Q&A with Linda Fowler on the NH primary

by Kelsey Flower | 1/6/16 7:39pm

Courtesy of Linda Fowler

Next month kicks off the New Hampshire primary and presidential candidates will make their way to the state. The Dartmouth sat down with Government professor Linda Fowler, who broke down the importance of the primaries and explain their long-standing relationship to Dartmouth.

The New Hampshire primary gets a lot of attention for being the first primary. Why is that particularly significant?

LF: The reason why the media pays so much attention to the primary is that it is the first time voters actually have to make a choice. The caucuses in Iowa, which come first, are interesting, but caucuses only get a couple thousand participants and they are heavily dominated by activists. New Hampshire is different — because of tradition and the importance of the primary, turnout is very high here. It can get to over 50 percent when both parties are having primaries. Compare that with say 12 percent in South Carolina, which will be the next primary. So, it’s a real benchmark for how the voters are looking at candidates and it’s become increasingly important because nobody trusts the polls right now. The response rate to telephone polls and email polls is down around 10 percent — it’s a dirty little secret about candidate surveys right now. Many of the firms that are surveying voters are using inadequate screens, so they don’t have a really good handle on which voters who say they’re going to vote in the primary actually are going to do it. That’s a big factor for somebody like Donald Trump. People say they are going to vote for him in the primaries, but a high percent of them are people who don’t have a history of voting in primaries. We don’t know whether somebody like Trump is going to get non-voters to show up at the polls, or whether they’re just having fun with the poll person and they’re not going to show up. So, New Hampshire is a reality check on whether the polls are really tapping into voters, and that’s why the press pays more attention to it. And because the press is here, the candidates come.

In this primary particularly, because Trump has sucked most of the air out of the campaign, the group of candidates that look like they’re vying for the nod of less alienated, less conservative Republicans is Jeb Bush, John Kasich, maybe Marco Rubio and Chris Christie. They’re all focusing heavily on New Hampshire because one of them is hoping they’ll break out as the person who’s the “non-Trump, non-Cruz” candidate and turn this into a three-way race, and donors are looking hard at that. On the Democratic side, if Hillary Clinton ends up beating back a challenge from Bernie Sanders, that will very much set her up for the rest of the race. Sanders is hoping to do well with a grassroots operation in New Hampshire and in Iowa and he has a good chance at both states. Clinton is likely to win many of the southern primaries on March 1, so Sanders needs a good showing in New Hampshire in order to survive until the big middle Midwestern and Northern states start to kick in later in the season. But if she beats him here and in Iowa — and worse for him if she really beats him — then he’s not going to have enough momentum to survive the March 1 contest and she’s likely to do well. So, the New Hampshire primary is generally important and this one in particular is important for both parties.

What is the historical relationship between Dartmouth and the New Hampshire primary?

LF: I think there are three things that make a connection. The first thing is that Dartmouth students have been major sources of volunteer activity for candidates in both parties. The first time it was really a factor was in the 1968 Democratic primary, where Lyndon Johnson was not on the ballot. He had made the decision that as an incumbent president he shouldn’t have to compete in primaries and in the end, because of the anti-war opposition to the conflict in Vietnam, a senator named Eugene McCarthy emerged to challenge Johnson. The students were very involved in that effort. They had a slogan, “Be clean for Gene,” meaning that you shouldn’t go around looking scruffy and like a hippy when you were knocking on doors of the good people of New Hampshire. McCarthy got 40 percent of the vote. He didn’t win, but the strong showing was such a surprise to everybody. It was a marker for the growing opposition to the war and that Johnson was not going to get the nomination by acclimation, he was going to have to fight for it. That was a very, very powerful memory for students who were at Dartmouth at the time. The second student connection is that a substantial number of students, often when they’re making inquiries about whether they want to apply to Dartmouth, cite the fact that the primary is happening and that they’re very interested in politics. They are attracted by the excitement that the primary generates on campus and that the candidates are coming. The third connection is that Dartmouth, for many years, has hosted major debates and public events. The first televised debate may have been 1988 and the University of New Hampshire hosed the debate for one of the parties and Dartmouth hosted the debate for the other party. We did debates in 1996, big ones for both parties in 2000 and then others in 2004 and 2008. There has been a sense that, often times, networks have approached Dartmouth because of its beautiful campus and said “we’d like to host a debate on your campus if you’ll work with us,” and we have.

For students who come into Dartmouth interested in politics, would you say that working for campaigns is the most typical route to follow?

LF: That is exactly what they do. The College Democrats and College Republicans usually collaborate to sponsor some student debates, where students will make the case for why their candidate should be the victor, as opposed to the opposing party’s candidate, but that will be more important in the fall. The College Democrats and College Republicans, because there isn’t consensus yet on who each party’s nominee should be, you’re seeing student activism much more directed to individually signing up for individual candidates, but the student political organizations have more of a role to play in the fall.

In addition to volunteering, what is the role that Dartmouth students typically play in the primary? How significant is the vote of a Dartmouth student? In the past, how much have Dartmouth students voted in primaries?

LF: The turnout among students generally is not great, but the young people who do vote increasingly are voting Democrat. This is why Republicans in the state are so eager to make it more difficult for students to vote in New Hampshire elections. It’s less of an issue in the primary. In part, Republicans are not coming up to Hanover as much as the Democrats are because they don’t think the pay-off in terms of voters has been very high. But the student vote generally is important in the general election. And by student vote, I mean the students at Dartmouth, University of New Hampshire, Keene State College and Plymouth State University. New Hampshire is going to have a very hard fought governors race and a very hard fought senators race, and the student vote, generally of which Dartmouth is a part, will be very, very important.

How can students vote in primary? Do they have to be registered with one of the two parties to vote?

LF: There are two things here, the first has to do with eligibility for students. When the Republicans have been in the majority recently in the state legislature, they have tried to make it more difficult for students to vote by requiring a photo ID and circulating information that unless you’ve registered your car and have a New Hampshire drivers license, that you can’t vote in this state. That’s actually false. You do have to have a photo ID, but students are considered residents if they are on campus full-time. Partly the decision of the town has been very strong to make it as easy as possible for students to vote. Now, the time to register in a party is by late October, but New Hampshire still has same-day registration. So if students didn’t register in the fall, they can register on election day on Feb. 9. They then have a choice of registering for either party’s primary. A student who has registered as an independent has the option of saying “I’m registered as an independent, but for the purposes of today, I want to be a Republican.” After voting, they can go back to being an undeclared voter. One thing that students need to remember is that if they register to vote in the New Hampshire primary, they should not be voting in their own state’s primary. That’s against the law.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.

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