For a few months every four years, Manchester, New Hampshire, is transformed from being a city at the centre of a small New England state to the city at the centre of the nation during the state’s hallowed first presidential primary.
Elainee Antonopolis, who owns the Gala Café on Elm Street, says that while she is not a particularly political person, she looks forward to the first of the US’s primaries. “It’s craziness here,” she says. “There are lots of people walking around, campaigning on every corner. It’s fun to watch.”
Ms Antonopolis estimates that her sales improve by
45 per cent during the two months leading up to the primary, when hordes of campaign workers and journalists descend on the state. “It’s nice having it. It’s a nice boost,” she says.
Even now, 21 months before the next primary is due, leading politicians are stumping New Hampshire. Last weekend John McCain, the Republican senator was here, officially campaigning for local candidates and promoting his latest book, Character is Destiny. Other potential contenders who have visited recently include John Kerry, Massachusetts senator and former Democratic presidential nominee, Evan Bayh, the Democratic senator from Indiana, Mike Huckabee, the Republican governor of Arkansas, and Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts.
But if the US’s Democratic National Committee has its way, the boost given to the state by the primary may not happen again, or at least may not be as substantial. The DNC’s rules and bylaws committee, concerned about the excessive influence of New Hampshire and Iowa – the first two states to vote for candidates – wants to make the 2008 presidential nominating process more racially and geographically diverse.
Under the DNC plan, Iowa’s 2008 caucuses would probably be held on January 14 – a week earlier than four years ago – perhaps with one or two more caucuses in other states held a few days after. New Hampshire would hold its primary on January 22, with one or two more primaries coming within a week after that. New Hampshire would still technically hold the first official primary but it would not be as important as it has been.
“People here take their politics very seriously,” says Dante Scala, a political scientist at St Anselm College in New Hampshire and author of Stormy Weather, a book on the state’s primary.
The DNC contends that New Hampshire and Iowa, two small, rural and primarily white states, are not sufficiently representative of the nation to justify the power they have over which candidate becomes a party’s nominee. States with larger minority populations and economies with greater union representation ought to have a bigger say in narrowing the field, it argues.
Moreover, the enormous media attention devoted to New Hampshire unfairly magnifies the two states’ decision-making power. A candidate becomes almost unstoppable by winning Iowa and New Hampshire and riding the momentum through the next rounds, Prof Scala says.
“Historically, to win New Hampshire has meant to burst on to the national political scene almost overnight,” he says, adding that the state has a famously high voter turnout. “Winners get on the cover of Time magazine and become instant household names.”
Jim Splaine, a state representative who has twice sponsored legislation requiring New Hampshire to be first in the nation, says taking away the state’s primary tradition, which dates back to 1916, goes against the American political ideal.
“It’s very meaningful for us,” he says. “New Hampshire is a state where upstart candidates can talk eye-to-eye with people. For better or for +worse, I don’t think that Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton would have been elected if it hadn’t been for this state.”
Michael Chaney, president of the New Hampshire Political Library, says that the primary in 2000 had brought in more than $306m (€252m, £175m) to the state – mostly spent on hotels, restaurants, rental offices, rental cars and television advertising.
“There is activity that generates dollars passing hands, particularly in service industries and the hotel and restaurant businesses,” he says, adding that $306m is a fraction of New Hampshire’s overall gross state product, which was $42bn at the time.
The DNC must ratify the proposed changes at its meeting this month in New Orleans. However, under state law, the New Hampshire secretary of state is required to schedule its primary at least seven days before any other state holds a “similar election”.
Prof Scala admits, though, that no matter what the state does to keep other states from encroaching on its privilege, there could be counter-moves by the DNC, such as refusing to seat delegates from New Hampshire at the 2008 national convention.
Whatever happens, at the Gala Café Ms Antonopolis treasures her repeat business. “I had a guy in here the other day who worked on John Edwards’ campaign in ’04,” she says. “He said he’s out of politics now but had to come back for the cannolis.”