Mental Floss

A New Hampshire Primary Primer

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It's primary time!!

Right about now, New Hampshire is an Amsterdam for political hopheads, like the California couple vacationing there not for the ski slopes but just to get their fix of political insanity.

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Oh and they are not alone in their hand-shaking and baby-kissing (or making babies cry "“ best headline so far: "Obama makes baby cry").

The candidates are going to have to pull out all the stops (and Chuck Norris) to have a hope in New Hampshire this year. But the real question on everyone's mind (ok, my mind) is exactly how did New Hampshire, a state with little to recommend it besides trees and skiing and nature and stuff, get to be so important in the old political arena?

First, a primary primer

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Back to primaries: there are basically two kinds of primaries, closed and open. A closed primary means that voting for a candidate to nominate is only open to members of that party. Independents aren't welcome. An open primary means that any registered voter can vote in whichever party's primary they choose.

New Hampshire is the first statewide primary in the country, in which voters cast their ballot for the candidates they believe should receive their state's nomination in each party. It's also open, so everybody's invited.

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Indiana is kicking itself now

New Hampshire's original primary date was supposed to have been the third Tuesday in May of 1916, but was changed to fall on the same day as the monthly town hall meeting, on the second Tuesday. Legislators didn't want to pay to light up the Town Hall twice in one month and Granite Staters are nothing if not frugal. Back then, New Hampshire actually wasn't the first in the country "“ that honor went to Indiana, which, possibly not realizing what it had, switched to a later date in the next primary year. That left pole position number one open for little New Hampshire to seize, which it did, and fiercely.

Granite State legislators may have seen something the rest of the states didn't: the potential for a small state with very little clout to become extremely politically relevant every four years, when it counts the most. It seems to have worked "“ scores of states, especially in this most contentious of elections, have tried to move their caucuses and primaries up to compete with Iowa's caucus and New Hampshire's primary. And each time a state tries, New Hampshire simply moves its primary up.

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And it's not just being first that counts "“ New Hampshire wants to be at least a full week before anyone else: In 1992, Delaware, another small state looking to increase its political clout, started holding its primaries on the Saturday following New Hampshire's. In response, in 1996, New Hampshire decided that it would have to hold its primary a full week before "any other similar election." But Delaware wouldn't budge, so New Hampshire, still miffed, said Delaware's primary didn't constitute a similar election. In the end, New Hampshire won: Out of respect for New Hampshire voters, most Republican candidates that year did not file for the Delaware primary and neither did Democratic incumbent, President Bill Clinton. Delaware gave up and now its primary is on Feb. 5.

How important is it really?

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In any case, most pundits are saying New Hampshire is the place where the candidates must make their mark in order to stay politically viable. But the truth is, only time and primaries and caucuses in the 49 other states in the Union will tell.

Any Granite Staters voting today? Care to file a live report?

Linda Rodriguez is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Her last article looked at the history of celebrity political endorsements.

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