Interview
with New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner
"We are determined to do whatever it takes to preserve and protect the New Hampshire tradition..."
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner talked with DEMOCRACY IN ACTION in his office in the State House in Concord in mid-June 1999.  He provided some historical perspective on the  New Hampshire primary and strongly defended the first-in-the-nation primary tradition.

New Hampshire
  • QUESTION Why is seven days so important?

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  • QUESTION You mention 1920, but isn't it right that the actual modern day system didn't really get started 'til '52?

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  • QUESTION Is the pressure on you [New Hampshire] from other states greater this year than you've ever seen before?  States like Michigan are directly challenging you.

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  • QUESTION How about Delaware?  

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  • QUESTION Do you have any general observations on the year 2000 New Hampshire primary as opposed to previous years? 

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  • QUESTION And on this legislation that allows you...you could be holding the primary here as early as late 1999, at the end of this year?

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  • QUESTION At the National Association of Secretaries of State meeting you take a fair amount of ribbing from some of the other secretaries.  How do you respond to that?

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  • QUESTION I can guess who had a hand in getting that language [protecting the first status of Iowa and New Hampshire] in that resolution [on a rotating regional primary system].

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  • QUESTION How about giving a different state each four years the opportunity to be first?

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  • QUESTION The health of the primary--there are a number of concerns about, for example the explosion of media getting between the voters and the candidates.

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  • QUESTION Thirty years from now there will still be a New Hampshire primary?

Why is seven days so important?

GARDNER: We have had the first in the nation primary by at least seven days since 1920.  We were not first when we had our first primary; we were behind Indiana and on the same day as Minnesota.  But Indiana decided to move its primary from the first Tuesday of March back to May and Minnesota got rid of the primary and went back to a caucus selection process rather than a primary.

And so in 1920 we had the first primary that year and it was by at least a week.  And it has been by at least a week ever since.  And we feel that it's important for us to maintain that at least seven days.

There needs to be some time after the events so that they're not all jumbled together.  And if we were to say, "Okay we'll allow a state--we'll change the tradition.  It won't be at least seven days any longer; we'll let a state go four days."  Well then once we've broken our own tradition a state could go three days, two days, one day or a state on the West Coast could go three hours, because of the time difference, after us.
 

 


You mention 1920, but isn't it right that the actual modern day system didn't really get started 'til '52?

GARDNER: Well the primary has been a delegate selection process, and in 1920 when the citizens of New Hampshire went to vote, they voted for delegates, but the delegates could be pledged to certain candidates.  So if you were supporting in the '30s, if you wanted to support Franklin Roosevelt or Herbert Hoover, you could look on the ballot to find those delegates who were pledged to those candidates.  So it was indirectly voting for president, but people were expressing their views on that kind of a ballot.  And then in 1952, in addition to having the delegates on the ballot, there was a separate column that just had the names of the presidential candidates, and that was the way the ballot looked in 1952.  And in 1980 all the delegates were taken off the ballot and only the names of the presidential candidates [appeared].  So the ballot started just as a ballot of names of delegates, to a combination of delegates and presidential candidates' names to just the presidential candidates' names.

Didn't most states had caucuses during that time so you were kind of a frontrunner even back then with your primary?

Well actually in the '20s you had about 16 or 20 states, and then there started to be a decline in number
 

 

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Is the pressure on you [New Hampshire] from other states greater this year than you've ever seen before?  States like Michigan are directly challenging you.

GARDNER: Well a lot of states have moved up, but a lot of states moved up in years past.

Some of the rhetoric, talking to the Michigan people, to Sen. Levin, he's saying we need to address this; it's a pretty direct challenge.

GARDNER: The number of states moving up in '96 versus the number moving up in 2000, the percentage will be pretty close, because quite a few states moved up in '96 and now a lot more.  If you took the base that we had from '92 to '96 versus '96 to 2000...

...but it doesn't seem to be just moving up; it seems states that are going ahead of you--Alaska, Louisiana--

GARDNER: But they did that in '96.
 

 

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How about Delaware?

GARDNER: We've been constantly communicating since 1995.  We've stayed in touch over at least the last four years.

Staying in touch is one thing, but has there been any movement or are you guys basically talking past each other?

GARDNER: No, I think they understand and appreciate our position and the tradition and I have a good understanding at the moment of where they're at and what they're trying to do; whether they're successful or not--

Well understanding is one thing, but do you seriously think that you'll be able to get them to change their position?

GARDNER: Well I think that both parties down there, the political leaders down there would like to solve this.  I think the question is more how are they going to solve it.  Are they going to solve it by going to a Tuesday, by having it the second Saturday, or by changing it to a caucus? That's the question.  Which one of those solutions will be agreed upon...
 

 

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Do you have any general observations on the year 2000 New Hampshire primary as opposed to previous years?

GARDNER: Well every primary there are differences.  But this primary is, if you want to go back 20 years, this primary is more like the 1980 primary or the 1988.  1980 and 1988.  In 1980 you had a field of about 11 Republicans, had a very big field and you had two Democrats, Carter and Kennedy, and in 1988 you had a big Democratic field and a little smaller Republican field, but you still had a bigger contest that just two candidates on the Republican side.  But I think 1980 would be the most similar to what we are seeing in 2000.
 

 

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And on this legislation that allows you...you could be holding the primary here as early as late 1999, at the end of this year?

GARDNER: It's possible.  It would allow us to have that flexibility.  No one expects that we will ever have to do that, but it's better to have that flexibility if need be, knowing that there are so many states having primaries on March 7 and that the whole process is going to be over fairly quickly.  We are determined to do whatever it takes to preserve and protect the New Hampshire tradition, and if that's what we're required to do to accomplish that we will.
 

 

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At the National Association of Secretaries of State meeting you take a fair amount of ribbing from some of the other secretaries.  How do you respond to that?

GARDNER: It's understandable.  We did pass that resolution, by the way, in Washington [DC] in February at our annual winter meeting, the resolution that said that New Hampshire and Iowa ought be separate and give them position in the front of this process and then have a rotating regional system after Iowa and New Hampshire.
 

 

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I can guess who had a hand in getting that language [protecting the first status of Iowa and New Hampshire] in that resolution [on a rotating regional primary system].

GARDNER: Well actually Bill Jones in California and Bill Galvin in Massachusetts, not only the two of them but the Secretary of State of New York, we had a full discussion on that issue.  The resolution passed near unanimous.  And this was with all the secretaries of state, not just the committee, but the committee recommended it unanimously to the full body.

I can guess there were certain people there arguing forcefully for that language about Iowa and New Hampshire.

GARDNER: Actually if you listened to the debate, I was presiding so I wasn't part of the debate personally--Secretary of State of Iowa was.

It's always been my experience over the last two decades, that when you have the chance to explain, and you can have 10 or 15 minutes to do it, you explain what the primary is really like here, how it's conducted, the nature of it, the retail side, historically how it evolved--that when you're able to explain and go through that, people see it in a different way.

When you stand back and you look and you say wait a minute, look at this system, you have one state up in the North East, the state doesn't have the percentage of minority representation that other states have, when you put us under a microscope, you're going to find some flaws.

But then when you say okay well...let's look at a national one-day primary, and you put that under a microscope--  What about Florida; Florida tried to have the primary first back in the '70s, tried to take it away.  Is Florida more representative than New Hampshire?  Well when you look at the average age in Florida it's 10 or 12 years above the norm.  When you look at other categories--average family size, average education, average income, and you compare us to any other one state, every state has something that they're not representative [in].  And so if you're not going to have a national one-day primary, then what would be a better way to do this?  And no one has come up with that. 

 

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How about giving a different state each four years the opportunity to be first?

GARDNER: We decided 30 years ago, roughly 30 years ago, were we going to demand to be the first event?  And some people here said, "Yeah we should be the first event."  And others said, "No, if Iowa has a unique way of doing this, we will be stronger down the road if we only protect what it is that we have had all these years."  And so if a state comes up with some unique way of selecting their delegates to the convention then so be it.  And we opted not to demand that we go ahead of Iowa.  We only wanted to protect what it was that we've had.

This primary was created--it had nothing to do with money; it didn't even get--it wasn't nationally a popular event--it didn't get covered in the 1920s, '30s or '40s.  And we wouldn't be first today--We never took it from any other state; we got it by default because Indiana decided to move its primary to May.

So after 50 years from 1920 to 1972--52 years--all of the sudden another state said, "Hey they're getting a lot of attention up there; we ought to get the attention and more candidates will come and campaign here than up there because where would you rather be in December, January and February, up there or down in sunny Florida?" 

And at that point we made a decision that we weren't just going to give up this tradition that we've had all these years when it wasn't popular and more and more people got to know about it and it did become a significant event for the state.  And it was our feeling that why should we let someone just take it away from us.  We never took it away from anyone else.  We think we do a good job at it.  No one has shown us that there'd be a better way, that we have hurt the process.  We've had a pretty good record.  There's only been one time that the president who got elected didn't win the primary here, and no state has a better record than that--no state, even though we've had to choose from many more candidates than the other states have had to choose from.  So that's why we feel that we want to protect it and we're determined to protect it...

 

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The health of the primary--there are a number of concerns about, for example the explosion of media getting between the voters and the candidates.

GARDNER: If you only came here once during the primary and you came during the last week and you saw the horde of media, national, international--that is not the way the real primary is conducted.  The real primary has been during the last year and this summer and this fall, that's the time when the real primary takes place.  So I can understand some people only coming here the last week saying "How can this be retail politics?"  But the retail is when the media is not here--in people's living rooms, the questions that are asked.  I've had candidate after candidate come back later and, you know more candidates, many, many more candidates, have lost the New Hampshire primary than have won the primary so you'd think there'd be this big reservoir of anti--people who lost--they'd be sort of negative because they lost.  But that hasn't been the cast.  The candidates who have come back and said, "Don't give this up.  Don't let this go.  I was never asked the kind of questions once I left here when I went from tarmac to tarmac, airport to airport, I never got the same kind of questions asked me that the people of New Hampshire asked.  Personal, much more personal questions.

And because New Hampshire--we have more elections than any other state.  We have more people in this state per capita who hold public office because of our 400-member House, our two-year term for governor, two-year term for the House, two-year term for the Senate.  [In] some towns 15 people hold elective office in the town.  They know what it's like to run for office.  If they haven't held an office, one of their relatives or friends will have held an office.  So when a candidate comes into New Hampshire, because of the town meeting tradition here, where you get up and you debate whether to buy a tractor or put an addition in, and it's the purest form of direct democracy, the people are not intimidated by the candidates.  They're sort of used to this bantering, this political dialogue back and forth.  And because they have held office--they know what it's like to hold office--it's a very political state...  Because of the attitude that we want a big House of Representatives, because we want more people to hold office, we want checks and balances, we have a five-member Executive Council, we want the delegates.

I mean why is the primary first?  It has nothing to do with money; it's because of the people.  The people of this state wanted to make the decision themselves; they didn't want party bosses to be picking the delegates.  They wanted to do it.  And so they were willing to pay for this primary for 50 years when it wasn't a national event, when it was not popular, because they wanted to have their say, and it's because of that tradition that we're first.

It's not because we planned it. We didn't say we had to be first, we want it, we're the best state.  It just evolved.  And then once it evolved when people say well heck Florida, it's summer down here, we want to get some of that.
 

 

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Thirty years from now there will still be a New Hampshire primary?

GARDNER: I don't know if there will be or not.  I was elected to the legislature in 1972; I was on the elections committee, so I have followed a lot of this over the years.  And I know when Florida decided to change its law and have the primary the same day, we were asked the same question back then: "By the turn of the century will you still have the primary?"  None of us knew for sure back then.  But we are as dedicated and determined now to preserve it and protect it as we were then.
 

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Copyright 1999 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action
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