Three stories of campaign-changing moments in the New Hampshire primary
By Kaleena Fraga
New Hampshire, the second state on the primary circuit, is a dangerous place for presidential campaigns. After clearing the threshold of Iowa, it’s here that many campaigns seem to falter or break down—and create room for challengers to surge ahead.
We look at three stories of heartbreak (and triumph) in New Hampshire, from Ed Muskie’s tears in 1972 to Bill Clinton’s comeback in 1992.
The Tears of Ed Muskie (1972)
Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) arrived in New Hampshire with something to prove. He had won the Iowa Caucus—but the media had found George McGovern’s surprising show of strength a more compelling narrative. To cement his place as the front-runner, Muskie needed New Hampshire to go well. It didn’t.
Two weeks before the New Hampshire Primary, the Manchester Union Leader published a letter to the editor, which alleged that Muskie had laughed when someone referred to Americans of French-Canadian descent as “Canucks.” In New Hampshire, Americans of French-Canadian descent made up 40%-50% of Democratic voters.
Muskie stood before a crowd in a snowstorm to defend himself, calling the conservative publisher of the Manchester Union Leader “a gutless coward,” and claiming that the letter “was a lie.” Muskie, relating to the crowd his own pain at being called a “Polack” as a boy, and protesting a separate article published by the Manchester Union Leader which had targeted his wife, seemed to begin to cry. The New York Times wrote: “The Senator broke into tears minutes later, his speech halting…” The Washington Post described Muskie as having “tears streaming down his face.”
Muskie, to the end of his life, denied crying. He said that snow, falling on his face and melting, only gave the impression of tears.
But in presidential politics, sometimes an impression is all that matters. Muskie’s status as the front-runner began to crumble. Although he won the New Hampshire primary, his campaign faltered. Muskie performed poorly in the contests that followed, and dropped out of the race.
As for the infamous “Canuck Letter”? Ken W. Clawson, deputy direction of communications in the Nixon White House, told a reporter: “I wrote that letter.”
Bush, Reagan, and the Microphone (1980)
Like Muskie, George H.W. Bush arrived in New Hampshire with an Iowa victory and hoped to cement his front-runner status. But Bush—like Muskie—would find that a single moment in New Hampshire could crater a candidacy.
The Nashua Telegraph wanted to sponsor a debate between Bush and Ronald Reagan. Reagan had narrowly lost to Bush in Iowa (31.6% to 29.5%). But the Federal Election Committee said that in order to sponsor the debate, the newspaper would have to invite all candidates. Reagan stepped in to finance a one-on-one debate—but secretly invited the others.
Bush didn’t want to muddy the field with other candidates. He wanted to take on Reagan himself, and the moderators of the debate (still from the Nashua Telegraph) agreed. Unsurprisingly, chaos erupted when Reagan, Bush, and four other candidates showed up on stage.
Reagan made his case for an inclusive debate. The newspaper editor and debate moderator, Jon Breen, didn’t want to hear it. He snapped: “Would the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan’s mic off for the moment?”
As the Reagan supporters in the crowd began to boo and jeer, Reagan leaned forward towards his (still functioning) microphone, and uttered a line which quickly became a star of presidential campaign history: “”I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”
(Yes, Reagan got the name wrong!)
Ronald Reagan won the New Hampshire primary, which propelled him into front runner status—and to the nomination, and to the White House. Bush, who would lose 29 out of 33 contests to Reagan, went on to serve as his vice president.
Bill Clinton, The Comeback Kid (1992)
Bill Clinton arrived in New Hampshire in 1992 as a man in trouble. The governor of Arkansas had stumbled to fourth place in the Iowa caucus, earning only 2.8% of the vote. Rumors of Clinton’s draft-dodging and extramarital affairs also dogged the candidate, threatening to sink an already faltering campaign.
So New Hampshire mattered. Top Clinton advisors arrived in the state on February 10th, acknowledging that the campaign was “in meltdown” and that their polls “had really tanked.” They knew that they needed to “fight like hell” and have a “perfect eight days” in order to turn things around.
The campaign decided they’d work to control the narrative, by limiting press conferences and putting the candidate in front of crowds, where he could connect with New Hampshire voters on a personal level. “The strategy really was, be everywhere,” said Clinton advisor James Carville. “Shake every hand.” Clinton hit the trail, hard, meeting voters in person and participating in televised town halls.
It worked—Clinton outperformed expectations and zoomed to second place on February 18th. This led to Clinton’s famous moniker: “The Comeback Kid.”
Clinton went on to beat the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, in the November election.
Does Winning in New Hampshire Matter?
The Answer is (surprise!) Complicated
In our last post, we asked if an Iowa victory had any significance in terms of winning the presidency. The answer is complicated—and certainly, this year, grows even more complicated when you throw in a messy and confused caucus, and two candidates in a virtual dead heat.
In New Hampshire, Iowa’s narrative can be reinforced—see Jimmy Carter in 1972. (Carter won Iowa and New Hampshire.) It can be thrown into doubt—see Hillary Clinton’s victory over Obama in 2008, after she lost in Iowa. Or, it can be torn up entirely in favor of a new one—see Bill Clinton’s resilient comeback in 1992.
In 2020, a win in New Hampshire for Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg would cement their front-runner status. But the campaign is young—and anything could happen.
Bonus Note: A Win in new hampshire is better for the GOP
New Hampshire’s significance is also amplified depending on if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. No Republican who won the Iowa Caucus has gone onto be win the presidency—by contrast, it was Democrats (Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama) whose Iowa wins led them to the White House. (Bill Clinton also won in Iowa in 1996, but as the incumbent.)
For Republicans, winning New Hampshire has historically meant more than Iowa. This won’t matter in 2020—unless there’s a surprise dark horse about to jump in the race—but in the last 44 years, Republicans who win New Hampshire—even if they lost in Iowa—are more likely to reach the White House. This trend is especially strong in the election cycles between 2008 and today. In 2008 Mike Huckabee won Iowa; John McCain won New Hampshire. In 2012 Rick Santorum won Iowa; Mitt Romney won New Hampshire. And in 2016, Ted Cruz won in Iowa—Donald Trump won in New Hampshire.