The New Hampshire Presidential Primary might not be the crucial early testing ground that it is today were it not for Yankee frugality, a foolish comment by President Harry Truman and an inspired change to the ballot in 1952.
New Hampshire’s primary election was then, as now, the first in the nation. That wasn’t intentional. Town leaders simply saw no reason to heat town halls twice for Town Meeting, so the primary was held at Town Meeting time.
Primaries had been around since the turn of the century, when reformers tried to replace backroom wheeling and dealing with direct democracy. Not many people paid attention to them.
Robert Upton, speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, was upset the 1948 primary had gone almost unnoticed. He had an idea to put the New Hampshire Presidential Primary on the map. Upton drafted a bill to put the candidates’ names on the ballot instead of the unknown party representatives who might not be committed to a candidate. Gov. Sherman Adams was skeptical that it would make any difference, but he signed the bill into law anyway.
That year Ohio Sen. Bob Taft was considered the Republican front-runner and President Harry Truman the likely Democratic candidate. But Truman was unpopular, and he didn’t announce whether he would run for re-election.
Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver opposed Truman’s machine-style politics. He came to New Hampshire in early 1952 to challenge Truman. He went to town hall meetings, worked assembly lines, attended teas in people’s homes. He shook voters’ hands, remembered their names and sent them thank-you notes signed ‘Estes.’ His campaign found an old fire truck in Hooksett, rigged it up with lights and ran it up and down the streets of Manchester with Kefauver walking behind it, shaking hands.
Truman was asked at a news conference about Kefauver’s primary campaign. ‘All these primaries are just eyewash,’ he replied.
New Hampshire voters were insulted. “The primaries are indeed eyewash,” editorialized the Keene Sentinel. “They rest the bloodshot eyes of delegates who have been subjected to the pressures of machine politicians and allow them to see more clearly.”
Truman did decide to run in the primary that year. Despite a snowstorm, the energized voters came out to vote, doubling turnout over 1948.
Kefauver trounced Truman by nine points. On the Republican side, Taft was beaten soundly by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. The two upsets made major national news, and the New Hampshire Presidential Primary was on the map.
Eight years later, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy understood that the 1952 primary had ended one era of politics and begun another. He knew if he didn’t win the state primaries he’d be shoved aside by party bosses at the convention in Los Angeles. Though he was a favorite son, he campaigned in the Kefauver style: stopping at diners, trying out a dogsled, patting livestock. New Hampshire voters rewarded him with a record 42,969 votes on March 8, 1960.
Kennedy went to the White House. Truman went back to Missouri.