MANCHESTER, N.H.—Two laws have just gone into effect. One moves California's 2008 presidential primary to February 5. The other governs the impact of that move: It's the law of unintended consequences.
Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill advancing the date of his state's vote. "Talking about moving the presidential primary from June to February has already elevated California's status for the 2008 campaign," Schwarzenegger said. "Already, more candidates from both parties are coming out here to California, campaigning harder, campaigning more."
Even though New Hampshire's primary, tentatively set for January 22, will still be first, California's move is threatening to folks here. How can New Hampshire defend itself? One way is by emphasizing, "We're small." As Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta puts it, "The only way to have a conversation with a regular average person is in a state where retail politics is the norm, and it is demanded, and taken seriously."
People in New Hampshire also point out, "We're cheap." Guinta, a Republican, said, "If you have a California primary first, someone like Howard Dean would never be in the position he is in today. Someone like Bill Clinton probably never would have been president. Ronald Reagan, who took the New Hampshire primary seriously, may not have been president." And one more thing: New Hampshire voters are fully engaged. "People in New Hampshire take [their first-in-the-nation primary] seriously," Guinta said. "It's a badge of honor. It's the state sport." New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Kathleen Sullivan had a slightly different take. "Skiing is our state sport," she said, "but politics certainly is a major hobby."
With California moving up, the United States will have, in effect, a national primary on February 5. Eight other states have already scheduled contests on that day. Sixteen additional states—including Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York—are thinking about moving to February 5. By the time that day's contests are over, Democrats are likely to have chosen about 70 percent of the delegates needed for the party's nomination; Republicans, about 85 percent. And the law of unintended consequences is already taking a toll. "The candidates who are looking at this realistically, they just can't raise the money. They are already dropping out," Sullivan said.
California's switch could, by the way, make a candidate's performance in New Hampshire more, not less, important. "If you have a candidate who looks like, because of their poor performance early on, they can't win the presidency, I don't think Democrats will vote for them in the February 5 events," Sullivan said. "People are going to start looking at you and saying, 'You're a loser.' Democrats want to win."
Candidates will have to run dual-track campaigns—focusing on New Hampshire and the other early states in hopes of gaining momentum, and at same time trying to raise enough money to compete on February 5. Even with the boost of a win in the January contests, candidates won't have much time before February 5 to raise and spend the money needed to compete in the big states. They will have to rely on what President Bush's father once called "the Big Mo"—momentum—or on free media coverage.
And how's this for an unintended consequence: The nominating contest could still effectively end before the polls open in California. "I think, realistically, this is over at the end of January," Sullivan said, "so that everything the Democratic National Committee was trying to do will be stood on its head." The party was trying to make the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire less important. "Instead," Sullivan said, "they made us more important than we ever wanted to be. New Hampshire never said we wanted to be last in the nation!"
Ultimately, the outcome of the nomination fights could well depend on how California voters respond to what happens in New Hampshire. Suppose a candidate falters in New Hampshire and California voters bring that candidate back to life: New Hampshire will look irrelevant. But if victory in New Hampshire propels a candidate to victory in California, New Hampshire will end up looking more important than ever.