American Voters Pull Together To Make Tough Choices

New Hampshire Primary Hangs In The Balance

There is more to the difficult choice between George W. Bush and al Gore than who will be President of the United States. The future role in the nominating process of small states like Iowa and New Hampshire is riding on the outcome.

Bill Clinton was the first president in modern times to win the White House while losing the New Hampshire primary. Until Clinton, all the presidents had won the Granite State's primary, and half the losers, too.

Small states, like New Hampshire and Iowa, have played a pivotal role in the presidential nominating process. New Hampshire, with less than 400,000 primary voters, is too small for a media campaign. Presidential candidates have to get out and press the flesh, meeting the voters in person in town after town, over many months.

The New Hampshire primary serves as a winnowing process, enabling the voters to get to know the candidates personally, in a way that voters in the big states like California, Texas and New York will never be able to. The New Hampshire voters get a good look at the field of candidates early in the nomination process, pass judgement on the personal qualities of each, and then pass the choice on to the rest of the country.

Bill Clinton's successful run for the White House, indeed, knocking off an incumbent president was impressive. But Clinton's impeachment on personal grounds was a disaster. Did the nation err in choosing a president who had failed to pass muster with the voters of New Hampshire?

Choosing a president of the United States is a big burden for a small state with less than 1,000,000 voters. Yet, the changing of the election calendar to move the big state primaries up toward the beginning, and regional primaries like Super Tuesday in the South, means that the old days of retail politics, where an unknown candidate could emerge from the pack and slowly climb through the succeeding primaries to the nomination is being threatened. Presidential candidates now have to be national figures before they can run for President. They have to be able to raise and spend millions of dollars before the first vote is even cast.

The nomination of Bush and Gore, children of high office holders, with national reputations and huge cash advantages, is the culmination of this trend. No more outsiders like John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan will ever be able to win the nominations of their parties if the New Hampshire primary no longer matters.

This year, George W. Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to John McCain, while Al Gore defeated Bill Bradley. So, if George Bush wins the election, he will be the second consecutive president to get to the White House without winning in New Hampshire. The significance of the New Hampshire primary will be immeasurably diminished. If Bush wins, it means that it will be virtually impossible for an nationally unknown candidate to start out, win a few early primaries, and then go on to win the nomination and be elected president.

This would constitute a big change in the American political system. A Gore victory would preserve the importance small states in the presidential nomination process.

The question of whether or not to jettison small states in the nomination process is too important to be left to the big states. That is one reason that the Bush - Gore contest is so close. Ironically, Bush, the candidate whose victory would be worse for the power of small states, is far ahead in the small states. Gore, the candidate whose victory would preserve the power of New Hampshire in the nomination process, is running well in the big states, and poorly in the small states.

The American voters, who really have more in common with each other than any of them have with either Gore or Bush, are working together to make this difficult decision. By keeping the race so close, and by the voters in the big states lining up behind candidates early, Gore and Bush are being forced to campaign late and often in small swing states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Oregon, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

Along with the candidates Gore and Bush, the power of small states is also on the ballot this November. Speculation that Gore could win the White House in the electoral college but lose the popular vote is rife. The electoral college itself keeps the selection of the president in the hands of the states and preserves the power of the small states.

Ralph Nader's analysis that corporate power is the major issue is flawed. The issue of state power and federal power is also a big one. A split decision, where Bush gets the most votes but Gore wins the presidency would bring the procedural issues of the electoral college and the balance between state and federal power on to the front burner.

If Bush wins the popular vote, and Gore wins the Electoral vote, one possible outcome could be that Joseph Lieberman, assuming he wins his Senate race, would return to the Senate and George W. Bush could be appointed Vice-President under President Gore. That would create a two-party national unity government where both parties would then have to deliver on their campaign promises and partisan bickering would be difficult.

But regardless of the outcome, the close election proves the skill of the voters in forcing the candidates and system to deal with issues that they would rather avoid or not even discuss.

November 4, 2000

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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf