It's Tiny, It's White, It's Old: Why Does New Hampshire Matter So Much?

For presidential candidates, New Hampshire will likely determine which candidate gets to fight another day, which essentially gets voted off the island.

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire -- So, what's all the hype about the New Hampshire primary, anyway?

New Hampshire is just a tiny state, with its 1.3 million residents tucked out of the way in the top right corner of the U.S. Its people are older, whiter and far more likely to live in a rural area than other Americans. Less than 10 percent of New Hampshirites are between the ages of 15 and 24, compared with 14 percent nationwide. A whopping 96 percent of the state is Caucasian, compared with 75 percent nationwide.

Yet every four years, New Hampshire becomes the epicenter of the political world and the barometer of who will face off in the November presidential election. That's because the state traditionally holds the first contest in which voters get to select a candidate directly and discreetly. Unlike the Iowa caucuses -- an elaborate public town-hall system where voters express their will indirectly -- New Hampshire lets voters speak their minds the same way they will this fall: on their own, behind a curtain.

New Hampshire is therefore considered by many to be the real kickoff of the race to the White House, where all of the political tensions and energy built up since the previous presidential election begin to rear up for the world to see.

In the weeks and days leading up to the election, thousands of young people invade the state to work 16-hour days on presidential campaigns, often for poverty-level wages or for no pay at all (see "On The Campaign Trail" ). They go door to door, stand out in the freezing cold with signs advertising their candidates and hit all of the local joints with fliers galore. Their candidates, meanwhile, log thousands of miles crisscrossing the state to smooch babies, flip pancakes and generally demonstrate they're just ordinary people too. Between all the candidates and their hordes of volunteers, it's nothing short of a political rumble.

Then throw in the thousands of members of the national and international media that descend upon the scene. During the final weekend before the primary, it is not uncommon to find a television crew from NHK Japan Broadcasting or reporters from Der Spiegel (the German equivalent of Time magazine) stopping locals on the street for interviews -- even the folks back in Yokohama and Hamburg want to know which way the state is going to go.

It all builds to a massive crescendo on election night. The news networks set up shop in Manchester, the state's largest city. And the candidates themselves have a chance to deliver their victory or concession speech live to the nation and the world.

To many, the whole process must seem a bit nuts. New Hampshire may be among the first to assert its political voice in the election process -- but it's still just one tiny, white, old, rural state. What's the big deal?

History is the big deal. The political theme song in New Hampshire goes: If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere. It used to be said that no Democrat has been elected president in the modern era without winning in New Hampshire. That was true until 1992 when Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas finished second (Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas was the victor). But there was little doubt that the good showing in New Hampshire was the pivotal point for the Clinton campaign.

One month earlier Clinton was accused of carrying on an illicit affair with an Arkansas cabaret singer and faced questions about whether he sought to avoid serving in Vietnam. Only nonstop campaigning in the state during the final week before the primary reversed his tailspin, and on primary night he had credibly dubbed himself the "Comeback Kid." Without that turnaround, Clinton would likely be little more than an asterisk in the history books.

For this year's crop of candidates, New Hampshire will likely determine which candidate gets to fight another day and which essentially gets voted off the island.

Just as last week's results in Iowa brought Rep. Dick Gephardt's campaign to an end, a poor showing in New Hampshire could pull the plug on Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. And former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, much like Clinton in 1992, desperately needs to finish second or better to revive a campaign that has seemed shaky since Iowa.

So keep your eye on New Hampshire, because, as it has so many times in the past, the Granite State appears poised to shape the race for the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

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