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Five big moments in New Hampshire primary history

February 5, 2016 by Scott Bomboy


This Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary has the potential to offer another dramatic moment in presidential election history. Here’s a look back at five reasons why the nation’s first primary is so closely watched.

Wikicommons: Billy Hathorn

The first New Hampshire primary was in 1916, and it became the “first in the nation” primary in 1920. But it was a set of ballot access changes in 1952 that made the Granite State’s primary broader and more accessible. (Only 27 percent of registered voters took part in the 1948 primaries.) Since then, New Hampshire has seen its share of election drama, starting with the bellwether 1952 primary campaign.

1952 – New Hampshire decides fate of two Presidents

The “beauty contest” primary, where candidates allowed their names to be entered into New Hampshire, saw GOP favorite Robert Taft fall to former General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had just announced he was a Republican a month before the primary. For the Democrats, Estes Kefauver defeated incumbent President Harry Truman, who was allowed to run for a third term under the conditions of the 22nd Amendment. Truman dropped his re-election hopes after that defeat.

1968 – Johnson’s win convinces him to drop from presidential races

Lyndon Johnson was also eligible for a third term in the White House under the 22nd Amendment, but he had asked for his name to entered into the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary as a write-in candidate. While Johnson received half of the primary votes, the strong challenge mounted by Eugene McCarthy led Johnson to drop any re-election bid.

1984 – Hart overcomes huge polling margin

Pollsters had predicted an easy win for the former Vice President, Walter Mondale, in the 1984 Democratic Primary. And three days before the primary, Mondale had a nearly 17 percent lead in the polls over his nearest competitor, Gary Hart. But in the primary, Hart defeated Mondale by a 9.4 percent margin. Mondale later took the nomination, but the Democratic drama in 1984 made it clear that anything was possible in New Hampshire.

1992 – Bill Clinton survives after scandal

Heading toward the 1992 New Hampshire primary, the Arkansas Governor had emerged as a leading Democratic contender, leading Jerry Brown by a 42-16 percent national margin in a Gallup Poll on February 2. But his campaign hopes took a major hit after news broke about Clinton’s alleged marital infidelities. The Clinton campaign was able to use his second-place Hew Hampshire finish to promote Clinton as a viable candidate, who eventually took his party's nomination.

2008 – Hillary Clinton defies pollsters to claim victory

Senator Barack Obama had seized the momentum of the 2008 race from Hillary Clinton at the Iowa caucus, and pollsters had Obama with an 8 percent lead heading into the New Hampshire primary. Instead, Clinton defeated Obama by a 2.6 percent margin, forcing a protracted nomination fight eventually won by Obama. Also, John McCain took campaign momentum away from Mitt Romney with his 2008 win in New Hampshire.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.

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