Political Pulse March 2007

Irking New Hampshire

Changes in the presidential primary calendar will make New Hampshire more important than ever.
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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.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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