Gardner Sets Date For Primary, And Rebuts Critics of N.H.'s First-In-The-Nation Spot

Nov 25, 2019

It's official: The date of the upcoming New Hampshire primary is Feb. 11, 2020.

That announcement came as no surprise, since the Iowa caucuses have long been scheduled for Feb. 3, 2020, and the New Hampshire primary typically follows one week later. But, by law, the New Hampshire primary date isn't official until Secretary of State Bill Gardner says so. And that didn’t happen until Monday afternoon.

Gardner finalized the 2020 date at a ceremony in his State House office, surrounded by people who share a connection to the primary’s history – either because they or their family helped to shape it.

Unlike past election cycles, where Gardner and other New Hampshire primary defenders have waged aggressive campaigns to retain its spot at the front of the nominating calendar, the secretary said the task of setting the 2020 date was relatively free from drama.

“It was a fairly easy time this time, compared to some of the other more tumultuous times,” Gardner said. “And the one before it was easy compared to some of those in the past.”


At the same time, the 2020 primary cycle hasn’t been completely free from the kind of debates — over the importance of New Hampshire to candidates, or to the nominating process overall — that have loomed over past campaigns.

For example, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has provoked ire from local politicos over his decision to completely skip the New Hampshire primary in favor of larger states that come later in the nominating calendar.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, too, has drawn criticism from New Hampshire primary defenders after he shuttered his local campaign operation and questioned the power that New Hampshire holds over the presidential vetting process. Castro has focused on New Hampshire’s relative lack of racial diversity in questioning its position at the front of the primary calendar.

“There’s a hypocrisy about the values that we profess as Democrats in terms of being inclusive and depending on especially African American women to power our party,” Castro told Rolling Stone, “and yet at the same time starting our presidential nominating process in states that hardly have any black people or people of color.”

After Monday’s primary scheduling announcement, Gardner was asked to respond to the criticism that New Hampshire lacks the racial diversity represented in the rest of the country.

“I would first say that’s true,” Gardner replied. “And then I would say, when President — then Senator — Obama was first campaigning in New Hampshire, a person got up in the crowd and said, ‘What do you think of this, having to campaign in a place that no one looks like you?’ And his answer was, ‘Well, these people are all Red Sox fans for the most part, except the few. And I'm a White Sox fan. But does that make any difference?’ ”

When Obama later filed his official candidacy for the New Hampshire primary, Gardner said he praised Obama for his response and used the opportunity to share a story about how “New Hampshire was the state that let Jackie Robinson become the first black major league baseball player.”

“What I told President Obama was that, in the years where the diversity has been an issue, more so than this time, although it always tends to come up, New Hampshire has been in the forefront of some of the most significant social advances made in this country,” Gardner said.

Gardner continued his answer about New Hampshire’s lack of racial diversity and its role in the nominating process, by retelling that same story about how the state was home to what’s considered the country’s first racially integrated baseball team.

“In a state where certain things are not expected, when they happen they have a huge impact, and we have had some huge impact over the years — because human beings are human beings,” Gardner continued. “And if you get away from this other stuff, New Hampshire is a state that probably no one would think would be the state to do this. And very few people even know this story. But that's the way it is, and that's what I say about diversity. And that's why I said to Senator Obama how much I appreciated reading what he had said on point on your very question.”

One of the other significant questions looming over the 2020 primary calendar was whether the expansion of early voting in states like California might affect the timing of New Hampshire’s election. Some news outlets (including NHPR) noted that Californians could technically start casting ballots a full week before New Hampshire opens its polls, thus calling into question New Hampshire’s claim as holding the “first-in-the-nation” presidential primary.

But when asked about the impact of California’s early vote on New Hampshire’s primary, Gardner said he had researched the issue and was confident “it doesn’t affect us.”

When asked later whether New Hampshire might consider adopting early voting — as its neighbors in Maine and Massachusetts have — Gardner dismissed the idea, saying that it has not been proven to increase voter turnout. But Gardner also said early voting would diminish what he views as a critical part of the New Hampshire electoral experience.

“Campaigns build to a crescendo, and if you have 15 days of election, because you have early voting, the real Election Day is just an insignificant event,” Gardner said. “But in this state, because of the nature of this state and how many elections we’ve had, candidates do things that last week or that last weekend that show the people of New Hampshire what they’re made of, their character, that crystallize in their minds why they thought they were going to vote for this person.”

Those flanking Gardner at the primary press conference included: Sybil Dupuis, whose great-grandfather passed the 1913 law that paved the way for the first New Hampshire primary; Elizabeth Hamlin Carter, whose great-grandfather moved the primary date to align with New Hampshire’s town meeting day; Cyrus Gregg, son of former New Hampshire Gov. Hugh Gregg; William Upton, whose father led a 1949 effort to list candidates’ names on the New Hampshire primary ballot; Perry Smith, whose aunt sponsored laws that gave the Secretary of State more flexibility in setting the primary date; and former state Representative Jim Splaine, who passed a 1975 law granting the New Hampshire Secretary of State sole authority to set the primary date.