New Primary calendar? New Hampshire says ‘not so fast.’

Red Arrow Diner was honored to be featured in a recent Christian Science Monitor article by Story Hinkley about how Red Arrow Diner is a time capsule of United States politics as countless politicians have visited Red Arrow during the first in the nation primary. Read the full article below or click here to check it out on the Christian Science Monitor website.

Open the door to the Red Arrow Diner too forcefully, and it will smack right into Ted Cruz, Rudy Giuliani, both Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. 

Framed photographs of onetime presidential candidates line the New Hampshire diner’s entryway. Many of the candidates drape their arms around Carol Lawrence, the Red Arrow’s owner of 35 years. In fact, the entire place is a time capsule of U.S. politics, with metal nameplates marking various stools where candidates once sat. Hanging behind the counter, a license plate proudly reads “1st in NATION PRIMARY.”

For more than a century, New Hampshire has relished its unique role shaping presidential history, with its primary bestowing a crucial shot of momentum or a harsh dose of reality on White House hopefuls. Voters here enthusiastically embrace the flood of politicos who descend on their small state every four years – hosting candidates in their living rooms, filling town hall auditoriums, and casting ballots at one of the highest rates in the country.


As Democrats vote this week on a plan for South Carolina to lead the 2024 primaries, New Hampshire says its “first-in-the-nation” status should be preserved – signaling a messy fight ahead.

But that favored status is now facing an existential threat. Following a recommendation from President Joe Biden, the Democratic National Committee is poised to approve a new primary schedule that would put South Carolina first instead. Advocates say the change would give voters of color a greater say in the nomination process. The DNC is scheduled to vote on it this weekend at its winter meeting in Philadelphia.

New Hampshire is not taking this news well. Granite State voters say their primary has always been an example of democracy at its best – where candidates are vetted by a well-informed electorate, and those with the biggest campaign coffers don’t always win. More broadly, a scheduling skirmish that may seem like intraparty politics could have much bigger implications. Many here say Democrats may regret demoting New Hampshire – one of the few remaining swing states in the Northeast – when it comes time for the general election. 

“It’s an important part of our tradition and culture and we take it very, very seriously. … We believe we are making a real contribution not only to the process, but to the country,” says John Lynch, who served as the Democratic governor of New Hampshire from 2005 to 2013 and was the lead author of an opposition letter recently sent to President Biden from almost two dozen state Democratic operatives.

“This misguided decision is going to put at risk not only our four Electoral College votes but also the presidency,” he adds. “Maybe people don’t remember that if Al Gore had won New Hampshire, he would have been president.”

Gearing up for a messy fight

Of course, New Hampshire hasn’t really been first for a while. For decades, the presidential nominating process has been kicked off by the Iowa caucuses, followed shortly thereafter by New Hampshire’s primary. New Hampshirites have been fine with this arrangement because, technically speaking, theirs was still the first “primary.” But over the years, activists have increasingly argued that the older, whiter populations of both Iowa and New Hampshire didn’t accurately reflect the makeup of the Democratic Party. Past efforts to change the primary calendar led to other states being strategically moved earlier or later – for the past three presidential cycles, Nevada and South Carolina have followed closely on New Hampshire’s heels – but never dislodged Iowa or New Hampshire.

Embarrassing mishaps in 2020 with Iowa’s caucuses – long criticized as arcane and confusing – appear to have been a tipping point. Iowa Democrats do not seem to be mounting a serious effort to oppose the new calendar, which would give South Carolina the first primary, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada three days later, and then Georgia and Michigan.  

New Hampshire, on the other hand, is gearing up for what could be a messy fight.

One looming problem with the DNC’s new plan is that Republicans are not going along with it. The GOP is leaving New Hampshire at the top of its party’s nominating calendar in 2024. At a campaign stop at the New Hampshire Republican Party’s meeting in Salem on Saturday, former President Donald Trump earned some of his loudest applause when he voiced his commitment to New Hampshire’s “incredible tradition” of hosting the nation’s first primary.

GOP Gov. Chris Sununu has made similar statements, confirming that he, along with New Hampshire’s legislature, has no intention of overturning a 1975 state law that mandates New Hampshire hold the first primary in the country.

The DNC has told New Hampshire that its second-place position in the new calendar is contingent on repealing this law, as well as implementing more early voting opportunities. As further leverage, the DNC is threatening to withhold delegates from candidates who campaign in any states that hold their primaries out of order.

Since Republicans control New Hampshire’s legislature and governorship, local Democratic officials say they’ve been placed in a no-win position.

“They want to punish the New Hampshire Democrats for something we have no control over,” says Raymond Buckley, who has served as chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party since 2007.

Some liken the current situation to a game of chicken, with both New Hampshire and the DNC hoping the other will blink first. For now, both sides appear steadfast.

“Regardless of what the DNC comes out with, we will go first,” says Mr. Lynch.

“The DNC has done this before and it didn’t cave,” counters Elaine Kamarck, a member of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, adding that the DNC “showed great backbone” in 2008, when it removed Michigan and Florida from the list of early primary states. 

Mr. Buckley agrees with the chicken analogy, to a point. With the state law as it is, he says he doesn’t have the power to blink even if he wanted to. “You can’t play chicken when you’re blindfolded,” he says, throwing his hands in the air in frustration.

“Biden owes New Hampshire absolutely nothing”

Like the Red Arrow Diner, Mr. Buckley’s office at the party’s headquarters in Concord is a shrine to decades of presidential contenders. An entire bookshelf is dedicated to former President Jimmy Carter, whose New Hampshire campaign not only sparked a young Mr. Buckley’s interest in politics, but also affirmed what the New Hampshire primary can do for underfunded hopefuls with little name recognition.

After Mr. Carter, a peanut farmer and former governor of Georgia, announced his candidacy in 1976, a home state newspaper ran the headline ”Jimmy Who Is Running For What!?” But after logging hundreds of hours with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr. Carter won both contests, propelling him into the national spotlight and ultimately the White House.

Yet virtually ever since, party officials have been fighting over the primary schedule. The call to change it has only grown louder as the Democratic Party has become increasingly reliant on nonwhite voters to win elections. New Hampshire is one of the least diverse states in the country at more than 90% white, unlike South Carolina, where more than one-quarter of voters are Black.

“Too often over the past 50 years, candidates have dropped out or had their candidacies marginalized by the press and pundits because of poor performances in small states early in the process before voters of color cast a vote,” wrote Mr. Biden in his letter to the DNC proposing the change. 

Mr. Buckley says the DNC addressed these demographic concerns a few years ago when it moved South Carolina and Nevada into earlier voting spots. That Mr. Biden’s own win in South Carolina was powerful enough to propel him to his party’s nomination after a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire is evidence of South Carolina’s power even in the current calendar.

Indeed, many believe Mr. Biden’s poor performances in New Hampshire and Iowa, where he came in fourth, ultimately paved the way for the proposed changes. 

“For half a century, the president of the United States has won either Iowa or New Hampshire or both,” says Ms. Kamarck. This year, “because there was no sitting president defending them, it opened the door for all the complications that had been building for decades about these two states.” 

“Unlike past incumbents who often owed something to New Hampshire for being the nominee, Joe Biden owes New Hampshire absolutely nothing,” agrees Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.

Still, Mr. Biden’s decision to elevate the primary of a state he won while bumping that of a state he lost has rubbed some voters here the wrong way.

“So now presidents can pick any state they like to go first?” says Kathy Dircks, a retired postmaster from Chester, while shopping at The Mall of New Hampshire.

Ms. Kamarck thinks that may turn out to be the case – with the DNC “entering an era where we revisit this every few years.” In the end, she adds, that might make the whole process fairer.

Back at the Red Arrow Diner, Ms. Lawrence, the owner, gestures to the bustling restaurant around her. A menu advertising the Trump Tower Burger – a hamburger topped with fried macaroni and cheese that she says former President Trump enthusiastically devoured – lies on top of a seat dedicated to Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar. To Ms. Lawrence, American politics couldn’t get much fairer than this.  

“I welcome them all the same.”