The year 2020 will mark New Hampshire’s 100-year anniversary for hosting the nation’s first primary in the presidential nomination cycle.
Not New Hampshire’s first primary — that came four years earlier in 1916 — but its premiere as the first-in-the-nation primary.
Granite State voters in 1920 set the stage for their eventual role as national sizer-upper of the prospective chief executive.
Longtime New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner likes to tell the story of the initial primary. His telling of it is based on the twists and turns detailed in an article by Dean Dexter at the very front of the “2019 N.H. Manual for the General Court” (nicknamed the “Red Book”).
Here is the story, with some adjunct reporting:
Voter turnout in the Tuesday, March 9, 1920 New Hampshire primary was exceedingly low. It was a cold day. Temperatures rose from a low of 17 to a high of 37 in Concord, the capital, according to National Weather Service records.
Just three days earlier a blizzard hit. Snow still hampered travel on many country roads.
On the GOP side, 16,195 votes were cast, just one-fifth the number of the usual turnout. An even smaller number of Democrats, 7,103, cast ballots.
Women were ineligible to vote. It wasn’t until later that year, in August of 1920, that the 36th state ratified the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote.
The candidate whose ticket won the New Hampshire primary was a “favorite son,” at least Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood’s campaign touted him as such.
Wood had inherited former president Theodore Roosevelt’s support after he died Jan. 6, 1919. Roosevelt had planned to run for president, but said that in the event he was unable to run, he wanted his supporters to back Wood.
Wood had been Roosevelt’s commander in the celebrated “Rough Riders” Calvary unit in the Spanish American War in 1898.
Another Rough Rider veteran, Frank Knox, owned the Union Leader newspaper in Manchester in 1920. Knox also got behind Wood’s run for the presidency.
Wood’s campaign promoted its candidate as a favorite son because he was born in Winchester, New Hampshire.
Actually, his birth in New Hampshire appears to have been unplanned:
His pregnant mother was traveling by train through Winchester on her way to Massachusetts when little Leonard arrived. He was born in an apartment above the Winchester Post Office on Oct. 9, 1860. Three months later mother and son moved to Pocasset on Cape Cod, where he grew up.
So, New Hampshire’s “son” was much more a child of the Bay State than the Granite State.
Wood won the New Hampshire primary by virtue of delegates. Voters in those earlier years of the primary did not select the candidate by name, rather they selected the delegates pledged to support a candidate at the national convention.
Wood went on to win a majority of the nation’s primaries only to see his nomination derailed by backroom dealings at the Republican National Convention held from June 8 to 12 in Chicago.
Warren Harding of Ohio, the candidate who finished sixth in the popular vote in the primaries and was victorious only in the Ohio primary, was made the party’s nominee at the convention after a series of ballots by delegates.
The convention maneuvering gave rise to the term “smoke-filled room,” coined in a news account from the convention by United Press reporter Raymond Clapper. The term conveys a scene of rich and powerful men smoking cigars while engaged in back-room politics.
A Wikipedia entry on “smoke-filled room” references the 1920 GOP convention directly:
“After many indecisive votes, Harding, a relatively minor candidate, was, legend has it, chosen as a compromise candidate by Republican power-brokers in a private meeting in room 404 at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago after the convention had deadlocked.”
It wasn’t until the 1952 New Hampshire primary that the names of candidates for president appeared directly on the primary ballot. Up until then, the primary ballot listed the names of delegates, either affiliated with a particular candidate or not affiliated with any candidate.
The ballot change originated with a New Hampshire law passed in 1949 at the behest of Richard Upton, speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, said Richard Padova, professor of history at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill.
Upton wanted the New Hampshire primary to be less of a beauty contest and more meaningful by having the candidates’ names placed on the ballot.
“He is considered to be the father of the New Hampshire primary,” Padova said.
The 1952 New Hampshire primary was a watershed election. Dwight D. Eisenhower emerged the winner on the GOP side — defeating Robert Taft, the favorite — and went on to win the nomination.
Over the years, New Hampshire has embraced its role vetting prospective presidents.
Lesser knowns have become well known in New Hampshire. Consider Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Candidates have found new life for their campaigns in New Hampshire. See John McCain in 2008.
New Hampshire’s first position in the race for a party’s nomination is decreed in state law.
According to RSA 653:9, “The presidential primary election shall be held on the second Tuesday in March or on a date selected by the secretary of state which is seven days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election.”
It all started in 1920, a century ago, on a cold day after a snowstorm.