Michael Kinsley, a contributing editor and alumnus of this magazine, once famously wrote that a political “gaffe” occurs when a politician accidentally tells the truth.
You’re not supposed to look askance at Iowa, even to New Hampshireites. This is what Nikki Haley did when she dared to remind New Hampshire primary voters that they tend to “correct” Iowa caucusgoers’ decisions.
But New Hampshire’s notorious tradition of reversing Iowa’s results is a bit of history that the former South Carolina hopes to repeat on Tuesday. It’s her last best shot at persuading fellow Republicans that former President Donald Trump’s nomination is not a done deal, that he’s a loser, and that she will beat Joe Biden.
Trump would not be the first president or former president to see their electoral career end in New Hampshire. In 1952, President Harry S. Truman, who had already served almost seven years in office because Franklin Roosevelt had died just weeks after his 1945 inauguration, was beaten by Estes Kefauver, the senator from Tennessee, who would become the running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket four years later with Adlai Stevenson in the top spot. Having lost the New Hampshire primary, Truman quickly withdrew from the presidential race, ending his ambition to complete almost three terms in office.
Likewise, in the winter of 1964, even with President Lyndon Johnson enjoying a wave of support from a nation still grieving the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the fall, New Hampshire voters wanted to float an alternative to the Texan and his likely Republican rival, Barry Goldwater, the senator from Arizona, known as Mr. Conservative. Looking to a fellow New Englander, the state’s GOP voters chose Henry Cabot Lodge, the former Massachusetts senator, United Nations ambassador, and Kennedy-Johnson envoy to Vietnam. Of course, in the fall of 1964, the nation went “All the Way with LBJ,” giving the incumbent a landslide victory on a par with his icon, FDR, and his biggest win in 1936, including New Hampshire.
It wasn’t the last time Johnson would have trouble in New Hampshire. In 1968, the Granite State dethroned LBJ. Eugene McCarthy came within 6 points of beating Johnson, who withdrew from the race in a shocking television address where he said he “will not seek and will not accept my party’s nomination” for president of the United States.
America’s conflicting feelings about Vietnam came to a head in New Hampshire. Until 1992, every American president, starting with Dwight Eisenhower, was in uniform in World War II. They may not have been allied commanders, but every president, from John F. Kennedy to George Herbert Walker Bush, was an officer. Jimmy Carter was fresh out of the Naval Academy,
A week before the 1992 New Hampshire primary, a Bill Clinton letter to a University of Arkansas ROTC commander thanking him for “saving me from the draft” led to his struggle to win the contest. A crushing defeat in New Hampshire probably would have doomed the Clinton campaign.
But enough New Hampshire voters were ready to back Clinton for president and reward him for his tenacious campaigning culminating in his famed “’til-the-last-dog dies” speech in Dover, New Hampshire. Despite coming in behind former senator Paul Tsongas from neighboring Massachusetts by eight points, Clinton claimed victory. Granite State voters, he said, had made him the “Comeback Kid.” But in a sense, Clinton had done it by campaigning the New Hampshire way—exhaustively and in person as John McCain did in 2000 when he upset the favorite, Texas Governor George W Bush
The morning after Clinton’s near-death experience in New Hampshire, I was a commentator on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Clinton came roaring onto the Manchester, New Hampshire, set with a bevy of staffers. With confidence, he headed directly for a pile of donuts. Several minutes later, former Senator Tsongas, the actual primary winner, arrived carrying a schoolbag over his shoulder. He approached me, a mere commentator, and asked if it would be okay for him to have one of the remaining donuts.
Clinton’s spin had worked.
Because it is such an intimate venue, New Hampshire can elevate an emotional moment into a victory. In 2008, when Senator Barack Obama resoundingly won the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton stopped him dead in New Hampshire.
In a Friday debate just before New Hampshire, Obama said that the former first lady and New York Senator was “likable enough” as a presidential candidate.
The following Saturday, Clinton showed genuine emotion about the rigors of a presidential race and their effect on his goals in public life. That Tuesday, the impact of Obama’s remark, her own admission, and New Hampshire’s built-in tendency to “correct” Iowa delivered a huge upset victory to Hillary that year.
So, with this historical background, I’m betting New Hampshire will surprise the country and pick Nikki Haley, although as of Saturday, when I saw her campaigning at a restaurant, Grill 603 in Milford, she had yet to make that connection with voters.
Still, New Hampshire Republican primary voters picked Ike over Bob Taft, Ronald Reagan over George Herbert Walker Bush, and McCain over Bush’s son. Yes, they can be hawkish. But they also showed the instinct to reject anyone who got just a bit ahead on his skis.
When she made her bet on New Hampshire, Haley might have been thinking of all this primary history. She might also have been acting on the same instinct that got her to haul down that Confederate battle flag in 2015.
Either way, with 40 percent of New Hampshire voters able to vote on the Republican primary ballot, she has the kindling to build a victory bonfire on Tuesday. Whether she could turn that into a win in her home state of South Carolina or the delegate-rich contests on Super Tuesday may be a stretch in a party that bears Trump’s imprimatur seems much more challenging.
The lesson here is that New Hampshire should be restored as the nation’s first primary state. Democrats abandoned it for South Carolina, but the Palmetto State is already the kingmaker, having chosen Barack, Hillary, and Joe. New Hampshire is not the kingmaker but the best editor, thinning the herd so the rest of the country can make a wise choice.
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