Political Parties: N.H. Primary Gets A Round Of 100th-Anniversary Celebrations

Dec 2, 2019

You might have heard that the New Hampshire primary is coming up on a big 100-year milestone in 2020. The Secretary of State’s office has marked the occasion with a commemorative centennial poster and — just last week — a special ceremony featuring the families of people who’ve shaped the primary’s history.

But if the idea of a 100th anniversary sounds familiar, it’s because you might have heard something similar four years ago.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

The Secretary of State’s office printed another, earlier version of their 100th anniversary primary poster leading up to the 2016 election. A bipartisan committee of local political dignitaries was also formed and tasked with finding ways to properly honor the primary. A big anniversary event was held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., featuring national politicians like the late Sen. John McCain. WMUR, the local TV station, produced a nearly hour-long primary anniversary special where they touted “100 years of tradition” and “100 years of close calls.” The local minor league baseball team even rolled out a keepsake bobblehead for the occasion.

At a press conference in his office in late 2015, unveiling a series of special artifacts that would be on display during the 2016 primary season, Gardner proclaimed, “This is a special day — this is sort of the beginning in the State House of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first New Hampshire presidential primary.”

But that was not the start of primary centennial celebrations at the State House. A few years earlier, in 2013, Gardner and other state officials held a 100th birthday party for the primary — complete with speeches about the importance of protecting the primary’s first-in-the-nation status and, of course, birthday cake. (As NHPR’s Josh Rogers reported at the time, partygoers “shared slices of a giant cake with the state of New Hampshire silhouetted in green frosting.”)

So, that’s three centennial celebrations, over the course of six years. What are we to make of all of this fanfare?

To primary's supporters, plenty to celebrate

Gardner, who’s widely viewed as the caretaker of New Hampshire primary history, says each of the 100th anniversary events have celebrated different — but important — 100-year milestones.

The first primary centennial celebration in 2013, Gardner says, marked the 100th anniversary of the law that created a direct primary, open to the voting public. Before that, the process was more tightly controlled by party bosses.

Secretary of State Bill Garder (center left) and former lawmaker Jim Splaine (in red jacket) discuss the 100th anniversary of N.H.'s first-in-the-nation presidential primary at a State House celebration, Nov. 25, 2019.
Credit Casey McDermott/NHPR

“It was passed by the House, and passed by the Senate, and signed by the governor on the same day,” Gardner said. “And on that exact same day 100 years later, we had that birthday cake.”

However, 1913 wasn’t an election year; the first New Hampshire presidential primary didn’t actually take place until 1916. Hence the second round of hundredth anniversary events in 2016.

But the thing New Hampshire’s really known for in presidential politics — the thing so many locals really cherishes about the primary — is that we’re first. And that wasn’t the case until 1920. That brings us to this election season: 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the first time New Hampshire held its “first-in-the-nation” primary.

“We’ll continue finding things to celebrate,” says Virginia Drew, who runs the State House visitors center, a role that’s found her promoting the primary’s 100-year milestones to presidential candidates and passing elementary school students alike. “The first time a woman was elected. The first time that John F. Kennedy came to our state capitol. Each of those moments will probably have anniversaries here.”

In a place where politics is considered the state sport, Drew says it should come as no surprise that people are eager to honor the primary year after year.

“This year, we’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of the New Hampshire State House,” Drew added. “And to be able to welcome all of these candidates from all over the country to our 200-year-old State House is another great anniversary for us.”

A celebration of democracy

If you ask former Portsmouth lawmaker and longtime primary defender Jim Splaine, it’s important to keep telling — and retelling — the story of the primary because it’s not just about the primary. It’s a story about democracy.

“All of these events are commemorating, celebrating, highlighting the opportunity to vote,” Splaine says. “That’s what it’s all about.”

No doubt, boosters of the primary will keep finding reasons to celebrate. But if the primary has celebrated three 100th anniversaries in the last six years, what should we consider the most important primary? When this question was put to Gardner recently, he paused — and considered his answer carefully — before responding.

“Well, they’re all important,” he finally said. “But the birth is always the most important.”

And if you haven’t yet had your fill of primary celebrations, don’t worry. There’s always 2052, marking the 100th anniversary of the first primary when presidential candidates’ names appeared on the primary ballot — the campaign that some regard as the one that truly "put New Hampshire on the political map." Or 2075, marking 100 years since a law mandated that the New Hampshire primary be held at least a week before any other contest in New England — which was later expanded to cover any other state. Or 2099, 100 years since New Hampshire and Iowa infamously butted heads over a scheduling conflict involving a pork convention.

You get the point.