Politics in NH: the “First in the Nation”

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker with some light reading at the First in the Nation Summit

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker with some light reading at the First in the Nation Summit

I still remember my first experience in New Hampshire politics, and what an experience it was. Eagerly, I woke myself up at 5 A.M. in the hope that I might get a glimpse of my longtime political hero, Kentucky Senator and ophthalmologist Rand Paul, at an event down in Manchester. It was April 12, 2014, and I was to attend the New Hampshire Freedom Summit, hosted by Americans for Prosperity and Citizens United. The first event of its kind, it was also the first “cattle call” of the 2016 presidential election. (Following the success of the New Hampshire event, Citizens United brought similar events to Iowa and South Carolina. Most notably, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker delivered a breakout performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit.)

That day was quite a time to be involved in New Hampshire politics. The venue, one of the largest in New Hampshire, was nonetheless small and intimate by any objective standard. Long before he declared his intention to Make America Great Again! and became the Republican frontrunner, I stood only a few feet away from one Donald J. Trump as he gave an interview after completing an expectedly entertaining off-the-cuff speech. I watched as hundreds of New Hampshire Republicans rose to their feet in a thunderous round of applause lasting over two minutes to welcome Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to meet and shake hands with Dr. Paul and Senator Cruz, as well as Utah Senator Mike Lee, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, among others. Late that afternoon, I returned to Hanover with a Constitution signed by Senators Cruz, Lee, and Paul.

This was before the 2014 election, and notable national figures in the Republican Party were already coming to the Live Free or Die state in droves. It has been said that Iowa picks corn, but New Hampshire picks presidents. Indeed, New Hampshire is probably the most important state in the presidential nominating process. In few other places would I have had the opportunity to meet multiple presidential contenders on a single occasion. It is even more remarkable still considering the fact that the Freedom Summit was an open and free forum more than two years from the presidential election. Nevertheless, in New Hampshire, such intimate contact with candidates is commonplace. Campaigning in New Hampshire, a small state with outsized influence, requires an intense amount of retail politicking. That means making the case to voters in person, one by one, throughout the state. In such a way, Dartmouth students are afforded opportunities that students at other institutions of the same caliber could not even dream of. 

The College Republicans travel schedule over the past year was packed with exciting events. Before the 2014 election, Dartmouth students had the opportunity to meet congressional candidate Marilinda Garcia, former UN ambassador John Bolton, as well as Arizona Senator John McCain. Texas Governor Rick Perry also made trek up to Hanover to host an event with students, though that visit unfortunately led to a rather notorious incident that shall not be further discussed in these pages. In addition, we met Dr. Paul once more at the New Hampshire Republican Party headquarters.

That spring, however, interest and excitement in the 2016 presidential election skyrocketed as the candidates officially jumped into the race. We were fortunate enough to attend the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit (FITN), an exciting two-day affair with an unfortunately verbose name. At FITN, we had the opportunity to see nearly the full lineup of GOP candidates, and then some. Once again, we saw familiar faces such as Dr. Paul, Senator Cruz, Governor Perry, and Mr. Trump. We also met some new faces such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Only retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson has eluded the Dartmouth College Republicans thus far. Furthermore, we had the great fortune of having a private meeting with Governor Walker and small sessions with Dr. Paul and Mrs. Fiorina. And as a sidebar, we met Vermin Supreme and went to Chick-fil-A while we were at it, too. The Dartmouth Review’s full coverage of FITN can be found in Volume 35, Issue 2 under the title “To Pick a President: The First in the Nation Summit.”

At the end of a long spring term, we had the opportunity to attend a spaghetti dinner in support of Ohio Governor John Kasich. Notably, the dinner was hosted by Karen Cervantes, an influential Upper Valley Republican activist who also happens to be a veteran of Kasich’s first Ohio state senate campaign in 1978. She and her husband, Raul, are also unsung heroes for having provided us transportation to the Freedom Summit.

We did not stop our adventures during the sophomore Summer of Trump either. Florida Senator Marco Rubio dropped by Lou’s to speak to us. We also saw Dr. Paul, Senator Graham, and Governor Walker again. Excitingly, two of our members were participated in a focus group run by respected GOP pollster Frank Luntz and had the opportunity to be on Fox News. I personally capped off an arduous and stressful sophomore summer by attending Senator Cruz’s opening of his New Hampshire headquarters. 

In addition to having fun meeting candidates, some of us actually do useful things for them. For example, Charles Springer ’17 is working with New Day for America, a super PAC supporting Governor Kasich, on building support on campus. Similarly, Abraham Herrera ’18 is leading the campus effort for Senator Rubio. I, myself, currently serve as Hanover Town Chair for Dr. Paul. These opportunities are aplenty and can easily be found in campaigns eager for energetic young people.

Lest readers think such exciting opportunities are only open to those conservatively inclined, there is action on the Democratic side as well. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have all graced campus with their presence, and there is always Students and Staff for Bernie for those who wish to be involved. Nevertheless, there is comparatively less energy versus the Republicans, considering the smaller Democratic field and plethora of high-wattage Republicans such as Mr. Trump.

Dartmouth’s involvement in presidential politics is nothing new. In 2011, the College was fortunate enough to host the Bloomberg-Washington Post debate, one of the many Republican presidential primary debates. For those fuzzy on the particulars of that election cycle, the deluge of politicians on campus included then-Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Governor Perry, and Speaker Gingrich. For the general election, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden also visited Dartmouth and interacted with students amid a flurry of press. During that election, Review Vice President Matt Zubrow ’17 had the fantastic opportunity of serving on Romney’s fundraising team, and he even got to spend some one-on-one time with the Governor. Similarly, in 2007, the College hosted a Democratic presidential primary debate, featuring then-Senators John Edwards, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama among its many participants.

After the fiasco that was the 2012 Republican primary campaign season clown car, Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee vowed that the nomination process would proceed in an orderly fashion in 2016. One, depending on the vantage point, will be either dismayed or delighted that nothing is proceeding to RNC’s plan, given the rapid and sustained rise of Mr. Trump. Nevertheless, many of the changes to the nominating process instituted by the RNC are still in effect. The RNC tightened the primary calendar while preventing states such as Florida from moving their primaries up. In addition, early states must award delegates proportionally, rather than by winner-take-all. The other major change has been limiting the number of official debates and blacklisting candidates from official debates if they participate in unofficial debates. Meanwhile, the DNC has scheduled only a few debates, much to the consternation of supporters of Senator Sanders.

With fewer debates in 2016, Dartmouth regrettably will not host a primary debate. Investigating this development, The Review sat down with Economics Professor Andrew Samwick, Director of the Rockefeller Center, to understand Dartmouth’s evolving institutional role in presidential primaries. Besides there being fewer debates, there are numerous factors working against Dartmouth’s future participation in a presidential debate.

National media seems to have figured out, only recently, that presidential debates do not need to take place in early voting states. Thus, debates are becoming increasingly spread out in terms of location, so long as there is a favorable venue. For example, the first 2016 Republican primary presidential debate took place in Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, as explained by the wildly enthusiastic cheers for Governor Kasich. Dartmouth’s geographic location is also disfavored for debates, considering that it is approximately an hour and a half from New Hampshire’s main population center, Manchester. There are plenty of desirable venues in more convenient locations, Saint Anslem College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics, a traditional stomping ground for presidential contenders, chief among them. Professor Samwick also believes that new venues such as the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire will provide additional competition for the College. Nevertheless, Dartmouth, through its Office of Communications, has standing offers to all major candidates on both sides of the aisle to come to Hanover.

In general, despite the glad-handing and baby-kissing involved, politics is much more media driven than it used to be. Thus, politicians are often more concerned with good soundbites and photo ops rather than barnstorming the state with town halls to speak directly to voters. Thus, outside of debates, many candidates will struggle to make the trip up to Dartmouth to speak meaningfully to students. Dartmouth, as an academic institution, certainly wants politicians to speak meaningfully about policy. That, as always, is an enormous challenge in and of itself. Still, there are notable and fortunate exceptions to this trend, such as John McCain and Chris Christie, who are known for their straight talk and numerous town halls. Nevertheless, the Upper Valley area is an important area for presidential candidates, so there are still plenty of opportunities to meet them. In good time, they will come. 

New Hampshire’s first in the nation status is so engrained that it is protected by state law. By statute, the Secretary of State of New Hampshire is required to schedule the New Hampshire primary the week before any other similar contest, regardless of anything the national parties may do to the state’s delegates. Continuing that tradition, on February 9, 2016, New Hampshire will host its primaries for both the Republican and Democratic parties. The Granite State is also a swing state that is competitive in general elections, so expect the state to remain a center of attention until the general election, especially because of the disproportionate voter to electoral vote ratio. In the end, New Hampshire is politics the way it is supposed to be.