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Thursday, March 22, 2007

NH, FITN and NPR

I recently had an opportunity to read some academic research on the New Hampshire primary that provided empirical support to those who argue against the state's "first-in-the-nation" (FITN) status (along with the Iowa caucus) in the contests for the presidential nomination in each party. This is an old and still hot debate (also here) among those who pay attention to such things. There are basically two major arguments against that status: (1) that the state is demographically unrepresentative (having a non-Hispanic white population of more than 96%) and (2) that there is nothing distinctive about NH politics to warrant its special status.

On the first point, facts is facts -- and if one assumes that a more representative state will produce a "more representative result", then there is little to argue about. But the assumptions are arguable and testable -- including whether there is any small state that is representative that can deliver "retail politics" in presidential races. Which connects us to the second point, for if anything justifies the FITN status it might be that NH primary politics is special and that NH-types deserve their special role in the process (along with Iowa).

The articles in question (see here for one) challenge the FITN status by arguing that there is nothing special about NH primary politics, and that when put under scrutiny NH voters are just like any other in the nation in being subject to the influence of the media, etc. In short, retail politics is a myth, and any state will do as the FITN -- so why not put a more representative state or two upfront....

As it happens, the research design and data used in those studies are pretty weak -- or at least weak enough that one can raise significant doubts about whether the strong anti-NH primary conclusions are warranted. Focusing on the three to four week period just before the actual vote (thus ignoring the extended nature of the NH campaign) and relying on content analyses of network news (of dubious validity) as well as volatile tracking poll data, the studies are good enough for academic publication but hardly a firm basis for the assertions made by the authors. As they say in my business, the uniqueness of the NH primary remains "an open empirical question" (for example, see here).

I bring this up because I happen to have more than a passing interest in the NH primary. I have been working at the University of New Hampshire for nearly two years now and I am in the process of experiencing my first presidential primary season. Pretty interesting thus far, although my own contacts with candidates and campaigns has been limited to a couple of events. But it is early, they tell me, and things will get more interesting as time goes on. With some of my students involved in a project related to the primary season, I am certain to get my share of exposure -- which means I will get to see up close if there really is something special about the place.

In the meantime, the national media is beginning to pick up on its coverage, and some of the story lines relate to the FITN debate. Today, for example, NPR began a segment that will intermittently visit the town of Milford NH to see how the so-called special nature of NH retail politics plays out. My wn sense is that NH politics is a bit different -- and that folks in places like Milford take seriously their special role -- making the FITN argument the product of a self-fulfilling prophesy in a way.

Obviously more to come on this topic over the next several months....



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