Why the New Hampshire Primary Is so Important

President Lyndon B. Johnson
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Soon after Hillary Clinton announced to the world "I'm running for president" in the 2016 election, her campaign made it clear what her next steps would be: She would travel to New Hampshire, where she won in 2008, well ahead of the primaries there to make her case directly to voters.

So what's the big deal about New Hampshire, a state that offers up only four electoral votes in the presidential election? Why does everyone pay so much attention to the Granite State?

Here are four reasons why the New Hampshire primaries are so important.

The New Hampshire Primaries Are First

New Hampshire holds its primaries before anyone else. The state protects its status as "first in the nation" by maintaining a law that allows New Hampshire's top elections official to move the date earlier if another state tries to pre-empt its primary. The parties, too, can punish states that try to move their primaries before New Hampshire's.

So the state is a proving ground for campaigns. The winners capture some early, and important, momentum in the race for their party's presidential nomination. They become instant frontrunners, in other words. The losers are forced to re-evaluate their campaigns.

New Hampshire Can Make or Break a Candidate

Candidates who don't do well in New Hampshire are forced to take a hard look at their campaigns. As President John F. Kennedy famously said, "If they don't love you in March, April and May, they won't love you in November." 

Some candidates quit after the New Hampshire primary, as President Lyndon Johnson did in 1968 after winning only a narrow victory against U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. The sitting president came within just 230 votes of losing the New Hampshire primary in what Walter Cronkite called a "major setback."

For others, a win in the New Hampshire primary cements the path to the White House. In 1952, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower won after his friends got him on the ballot. Eisenhower went on to win the White House against Democrat Estes Kefauver that year.

The World Watches New Hampshire

Presidential politics has become a spectator sport in the United States. Americans love a horse race, and that's what the media serve up: Endless public-opinion polls and interviews with voters in the run-up to Election Day. The New Hampshire primary is to political junkies what Opening Day is to Major League baseball fans.

That is to say: It's a really big deal. 

The Media Watch New Hampshire

The first primary of the presidential election season used to allow the television networks a trial run at reporting results. The networks compete to be first to "call" the race.

In Martin Plissner's book "The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections," the February 1964 New Hampshire primary was described as a media circus and, therefore, the center of the political world's attention. 

"Over a thousand correspondents, producers, technicians and support people of all kinds descended on New Hampshire, its voters and its merchants to confer the special franchise they have ever since enjoyed ... Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, New Hampshire was the first test in every cycle of the networks' speed in declaring winners of elections."

While networks continue to compete against each other to be first to call the race, they are overshadowed by digital media in reporting the results first. The emergence of online news sites has only served to add to the carnival-like atmosphere of news coverage in the state.