News & Politics

A Cold, Hard Look

New Hampshire has the nation’s first presidential primary and often picks winners. But sometimes it leaves front-runners frozen stiff.

The bedrock myth about the New Hampshire primary is the old chestnut about the Yankee farmer who, asked if he has settled on a candidate, replies: “Not quite. I sort of like this fellow Reagan, but I’ve only met him twice.”

The message is that New Hampshire voters have a unique personal exposure to the candidates and thus can make a uniquely informed decision. The primary, its champions say, is “always first, always right.”

Not quite. In seven seriously contested primaries, New Hampshire voters have chosen the ultimate nominees four times. Nearly as many times, they have served a different purpose by exposing the weaknesses of front-runners.

New Hampshirites were the ones who showed us the vulnerability of Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater in 1964, Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Ed Muskie in 1972, Edward Kennedy in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984, and Robert Dole in 1996. They also were the voters who issued a blunt warning on George W. Bush in 2000 by handing him an 18-point defeat at the hands of John McCain.

New Hampshire voters do enjoy close and frequent contact with the full field of candidates. McCain won by holding 114 town meetings. Voters get a fix far better rounded than can be derived solely from television commercials and news coverage.

The same can be said for those who vote in the Iowa precinct caucuses, which this year will be held five days before the New Hampshire primary. But the Iowa process is skewed by special interests that organize turnout among such groups as largely Democratic public-employee unions and mostly Republican fundamentalist-Christian churches. So the Iowa-caucus results tend to be less reflective of the electorate at large.

In the early days of the New Hampshire primary—it began in 1952—television was rarely used as a campaign tool. There was only one network station in Manchester and one public-broadcasting outlet in the state, and neither did extensive political coverage. Advertising on the Boston stations that dominated the New Hampshire audience was too expensive. I remember the late Hugh Gregg, the former governor running Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign, scoffing that he wasn’t going to waste money “sending our campaign to Cape Cod.”

But that changed when a Democrat, Hugh Gallen, ran for governor in 1978 against the incumbent Meldrim Thomson, an archconservative who mused aloud about equipping his state National Guard with nuclear weapons.

Thomson was a courtly man who had been “colorful” for so long that many voters were willing to look at less embarrassing alternatives. Gallen figured he needed to establish himself as a realistic possibility by running TV commercials on Boston outlets. But he didn’t have the $35,000 needed. So he called the Jimmy Carter White House and asked that the Democratic National Committee be told to send the money.

The White House hesitated. One of Carter’s advisers called me to see if I thought Hugh Gallen really had a chance, as my partner, Jules Witcover, and I had written in a column. As a reporter, I wasn’t in the business of writing columns providing false information or of advising candidates, but this seemed to be a no-brainer. If Gallen won, he would be grateful to the White House; if he lost, he still would be grateful. And he was a politician who paid his debts.

As it turned out, Washington sent the $35,000 and Gallen won. The result was that two years later, Gallen—an Irish pol who greatly admired the Kennedys—stood fast for Carter and provided the margin that defeated Ted Kennedy in the 1980 primary.

Those earlier primaries, largely absent television, showed the quirky independence that New Hampshire voters like to claim as characteristic.

In the 1964 Republican primary, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York were locked in a confrontation in which each had some baggage.

Goldwater, the conservative champion, had frightened some voters by talking so tough about the Cold War and offering proposals for such things as privatization of Social Security.

Rockefeller, leader of the Republican liberal wing, unnerved voters by bringing along Happy, his visibly pregnant second wife. On the press bus, there was much talk of the risk of miscarriage from riding around those bumpy, icy roads.

That 1964 primary introduced the political world to the peculiar role of the Union Leader, the Manchester newspaper that was the only one circulated statewide and the only one with a publisher, the late William Loeb, who was a raving extremist.

The paper covered the routine news of the state thoroughly. But when it came to politics, Loeb made no pretext of balance or objectivity. If you wanted his approval, it was imperative to stand on the far right and treat him as a serious person demanding respect.

In his editorials and his articles on the news pages, Loeb called President Eisenhower “Dopey Dwight” and dismissed Henry Kissinger as “Kissinger the Kike.” The divorced Rockefeller was referred to as “Wife-swapper Rockefeller.” Gerald Ford was “Jerry the Jerk.” And George H.W. Bush was “unfit” for the presidency.

Rockefeller was the special target in 1964. At one point, the Union Leader carried two pages of letters to the editor purportedly from New York citizens attacking Rockefeller’s performance as their governor. Each was signed and identified by the letter writer’s community. But when we reporters tried to locate, for example, “John Jones, Skaneateles, N.Y.,” we never succeeded.

Loeb played the bully role well enough to intimidate moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats who considered running for state offices but decided it wasn’t worth the personal abuse.

Loeb enjoyed discomfiting visiting reporters by welcoming them to interviews in his office with an automatic pistol lying on his desk. He was always glad to demonstrate how he controlled politics in New Hampshire. A Goldwater victory in 1964 would be the latest evidence.

Then two young Republicans from Boston, lawyer David Goldberg and importer Paul Grindle, opened an office on Main Street in Concord and announced they intended to draft Henry Cabot Lodge, the 1960 Republican vice-presidential nominee then serving as ambassador to South Vietnam.

Goldberg and Grindle prepared two-part postcards and sent them to every Republican household in the state. Voters were urged to tear off the return portion, sign a commitment to support Lodge, and mail it back to Concord. We wise guys of the press brushed the move off as a quixotic gesture. Then I accepted their invitation to come in early one morning and open the mail. I was stunned to find bags with hundreds of the pledge cards.

I was even more stunned on election night when Lodge won with 36 percent of the vote, all write-in, to 22 percent for Goldwater and 21 percent for Rockefeller. To further show their disdain for the recognized leaders of their party, the New Hampshire Republicans also gave 17 percent to Richard Nixon, again all write-in.

Four years later, the surprise was on the other side. President Lyndon Johnson, beleaguered by opposition to the war in Vietnam, managed to win the primary with 50 percent. But the 42 percent cast for Eugene McCarthy, a senator from Minnesota of no particular distinction, was considered such an impressive showing for the antiwar movement that before Johnson could “lose” another primary in Wisconsin, he shut down his candidacy.

In fact, the vote for McCarthy may not have been as strong a referendum on the war as myth has credited it with being. Poll takers found that some conservative Democrats in Manchester thought he was the Senator McCarthy who had waged war on Communists in the State Department. Others just didn’t like that funny-talking Texan in the White House.

On the Republican side, Governor George Romney of Michigan seemed snake-bit in battling Richard Nixon in 1968. One day when Nixon was out of the state, Romney seized the opportunity to dominate press coverage. He went bowling and found the New England duckpin game with its small pins. He got nine of the ten with his first ball, then required 34 more balls to nail that last pin. It all played out before two local television cameras and a half dozen newspaper reporters.

Romney’s more serious problem was his inability to persuade voters that he could deal effectively with the Vietnam War—a failure that moved him to withdraw ten days before the primary when polling showed him facing a landslide defeat.

The way Nixon handled Romney’s withdrawal gave us some insight into his tortured personality. The news that Romney had scheduled a press conference in Washington to pull the plug circulated early in the day, but Nixon insisted on pressing ahead with his schedule of handshaking for the cameras. When we went back to the Holiday Inn a half hour before the press conference, we asked Nixon if he was going to watch in his suite. Oh, no, he assured us, he had work to do.

Romney’s decision was a decisive moment in the politics of 1968 because it left Nixon with a clear path to the nomination he had been lusting after since losing the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy and then being rejected by his fellow Californians when he ran for governor two years later. You might have expected him to show at least some recognition of his good fortune. Instead, he claimed to be too burdened with work even to watch Romney’s withdrawal.

Of course, Nixon was lying. An adviser who went down the hall to the presidential suite found him in his chair, his eyes fixed on the screen watching Romney. He was human—but unwilling to show it. Nine months and many lies later, he was elected President of the United States.

Gene McCarthy’s success in the 1968 primary was the first example of the “expectations game” that came to be a measuring stick in New Hampshire. You don’t have to get the most votes to count yourself a winner. You need only get more votes than expected.

Senator George McGovern of South Dakota was the “winner” in 1972 when he exceeded expectations by polling 37 percent to 46 percent for Senator Ed Muskie of Maine. The expectation was that a senator from a neighboring state should capture more than 50 percent of the vote.

I’ll never forget Maria Carrier, who was heading Muskie’s campaign in the primary, telling Tom Ottenad of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and me, “We’re going to be surprised if we don’t do better than 50.” Tom and I looked at each other, startled by her candor. We changed the subject and fled before she could change her mind and kill our story. She had made the mistake of honesty and would pay for it to the full extent of the laws of politics.

In fact, Carrier probably would have been proved correct if it hadn’t been for William Loeb and the hot temper of the man he called “Moscow Muskie.”

Late in the campaign, the Union Leader carried a story about Jane Muskie, the candidate’s wife, that alleged she had been telling dirty jokes to reporters on the press bus. Ed Muskie was so enraged that he drove to the Union Leader building on a snowy Friday night and, from a flatbed truck, raged at Bill Loeb with such intensity that tears ran down his cheeks. Some Muskie advisers insisted that the teardrops were snowflakes, but it became known as “the crying incident” as it was shown repeatedly on television during the campaign’s final days.

Over breakfast in Manchester 36 hours after the crying incident, Muskie’s campaign manager, Tony Podesta, conceded that they were taking on water—enough to make Maria Carrier’s 50-percent goal unattainable.

One of the noteworthy occasions in the Democratic campaign that year was the first televised debate in the primary’s history. In addition to Muskie and McGovern, the cast of candidates—all laughable also-rans—included Representative Wilbur Mills (before the Fanne Foxe scandal), the minimally distinguished Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana, Mayor Sam Yorty of Los Angeles, entertainer Pat Paulsen, and one Edward T. “Ned” Coll, who described himself as a social activist.

Coll made the debate memorable by waving a large rubber rat to deplore conditions in city slums. Coll received 280 votes, trailing even Hartke’s 2,417 and Bill Loeb’s favorite, Sam Yorty, who got 5,401.

Those early primaries weren’t the media riots they became later. Except in the last few days before the voting, the out-of-state press corps was made up largely of reporters from a handful of newspapers that were serious about covering politics. The network-TV correspondents arrived late in the game, as did the reporters from papers that wanted to claim to be serious without spending what it cost to cover the campaign.

For both voters and reporters, the candidates were far more accessible than they are today. It was possible to have dinner or a drink with a Muskie or McGovern, the notable exception being Richard Nixon.

Reporters kept coming back to the state and finding the same people in both parties taking the most active roles. Bill Johnson of Hanover, later a judge, worked for Rockefeller in 1964 and Romney four years later. Hugh Gregg, elected governor on the Eisenhower ticket in 1952, ran the Rockefeller campaign and later those of Ronald Reagan in 1976 and George H.W. Bush in 1980. There were liberal Democrats who worked for McCarthy in 1968, McGovern in 1972, Morris Udall in 1976, and Ted Kennedy in 1980, some of them still around today.

Joe Grandmaison won a national reputation for the way he organized the 1972 McGovern campaign and was still considered savvy enough 20 years later to be the choice to lead the Mario Cuomo campaign that he killed in its crib.

In the early years, the hotel of choice was the New Hampshire Highway Hotel in Concord, a wooden building with walls so thin that they sometimes provided sex education, graphic for that era. The Highway, as it was known, had a convention center with a few offices that sometimes were used as campaign headquarters.

For reporters, it had all the necessities—a large parking lot, easy access to the statehouse in Concord and the road to the China Dragon in Hooksett, a bar for late-night deliberations, and a restaurant that had hot coffee ready before 7 am.

Late in the 1970s, the center of the action moved to Manchester and the new Wayfarer Inn in neighboring Bedford. It had the virtue of being owned by the Dunfey family, a group of brothers who were players in Democratic politics and owned other hotels that were centers for politicians, including the Parker House in Boston.

The Wayfarer was sold by the Dunfeys and went through several owners and grew a little frayed at the edges, enough that much of the action moved to the Holiday Inn Center of New Hampshire (now a Radisson) in downtown Manchester.

But the Wayfarer had one advantage. It was built around a copse of birches, a flock of noisy ducks, and a human-engineered stream and waterfall that served as the backdrop for countless television reports. The tableau suggested the woodsy life, but there was a Jordan Marsh department store a hundred yards away in one direction and a shopping center even closer in the other.

The ambiance and dynamics of the primary began to change in 1976, largely because television seized the story. On the Democratic side, a nobody from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, had won the Iowa caucuses and become the leader of a pack that included Senators Henry Jackson, Fred Harris, and Birch Bayh and Congressman Morris Udall. On the Republican side, the incumbent, Gerald Ford, was being challenged by Ronald Reagan.

This time, both New Hampshire winners, Carter and Ford, were nominated.

In 1980, the coverage exploded. On the one side, an incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, was being challenged by Ted Kennedy. On the other side was Ronald Reagan, upset by George H.W. Bush in the Iowa caucuses but now with 28 days to recover in New Hampshire.

The myth is that Reagan won when Bush choked up in an 11th-hour debate in Nashua in which the two principal candidates were supposed to meet mano a mano. The story is more complex.

The fact is that Reagan had been gaining steadily for three weeks and, following a debate in Manchester against Bush and five other candidates, had opened a lead—better than 10 percent and rising every day. So John Sears, Reagan’s chief strategist, began to wonder how to minimize the risk to his candidate in the final days of the campaign.

The most obvious potential trouble was the head-to-head match that had been scheduled in Nashua the final weekend of the campaign—a debate the Reagan camp had sought following the Iowa defeat and agreed to pay for. It would be much safer, Sears decided, if there were a full panel of candidates. Less chance that his man Reagan would put his foot in his mouth.

So with the debate 24 hours away, Sears began inviting the other five—Bob Dole, Howard Baker, John Connally, John Anderson, and Phil Crane. They had been complaining about being excluded, so they were delighted at the change and all except Connally, campaigning in South Carolina, accepted.

When Bush arrived at the high school where the debate was be held, he would have none of it. He had agreed to a two-candidate debate, and Bushes keep their commitments. What he obviously wanted was to project a picture that this was now a two-man race, which in turn might draw primary votes from the also-rans. Instead, Bush holed up in a classroom with his advisers and projected the image of a candidate afraid to deal with Reagan.

When Reagan and Bush took their places, the other four Republicans lined up on the stage behind them. As Reagan began to explain why he had invited the other candidates, the moderator, Jon Breen of the Nashua Telegraph, ordered Reagan’s microphone turned off.

“I’m paying for this microphone, Mr. Green,” he said with some show of heat, getting the name wrong but the politics right. Over the final three days, the clip was repeated time and again while Bush was shown back home in Houston wearing his tennis whites. Reagan won the primary with 50 percent to 23 percent for Bush.

In June, Reagan had locked up the nomination and was considering running mates. When Drew Lewis, a Pennsylvania party leader, made the case for Bush as a way to attract moderate Republicans, Reagan replied that he still had doubts about Bush “because of the way he behaved in Nashua.”

Asked about the conversation a few days later, Reagan told me there were questions about whether Bush was “strong enough” to be vice president. In the end, political calculation outweighed Reagan’s concern about Bush’s spine.

It now is increasingly difficult to sustain the myth that the New Hampshire primary is an island on which the citizens are drawing their conclusions from the campaign that takes place before their eyes and ears. Opinion polls have shown the state’s primary voters swinging in the wind of national trends.

That case was made with Gary Hart’s defeat of Walter Mondale in the 1984 Democratic contest.

A poll of New Hampshire voters before the Iowa caucuses showed Mondale with 32 percent to 25 for John Glenn and 8 for Hart. Mondale won in Iowa with 49 percent, but the winner of the expectations game was Hart, who’d won 16 percent with Glenn in total collapse with less than 5.

A fresh New Hampshire poll found Mondale with 34, essentially unchanged, while Hart rose to 25. Other surveys over the eight days between Iowa and New Hampshire found Hart gaining support every day—to the point that by week’s end some reporters were seeking a bookie to bet the farm on an upset.

Everything was coming up roses for Hart. He donned a checked shirt, joined a lumberjack field day in Berlin, New Hampshire, and, to the horror of his managers, entered the ax-throwing competition. The first one he threw fell harmlessly below the tree. The second hit the bull’s-eye—and proved to be the one the cameras captured. The clip was catnip for television—Boston and network alike—and ran over and over the Sunday and Monday before the primary in which Hart buried Mondale with 37 percent to 28 percent of the vote.

Hart’s triumph wasn’t solely a product of good luck in throwing an ax. He was credited by Mondale manager Charles Campion with a competitive organization produced by Jeanne Shaheen, later the state’s governor, and Sue Casey, later a member of the city council in Denver.

Over the last election cycles, the New Hampshire primary has been altered by the two prime forces—money and television exposure.

Candidates still can play the expectations game. Bill Clinton did so in 1992 when he ran second to Paul Tsongas but provided the dominant television bite by declaring himself “the comeback kid”—the one who had survived all those terrible lies about Gennifer Flowers that later proved to be true.

And occasionally a candidate can follow the original Hugh Gregg formula with very good personal campaigning, as John McCain did to defeat George W. Bush by 18 percent in 2000. But McCain spent eight months on those 114 “town meetings.” New Hampshire voters used their closer look to decide against Bush.

The New Hampshire electorate is always a little quirky. In the 1996 primary, the unelectable Patrick Buchanan edged out eventual nominee Bob Dole.

This year, that Yankee farmer in New Hampshire may not get to meet his favorite candidate three times. But like the rest of us, he can expect to see the candidate at least three times a day on TV and heaven knows how often online.

Veteran political columnist Jack W. Germond spent so much time at New Hampshire’s Wayfarer Inn that in 2000 his wife threw a birthday party for him there where friends retired his barstool. It now graces his West Virginia home.