Could Calendar Shakeups and Early Voting Endanger N.H.'s 'First-in-the-Nation' Status?

Dec 21, 2018

We’re still more than a year away from the official start of the 2020 presidential race, barring any schedule changes from the powers that set the date of New Hampshire’s “first-in-the-nation” presidential primary. But as more states move to expand early voting and absentee ballot options, New Hampshire's “first-in-the-nation” voters might be far from the first voters to cast ballots for president in 2020.

What makes the 2020 presidential primary schedule different?

New Hampshire and three other states get special permission to hold their nominating contests before anyone else: Iowa goes first, with its traditional caucus; followed by New Hampshire, with the nation's first party primary vote; followed by Nevada and South Carolina. That much looks like it will stay the same in 2020. But what’s on the calendar right after those first four states is potentially more significant. According to Frontloading HQ’s primary scheduling tracker, nine states — including some of the most populous, like California, Texas, Massachusetts and Virginia — are scheduled to hold their elections on March 3. More could jump in if they choose. It’s too early to tell how many delegates are at stake in each state, but some have estimated that about a third of the delegates could be up for grabs on that date.

Josh Putnam, a lecturer at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington who runs Frontloading HQ, says it’s important to note that this isn’t without precedent: In 2008, dozens of states held their primaries on the same day, Feb. 5.

“The fact that we've got the two largest states that are coinciding on Super Tuesday is something new,” Putnam said, but this kind of “clustering” at the top of the calendar has happened before, and it’s likely to continue.

(Click here or keep scrolling down for an interactive look at the 2020 calendar and where New Hampshire fits in.)

Why are those other states trying to move up their primaries this time around?

We can’t speak for all of them, but it’s a safe bet to say they just wanted to play a bigger role in deciding who’s running the country — like Iowa and New Hampshire have for decades. We did check in with the state that seems to be attracting the most attention for its new primary position: California. Its Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, said the rationale is simple.

“California's the most populous state in the nation, the most diverse state in the nation, represents the largest economy of any state in the nation, and California wanted a more relevant say in the presidential nominating process across all parties,” Padilla said.

While California’s place in the calendar has floated around cycle to cycle, the state passed a new law in 2017 solidifying a much earlier spot on the calendar. In doing so, Padilla said California “tried to be respectful of the role early states play,” and has tried to stress as much in his interactions with New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner. 

"I do see him occasionally at convening of National Association of Secretaries of State," Padilla said. "and I have assured him we're not leapfrogging New Hampshire, but we are interested in giving Californians a stronger voice in the national political environment."

The fact that California’s population is so large and more reflective of the demographics of the rest of the country makes it well-positioned to test presidential candidates on issues that matter to the nation as a whole, Padilla said.

“By the time California gets to vote in the primaries, the nominee's pretty much been determined,” Padilla said. “California’s no stranger to receiving presidential candidates, unfortunately it's been much more for the purposes of raising money and a lot less to have to earn Californians’ votes.”

But if California and those other states aren’t actually voting before New Hampshire, what’s the big deal?

Well, that’s the thing: It’s possible that in 2020, many Californians could technically cast their ballots before New Hampshire voters head to the polls. The same could be true for voters in Vermont and other states whose election laws currently allow (or might be amended to allow) in-person early voting, vote by mail or no-excuses absentee voting. In California, absentee ballots are mailed four weeks before an election, and some counties also allow in-person early voting during that same window. So if the current calendar stands, California voters could start filling out their ballots a full week before New Hampshire voters head to the polls. (Padilla said those ballots "will not be counted until election night," and given the size of the electorate it could take as long as a month to finalize his state's primary results.)

Couldn’t New Hampshire just move its primary date to avoid any overlap with other states’ voting windows?

It could. State law gives New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner the authority to reshuffle the primary date up if he feels other states are encroaching. But Gardner is known for taking his time on these kinds of scheduling decisions, and he has told local reporters that it’s too early to make any pronouncements about the 2020 primary date.

“Too many times if you make public comments you narrow the dialogue and events may overtake what the prior thinking was at the time,” Gardner recently told the New Hampshire Union Leader. “You just wait. We’ve got plenty of time here. Bills go through but they also get amended.”

If the primary calendar stays as it is, what would that mean for New Hampshire?

One consideration is that candidates might have to pay attention to winning over voters in much bigger states when they normally would be focusing on shaking hands, holding town halls and doing retail stops from Lee to Littleton. There’s also a more practical component to this: To do well in a state like California, or Texas or Virginia or any other state that has more people and a more robust media market than New Hampshire, a candidate needs more money than they might need to run a campaign in New Hampshire. So that might favor well-financed campaigns, because they’ll be the ones that can actually front the money needed to run ads and staff up at such a large scale early on.

As opposed to New Hampshire, where in theory they’d have to do more grassroots retail campaigning?

In theory, yes.

Wait a second, it’s not even 2019 yet — why are we this preoccupied with 2020 already?

You know this is a New Hampshire news outlet, right? This is just what we do around here.

No, but really, why are we talking about this right now?

In all seriousness, we’re at the point in the pre-pre-pre-presidential election period when national political parties are finalizing the rules for their nominating contests and states are locking in their plans for when (and how) those contests might take place.

We’re also at the point when prospective presidential candidates are finalizing their plans to jump into the race and their political teams are sizing up how the primary calendar might affect those plans — so all of that behind-the-scenes chatter from campaign operatives is undoubtedly fueling at least some of the headlines we’ve seen on the subject in the last month or so. (And while there’s been a burst of attention on the issue in recent weeks from outlets like the Wall Street Journal, POLITICO, New York Magazine and others, we should note that Boston Globe political reporter James Pindell — to his credit — first pointed out the potential local consequences of California’s early primary date back in May 2017.)

So how much should New Hampshire really worry about its relevance in 2020, and beyond?

That’s still subject to debate. Some have flat-out said New Hampshire (and Iowa) “won’t matter” at all in 2020. Some have taken a more nuanced position: States like New Hampshire will remain important “to the extent that candidates, the media and 'party elites' deem them to be important.” Some of those party elites in New Hampshire have already stepped up to argue that their state is, indeed, still important.

Putnam — who has a somewhat more objective view of the primary calendar than those political insiders — said New Hampshire and other early states might not necessarily be make-or-break for candidates, but they do still serve a purpose.

“One thing you can’t replace is that New Hampshire after Iowa, they're going to be the states that are going to provide us with real life data, real time data on how voters are thinking about the candidates that remain at that point in time, that hasn't changed,” Putnam said.

As for the impact of early voting, Putnam also said it’s possible that voters in states where that’s an option might “hold onto their ballots to see where the dust settles” in places like Iowa and New Hampshire before finalizing their picks. Plus, he added, “we also shouldn't discount people just procrastinating."

And anyone who’s followed these contests in the past knows that this kind of cycle plays out, in one way or another, every four years: A state (or group of states), sick of being overlooked by would-be leaders of the free world, pins down a more prominent position in the presidential primary calendar; national pundits start openly musing about whether this might just finally spell the demise of early primary gatekeepers like New Hampshire; local pundits spring into action defending its relevance; and, after all of that, presidential candidates parade through the Granite State to show they are sufficiently respectful of its “first-in-the-nation” tradition.

It’s still really too early to tell what kind of an impact a “front-loaded” primary calendar might have on all of the above — but for now, at least, it hasn't stopped some candidates from still pinning their hopes for the White House on the people of New Hampshire.