New Hampshire Has Third Latest State Primary Date in Country

Concord Monitor
Published: 9/10/2018 10:50:03 PM
Modified: 9/11/2018 9:14:20 AM

In Georgia, the high-profile battle for governor between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams has raged since July, when Kemp won a run-off election for the Republican nomination.

In Texas, voters have had since March to weigh their options between sitting Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, the firebrand incumbent, and Democrat Beto O’Rourke, his ascendant Democratic challenger.

In New Hampshire, though, observers of closely-fought primaries for governor and U.S. Representative have had to wait much longer to see the final match-ups.

Granite State voters will select their party’s nominees Tuesday in one of the latest state primaries in the country — just 56 days ahead of the nationwide general election on Nov. 6. Only two other states hold primary elections later: Rhode Island, set to vote Sept. 12; and New York, which chose its nominees for federal office in June but will hold a primary for governor and others Sept. 13.

For New Hampshire, the date is non-negotiable; state statute dictates that primaries be held the second Tuesday of September. But in a year of crowded primaries and heightened voter engagement, the short turnaround time between the state’s primary and its general election can lead to a frenzy.

“I think the biggest problem for a candidate in a late primary is you just have less time for everything,” said Chris Galdieri, associate professor of politics at St. Anselm College. “Wednesday morning their campaign gets up and they have 50 or so days to figure out, ‘Okay, which voters do we turn out, what’s our strategy.’ ”

The Granite State wasn’t always an outlier. September used to be a popular month for primaries. Then came the 2009 federal MOVE act, which mandated that states prepare absentee ballots at least 45 days before the general election to better assist overseas and military voters.

Earlier absentee ballot deadlines mean earlier primaries to decide who would appear on those ballots, and many states opted to move their elections up by weeks or months.

But New Hampshire stayed steady, keeping its mid-September date, which means in some years the Secretary of State’s office has mere days to ready the ballots.

Now, after months of headlines within primary races nationwide, New Hampshire’s delay stands out. Efforts to bring the date forward have fizzled in the Legislature in recent years, according to Dave Scanlan, deputy secretary of state. And political observers say there are plenty of pros and cons to the arrangement.

Wendy Underhill, director of the National Conference of State Legislature’s elections and redistricting teams, has kept track of states’ moves since the 2009 law. Some states moved to August, others to June; none chose July.

“July is not a good time,” she said.

But the decision, she added, is ultimately one for the individual states and not the campaigns.

“It’s probably state culture,” she said. “What feels better. And candidates and campaigns adjust to what they need to.”

There are a few drawbacks, Galdieri said. To start, candidates with low name recognition coming out of a primary have just eight weeks to make their pitch to independent or undecided voters, many of whom may have tuned out the primary. Against an incumbent governor with a household name, for instance, that can prove formidable.

Then there are questions of party unity. During particularly vicious cycles, long primaries can leave little breathing room for reconciliation after the nomination. In the 1st Congressional District, Republican candidate Eddie Edwards has indicated he wouldn’t support his opponent Andy Sanborn should Sanborn win the election, citing sexual harassment allegations that Sanborn denies.

And then, of course for the nominees, the runway to victory is perilously short. “I think you have less room for error,” Galdieri said. “You have less time to course-correct if the message isn’t resonating.”

But there are advantages, too. Short general election periods can lead to compact campaign cycles, which in turn can intensify attention and lead to more voter engagement. And the September primaries get high turnout, something that can’t be said for the summer vacation months, argued Secretary of State Bill Gardner in an interview Monday.

For the candidates, the primary date is a reality that must be worked around, for better or worse. For the 11 Democrats vying for the 1st Congressional District, it’s afforded an extended period of time for lesser-known candidates to grab oxygen and exposure.

For Democrats Steve Marchand and Molly Kelly — both contenders for the gubernatorial nomination — the delay has meant less time for the eventual winner to take on Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, and more time for him to ignore them entirely.

Campaign operatives — buried under the demands of the final campaign stretch — took a measured approach to the question Monday.

To Chris Moyer, spokesman for Kelly, the upshot is mixed. “The short general can cut both ways,” he said. “You can have this really focused, heightened attention for a short period of time, versus it being dragged out.”

But even if the nomination is not necessarily theirs, the Kelly campaign has taken plenty of swings at the governor with an eye to the general election, Moyer pointed out. Their second TV ad, titled “People Energy,” targeted Sununu over a pair of vetoes he issued on energy bills.

Unlike Kelly, who jumped into the race this April, Marchand has been pitching himself to voters practically since his last campaign ended; he formally announced his 2018 bid in April 2017. That, his staff says, has in some ways immunized the campaign from the effects of a late primary.

“Steve has run this campaign ‘grassroots,’ and he’s trying to do it as the people-powered person ... going from town to town,” said Khrystina Snell, Marchand’s spokeswoman. “That’s what we’ve been doing. We’re going to be doing that the whole time; the primary just happened to happen.”

A spokesman for Sununu’s campaign declined to comment Monday.

Whether New Hampshire moves its primaries any time soon is perhaps a distant prospect; few have weighed in vocally either way. But to Gardner, the concerns are nothing new.

“You have the ebbs and flows,” he said. “There have been times when people said ‘These elections are too long! They’re too long! Why are we always in election mode!’ Now you’ve got people saying ‘Well we want them longer! We don’t want them to be spending money, but we went them longer!’ ” Gardner said.

“If you compare our primary turnout to Maine, the turnout is (much better in New Hampshire),” he added.

And in the end, it may not even matter.

“There’s never a great time to hold a primary election,” Galdieri said. “Nobody’s around in the summer … (and) it’s not great for candidates to have it September. If you have it in the spring, then everyone forgets there is an election.”

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