Opinion: New Hampshire primary pits established against outsiders

David Shribman


When, 120 years ago, the New Hampshire poet Edna Dean Proctor saluted this state’s ‘’cliffs, her meads, her brooks afoam’’ and spoke elegiacally of the ‘’white-robed heights of its mountains,’’ she identified perhaps the mostly enduring characteristic of New Hampshire—its worship of the outside.

And now, as the 2020 presidential campaign cranks to an opening in the state that holds the first primary of the political season, one major question persists:

The delegates from New Hampshire cast their votes for President of the United States during the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Tuesday, July 26, 2016.

Will a state that extols the virtues of the outside embrace an insider for the White House?

The question, like the two peaks for which this town nestled between Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch is named, has twin aspects:

Will New Hampshire grant its Democratic National Convention delegates to an outsider or defer to custom and embrace a neighbor such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, whose principal residence is but 30 miles from the New Hampshire border?

Or will the Democrats instead side with a true outsider like the two little-known municipal leaders contemplating presidential campaigns, Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and former Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans?

Past practice, never an entirely reliable guide, answers both questions with a resounding, though throughly contradictory, yes.

New Hampshirites customarily regard Massachusetts residents as outsiders, and not welcome ones; the most expensive act on a highway here is driving in a car with red-on-white Bay State plates, magnets for state patrollers looking for speeders or, more precisely, for any excuse to torment a Massachusetts driver.

Years ago my brother Jeff pulled into a driveway in Milton Mills, N.H., to reverse direction. When the homeowner noticed his car had Massachusetts plates, he charged the vehicle, rifle in hand.

And yet in politics New Hampshire voters, recipients of a constant diet of news from Boston television stations, have been remarkably congenial to Massachusetts presidential candidates, virtually considering them one of their own. Bay State candidates John F. Kennedy (1960), Michael S. Dukakis (1988), Paul E. Tsongas (1992), John F. Kerry (2004), and Mitt Romney (2012) all won the New Hampshire Primary. The only Massachusetts candidates to fall short have been Edward M. Kennedy (1980) and Romney, in his first try (2008).

So Warren has an edge in this contest, plus an advantage possessed by no other contender. She can win not only news coverage but also a compelling dateline merely by traveling to Warren, N.H. (pop. 904), one of the six New England communities bearing her surname.

Now the second question: Can Warren, elected twice to the Senate and with the advantage/disadvantage of having served on the faculty of the Harvard Law School—which produced by far the most Supreme Court justices in American history, including a majority of today’s high court— plausibly portray herself as an outsider? Her best bet: Emphasize her gender and her views, both departures from American political custom.

The outsider question has special resonance in this age and for Democrats, who will be opposing an incumbent who, in his 2017 Liberty University commencement address said, ‘’Being an outsider is fine, embrace the label, because it’s the outsiders who change the world and who make a real and lasting difference.’’

Democratic insider presidential candidates have fared poorly. Nine of the last 11 Democratic insider non-incumbent candidacies—Adlai Stevenson (1952, 1956), Hubert Humphrey (1968), George McGovern (1972), Walter Mondale (1984), Dukakis (1988), Al Gore (2000), Kerry (2004), Hillary Clinton (2016)—lost. Outsiders Jimmy Carter (single gubernatorial term), Bill Clinton (veteran governor but an outsider by virtue of being cast by his GOP rivals as a ‘’failed governor of a small state’’) and Barack Obama (less than a full term as senator) prevailed.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that since the pre-Civil War years of James Buchanan (member of the House and Senate, twice an ambassador and a Secretary of State—and thus a true insider) the Democrats have only elected two true insiders to the White House, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Mr. Kennedy, one disabled and the other Catholic.

Determined to prevent Trump from winning a second term, Democrats here and elsewhere are priding themselves on examining the candidates with sedulous care, looking less to ideology than to electability.

The ideology factor may aid Warren, or Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, or many others such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York or Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota plus as passel of relative newcomers whose views match the new generation of voters, vigilant about civil rights, troubled about the wealth gap, concerned about climate change, determined to win single-payer health care. The winnability factor may favor former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is not alone in believing he has the best chance of toppling Trump.

The result is a Democratic dilemma unlike any it has encountered before.

And it comes at a time when it is prudent to remember that it is not the Democrats but the Republicans who for the past century have tended to elect insider candidates such as, among others, Herbert Hoover (the longest-serving secretary of commerce), Richard Nixon (victorious in House and Senate races, two terms as vice president, and one presidential nomination before winning the presidency in 1968) and George H.W. Bush (member of the House, director of central intelligence, veteran diplomat, two terms as vice president).

The only modern exception until recently was Wendell Willkie (1940). Plus one other: Donald John Trump.

David M. Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.