How Important is the New Hampshire Primary Anyway?

Presidential Candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Presidential Candidates (clockwise, starting on the left): Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio.

The first primary of the 2016 Presidential election will be held February 9th in New Hampshire. Traditionally, this vote sets the stage for Presidential elections. As Dante J. Scala wrote, the Granite State “boasted of its ability to choose presidents; no candidate had been elected president without first weathering a New England winter and emerging victorious in New Hampshire. ”

But in 1992, Bill Clinton finished second to Paul Tsongas in the Democratic primary. In 2000, George W. Bush lost to John McCain in the Republican primary. Both Clinton and Bush would transcend those New Hampshire loses to win their party’s nomination and then the presidency, damaging New Hampshire’s long run as the state that portends future Presidents.

While the New Hampshire primary certainly has its critics, Scala is nuanced in his analysis. On the one hand, New Hampshire is too small, too rural, and too conservative to be representative of the U.S. as a whole. On the other hand, it’s quite industrial, with a good mix of working class and white-collar voters. Except for its racial demography—the state is 94% white according to the U.S. Census—it is fairly representative of U.S voters along economic lines. He concluded that while New Hampshire is “no longer essential to ascending to the presidency, a strong case can still be made that a candidate must perform well in the Granite State to be a serious contender.”

Wayne P. Steger is another political scientist who has looked hard at the presidential nominating process. The variables he uses in forecasting models are national poll standings, cash reserves, and endorsements by party elites. Prior studies have noted that pre-Iowa caucus polls are a significant predictor for Republican but not Democratic primaries; that cash reserves are a significant predictor of Democratic but not Republican primaries; and that New Hampshire in particular is a significant predictor of Democratic but not Republican nominations.

Candidate viability, electability, and momentum, all words we should be hearing a lot of soon, are influenced by these early votes in the campaign. According to Steger: “The early caucuses and primaries appear to have significant impact in providing remaining primary voters with information on candidate viability and electability.”

JSTOR Citations

Re-Reading the Tea Leaves: New Hampshire as a Barometer of Presidential Primary Success

By: Dante J. Scala

PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 187-192

American Political Science Association

Who Wins Nominations and Why? An Updated Forecast of the Presidential Primary Vote

By: Wayne P. Steger

Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 91-99

Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the University of Utah

Matthew Wills

Matthew Wills has advanced degrees in library science and film studies and is lapsed in both fields. He has published in Poetry, Huffington Post, and Nature Conservancy Magazine, among other places, and blogs regularly about urban natural history at

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