The NH Presidential Primary Is Different Now

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Garry Rayno is's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.

By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome

The near sacred process of choosing who will be running for what was once considered to be the leader of the free world is about to commence.

But this year’s presidential run for the roses feels different than past races.

Most striking, the sitting president has yet to set foot in the Granite State as a candidate this cycle, instead weighing in earlier attempting to turn New Hampshire into an afterthought behind South Carolina, not a state with a long tradition for picking presidents like New Hampshire.

That decision by President Joe Biden has the state Democratic Party’s hierarchy scrambling to concoct a write-in campaign for Biden while blunting the resentment the decision spawned going into an election that should have been partial to Democrats.

Instead Democrats have had to contend with Robert Kennedy Jr.’s candidacy pushed by Steve Bannon no less, and then Minnesota US Rep. Dean Phillips, one of the wealthiest members of the US House, and self-help author, spiritual advisor and activist Marianne Williamson, who is making her second run for the Democratic nomination.

With Biden not on the New Hampshire ballot, there was ample opportunity for someone to camp here campaigning for a few months and really embarrass the sitting president, but the current crop of candidates is not going to do that and time is running out.

There is nothing “normal” about the Republican race for the presidential nomination either, but for very different reasons.

At one time, there had to be a near record number of candidates for the GOP nomination, but the field has quickly been whittled down.

However, the leading GOP candidate — unlike the Democrat’s — has been to New Hampshire on occasion, although not frequently.

Former President Donald Trump has held a commanding lead both here and elsewhere despite his legal problems and what could be described as authoritarian rhetoric promising to make his next trip to the White House one of retribution and settling scores.

Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, has already dropped out of the race, as has South Carolina US Sen. Tim Scott, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Will Hurd and Perry Johnson, and some never did get in like Mike Pompeo and potential favorite son candidate Gov. Chris Sununu.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have run what would be considered typical New Hampshire Presidential Primary campaigns, being in state often, holding endless town halls to answer the voters’ questions and just plain retail politics.

The candidate with the initial buzz, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spent time in the Granite State early on, but the more he appeared the lower approval numbers went and the second buzz, Vivek Ramaswamy, a former pharmaceutical CEO, had a similar fate as his debate performances raised concerns among a lot of potential supporters.

Long shot but nice guy Asa Hutchinson is still hanging in the race, but has spent little time in New Hampshire and has little money to make any noticeable splash in the next three weeks.

Christie is betting all his money on doing well in New Hampshire and has become the one candidate willing to say out loud what many want to say in private about Trump, when the others are not.

Haley, who recently garnered the endorsement of Sununu and it appears the rest of his highly-connected family, rose dramatically in the polls, but some serious missteps in recent days has cooled her momentum, but she probably will finish well enough in the Iowa caucuses to come back to New Hampshire with enough momentum to make the race interesting with Trump.

But even if the GOP race turns into a closer contest than it appeared a month or two ago, the presidential primary has lacked the enthusiasm and spunk of the past.

For one thing, the candidates are not here as much as they used to be when you could walk down Elm Street in Manchester and Main Street in Concord and bump into a candidate or two and see the highly visible candidate logos on tour buses parked around the State House or City Hall in Manchester.

The editorial board meetings that used to be a staple of any candidacy are few these days, as newspapers shrink and staff are barebones with little time for national politics.

The endless candidate ads do not overtake regularly scheduled programming on WMUR anymore, as the internet has done to television ad revenue what it did to newspapers’ a decade ago.

There will still be televised debates from New Hampshire, two at New England College and one at Saint Anselm, but the state’s longtime political reporter John DiStaso will no longer be asking questions with the national media’s reporters.

Young enthusiastic reporters are still around, but most newspapers and other media do not have enough staff to dedicate a reporter or two to following the presidential primary.

The state of the industry means those young reporters are no longer able to ride their primary work to bigger and better publications and to places like the New York Times, Washington Post or CNN and NPR.

No one wants to write the obituary for the New Hampshire Presidential Primary — there is a proposed constitutional amendment to ensure it remains the first in the nation in the legislature this year — but it is very different from what it was just two presidential elections ago.

One of the beauties of the New Hampshire Presidential Primary was its volatility. Gene McCarthy could do well enough to convince President Lyndon Johnson to step aside under the weight of the Vietnam War. Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Gary Hart came out of the packs to upend frontrunners, as Pat Buchanan did in 1992 putting front runner Bob Dole’s campaign on life support leaving New Hampshire.

John McCain embarrassed Texas Governor and anointed GOP nominee George W. Bush in 2000, as Bernie Sanders did to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Trump in 2016 rode New Hampshire to his first victory after losing to Ted Cruz in Iowa and eventually became the last candidate standing to claim the nomination.

Something like those surprises could happen again, but a lot of the unknowns have disappeared from the campaigns.

The traditional campaign stops at Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett, the Red Arrow Diner, the Merrimack and Chez Vachon in Manchester and Lindy’s in Keene are not as frequent or as well covered as they used to be.

New Hampshire likes its retail politics, but the problem is the technology has changed and with it so have campaigns.

Gone are the days of sitting on a back porch at a pilot’s home in New London talking to George HW Bush about foreign policy without the Soviet Union on the stage or what he really warmed up to, baseball and his Texas Rangers versus the Red Sox.

That was a simpler time without Youtube videos capturing every word and talking points the candidates never move off of.

But you had a much better idea of who the person was who wanted to be president and that is much more difficult to ascertain today from the current campaigns.

Garry Rayno may be reached at

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

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