Can New Hampshire keep its first-in-the-nation status?

Scheduling conflict
By CALVIN HENNICK  |  August 2, 2006

Few people may have noticed, but some in the Democratic Party seem intent on deflating the importance of the New Hampshire primary. A new 2008 Democratic nominating calendar, set by the party’s rules committee on July 22 and slated for a vote by the full Democratic National Committee (DNC) on August 19, wedges a Nevada caucus in between the traditional one-two punch of Iowa and New Hampshire. And that has Granite Staters preparing for a showdown. The change “dishonors our tradition,” says Democratic New Hampshire secretary of state William Gardner.

National Democrats say that the new schedule — which also bumps up South Carolina’s primary to just one week after New Hampshire’s — is an attempt to add more geographic and ethnic diversity to early voting. They also contend that because the Nevada contest is a caucus and not a primary, it does not violate a 1975 New Hampshire law requiring its primary be held seven days before any “similar” election and giving New Hampshire’s secretary of state sole power to set the date. If Gardner determines that the Nevada caucus schedule violates his state’s law, he can ignore the DNC’s calendar and move the New Hampshire primary to an earlier date. Such a move would be risky, however: the party could opt not to recognize the state’s delegates at the national convention. The party made such a threat in 1984 but did not follow through; a Democratic spokesperson declined to say what will happen if New Hampshire flouts party rules this time.

David King, associate director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says that refusing to seat the New Hampshire delegation could be disastrous for the Democrats. In stripping New Hampshire of its influence, says King, the DNC would also be negating the moderating influence of that swing state, increasing the likelihood that a nominee would be chosen by the “wing nuts” of the party. “Candidates in the Democratic Party would be less likely to win the general election,” King says.

New Hampshire officials clearly view the new schedule as a threat to their state’s status — and yes, power. James Splaine, the Democratic state representative who authored New Hampshire’s primary law, calls the DNC’s decision “stupid” and argues that Nevada’s spot on the calendar will lead to campaigns funded by gambling interests. “It creates a terrible image for the party,” he says.

Kathy Sullivan, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and a member of the DNC rules committee, says that some in the DNC want to “pick a fight” with New Hampshire and Iowa. She suggests that DNC chairman Howard Dean, who was considered a front-runner in 2004 but failed to win either state, has an ax to grind with the current process. “I think there’s been a real effort on the parts of some people around Governor Dean to lessen the influence of Iowa,” she says. A party spokesperson did not directly address the claim, saying only that Dean supports adding diversity to early voting.

It is not clear that Sullivan’s argument holds water given that, under the new schedule, Iowa would continue to host the first nominating contest.

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