger, who retreated to the state to become one of the most famously reclusive figures of American letters.
What it doesn’t have in demographics, New Hampshire makes up for in an almost atavistic passion for politics. Conroy writes, “New Hampshirites engage in politics with the all-encompassing zeal that residents of other states dedicate to football or church.” Turnout in the 2016 primary — over 52 percent of eligible voters — was higher than in any other state. What Mailer said of Chicago, that it is “an honest town,” applies here, with fewer opportunities for corruption and patronage (in the absence of large public works projects).
Candidates seem much more directly exposed to the light here than anywhere else, and New Hampshire’s primary voters have a reputation for punishing frauds and establishment favorites, even when those people are the nominal victors. Bush Senior won the primary in 1992, but his margin over challenger Pat Buchanan wasn’t deemed wide enough to mean a real triumph. As in 1968, a not-good-enough victory in New Hampshire handicapped the incumbent, while on the Democratic side a not-so-bad loss enabled Bill Clinton to present himself as the “Comeback Kid.” This may take a little bit of pubic relations voodoo, but the effects are powerful.
Conroy tells New Hampshire’s story mostly through the 2016 primary, which lends itself to all the big themes, the heroes and far more numerous villains, of a great election. In the 1968 and 1972, war and the military-industrial complex were eroding American nobility. In 2016, the toxin was Big Money, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that tilted the field toward deep-pocket donors. If New Hampshire has proved formidably impervious to Big Money, the need for vigilance still seems urgent. Early on, Conroy follows the self-styled New Hampshire Rebellion, where protesters walk the length of the state to draw attention to the role of money in politics, marching and clapping to rewritten anthems as millions of fresh dollars keep pouring into the electoral system.
Campaigns do indeed have their fragile and often compromised heroes, like Eugene McCarthy and George Wallace and David Foster Wallace’s “anti-candidate” John McCain, who embodied the spirit of New Hampshire — he of the Straight Talk Express and the town hall meetings, who Wallace credited with making the 2000 GOP New Hampshire primary the one with the highest young voter turnout of any in history.
Conroy’s anti-candidate is Lindsey Graham (who also happens to be McCain’s political ally and protégé): eloquent (“the man could talk a dog off a meat wagon”), cash-strapped, happy to chat over a Bailey’s on the rocks with just about anyone — and seemingly too authentic to be a contender even in New Hampshire. At the other end of the spectrum is the always-on-message Marco Rubio and Graham’s eventual endorsee, Jeb Bush, who holds out for as long as he can before declaring his candidacy, because by doing so he’s able to continue directly raising cash through a super PAC. Delightfully, the Granite State crushes them both.
At times, Conroy lapses into dry rehashes of each major candidate’s 2016 campaign, which do little to advance any compelling thesis and may be tiresome to readers still recovering from the exhaustion of that traumatizing election. More unfortunate, in trying to provide both an on-the-ground account of the 2016 process and a history of the New Hampshire primary as an institution, Conroy gives us isolated, academic accounts of past New Hampshire campaigns. Appearing every couple of chapters, these interludes become both predictable and seemingly forced, and they speak less fluently to the present moment than if they had been woven into his narrative more organically. Conroy is instead at his liveliest when he’s back on the ground, marching with the Rebellion, moving from lobby to lobby, hotel bar to hotel bar, visiting rural outposts like the unheard-of Chichester in pursuit of the Trump campaign that had blacklisted the Huffington Post for disrespecting its candidate.
Inevitably, Conroy closes on the question of whether the New Hampshire primary still deserves to be considered hallowed political ground, particularly in the wake of Trump’s victory. Unsurprisingly, he concludes that Trump’s (and Bernie Sanders’s) New Hampshire success was a confirmation and not a repudiation of the state’s ethic: “Over the primary’s history, New Hampshire voters have often sought to send a message that Washington was failing them. But in 2016, that message was delivered via bullhorn pressed directly against the party leadership’s eardrums.”
Getting the final word, McCain tells Conroy, “Without New Hampshire, it would change dramatically the whole face of American politics, and I think money would play a much greater role.” There are, however, now so many candidates and so many donors, so much political fish in the sea that New Hampshire’s utility seems to be that of a shark’s that will grab a few in its teeth but allow many others to escape. It might swallow a Bush and a Rubio, but allow a well-financed Ted Cruz to swim on. On the other hand, a New Hampshire victory might propel a Bernie Sanders or a McCain (in 2000) to be able to go for a few more rounds, only to fall to a better-financed establishment favorite. The Granite State’s record has itself been mixed: primary voters might have sent Bush Senior a stern warning in 1992, but they did after all choose him in 1988. In 2000, they picked middle-of-the-road Al Gore over the more liberal Bill Bradley.
While it’s true, as Conroy notes, that Hillary Clinton was compelled to tack to the left after losing to Sanders in New Hampshire, that seemed to reflect a more general mood. Would she have still done so had inequality not already become part of the national conversation? In 2000, Foster Wallace fretted that McCain’s “anticandidate status threatens to dissolve before almost everyone’s eyes and he becomes […] in certain ways indistinguishable as an entity from the Shrub [George W. Bush] and the GOP Establishment against which he’d defined himself and shone so in New Hampshire.”
Trump’s victory (and to some extent the Sanders experience, too) raises a more compelling question than what Conroy ponders here. At one point in the primaries, there was a brief, delicious anticipation of a contested Republican convention — should neither Trump nor Cruz win majority delegate support — where in a second ballot the delegates would have been free to vote their consciences. The implication was that delegates, as political professionals, would be more adult than primary voters who had been reckless in their embrace of a demagogue.
The Democrats had somewhat insulated themselves against such a prospect through the 700-some unpledged “superdelegates,” party officeholders, elected representatives, and stalwarts representing around 15 percent of the total convention vote, who are free to vote as they choose — and picked Clinton over Sanders by a vast majority (the party is now considering reforms to reduce the number of unpledged delegates).
The success of insurgent candidates like Trump and Sanders (who is technically an independent) had some contemplating whether there was too much internal party democracy. While the election was still ongoing, Jonathan Rauch wrote a provocative essay in The Atlantic, about
the weakening of the institutions and brokers — political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees — that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time.
He argued, “As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal — both in campaigns and in the government itself.”
It was strange to hear an analyst express nostalgia for the very things that turned many off politics — earmarks, soft money, middlemen, closed-door bargaining — but no doubt the very chaos that Rauch warned about now characterizes the Republican-controlled government. It wouldn’t be surprising if the party opted for creating a superdelegate cadre in the future. Nor would this necessarily be undemocratic. In choosing their leaders, parties across Western parliamentary democracies maintain a voting balance between elected representatives, officeholders, and general members, rewarding party professionals and trying to ensure a measure of fidelity to the brand.
In the United States, the primaries may now be the worst option apart from all the others in how parties nominate their presidential candidates, with vaunted New Hampshire leading the way. But in an era where we have much to fear from populism, the urgent question is not whether a small state will continue to frame the issues around presidential elections, but how the two main parties will be able to absorb grassroots demands while maintaining institutional coherence, broad electoral appeal, and the ability to govern.