Cullen in WSJ: NH Primary Good for Democracy
The Wall Street Journal originally published this op-ed on January 7, 2012:
The early primary states serve the purpose of forcing politicians to interact with the people they seek to lead.
New Hampshire primary voters like to pretend they don’t pay attention to what happens in Iowa. Nonsense. New Hampshire voters react to the Iowa caucus results, confirming or correcting them as needed. South Carolinians will do the same in turn.
And thank goodness. It’s easy to disparage the way we nominate presidential candidates and the role the early states play, but it’s like what Winston Churchill said of democracy as a whole: We have the worst nominating system imaginable, except for all the others.
The process works. Some of the candidates may get away with fooling some of the voters and some of the media for some of the time, but not for long. They have to come out from behind the 30-second ads and look voters in the eye. Along the trail from Des Moines to Manchester to Charleston, candidates are vetted, frauds are exposed, and the resulting nominee emerges stronger, a more accurate reflection of the voters’ mood and will. Isn’t that the whole point of the nominating process?
Campaigns in the early states are changing. This cycle has seen fewer town hall meetings and less retail campaigning than in the past. Candidates have found it easier, cheaper and safer to try to limit their campaigning to debates, cable-TV appearances with friendly hosts, and Facebook.
Who can blame them? Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry all shot up in the polls while almost entirely avoiding shaking hands with New Hampshire voters.
But shunning the people soon caught up with them. Legend had it that Mr. Perry was a great retail campaigner; if so, precious few New Hampshire voters witnessed that skill in person. I estimate that fewer than 2,500 Granite Staters saw Mr. Perry in person this entire campaign. Newt Gingrich has been seen by just a few more, which is part of why he’s fading.
The rapid rise and fall of candidates this primary season has made it difficult to distinguish the presidential campaign from a reality TV show. But wasn’t C-SPAN’s “Road to the White House” series, in which a cameraman and a boom mic follow a candidate around without a script, the original reality TV show?
The truth is that campaigns are always changing and evolving. In 1964, Henry Cabot Lodge topped Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller to win the New Hampshire primary through a write-in campaign fueled by a couple of then-unprecedented statewide mailings. In 1980, videotape of Ronald Reagan taking charge of a debate in Nashua by thundering, “I’m paying for this microphone!” went viral without the benefit of YouTube or popular cable television. Pat Buchanan didn’t need his primitive website or email to win the 1996 primary.
What hasn’t changed is that the early states in the nominating process serve a national purpose by reducing the presidential race to a human scale. Candidates still have to interact with the people they seek to lead, and ordinary citizens still have opportunities to take the measure of candidates in person.
To be sure, it’s a tradition more honored in the breach than the observance. The mythological primary character does exist—the flinty Yankee wearing a plaid shirt who rises at a town hall meeting to ask a candidate a tough, well-informed question—but only a small minority of voters attend events with candidates, and fewer still assess multiple candidates in person. Almost all questions at town hall meetings fall into standard, predictable categories, tailor-made for prepared two-minute answers from the candidates. Most New Hampshire primary voters get most of their information the same way voters in other states do: through their televisions.
The point is that voters can meet candidates if they want to, and it’s critically important that our nominating process retain that. Early state old hands advise presidential candidates to run as though they are running for governor, and the most successful candidates do. Lesser known candidates with smaller war chests find a level playing field in the early states and an equal opportunity to earn support. Rick Santorum’s success in Iowa and Jon Huntsman’s foothold in New Hampshire are based on having done more events in those respective states than anyone else. Not every candidate will go home happy with the outcome, but none can depart the race feeling that they didn’t get their shot. In the early states, it’s still true that anyone can run for president.
Those states, and New Hampshire in particular, remain the petting zoo of presidential politics where voters can see, touch and smell the animals. Everything later is the circus, with voters sitting as spectators in the stands, watching the jumbotron. It’s a process that has served the nation well.
Mr. Cullen is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party and editorial page columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader.
firstname.lastname@example.org, January 7, 2012