Election Insights

Dixville Notch and other New Hampshirisms

At midnight on January 23rd, all six residents of the unincorporated community 30kms from the Quebec border are expected in the living room of the Balsam Resort’s Tillotson House to cast their ballot. They are likely to be joined by hordes of media, and perhaps a candidate or two.

January 18, 2024

Matt DeCourcey is a seasoned public policy leader and trusted advisor to decision makers at the local, national, and international level. He is the former Member of Parliament for Fredericton, and now serves as Head of Corporate Affairs for InterKnowlogy.

Mike McLintock: “It's good we won Dixville Notch.”

Dan Egan: “It's got a population of 12, Mike.”

Mike McLintock: “I know, Dan, but it's famous.”

Gary Walsh: “Our Lord Jesus started with 12.”

Ben Cafferty: “Well, he didn't win New Hampshire either.”

– VEEP, Season 3, Episode 10

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and co. may have satirized it in the political comedy, VEEP.

But serious pundits argue its symbolic importance. And in the wee hours of the morning next Tuesday, we’ll know who Dixville Notch pegs to an early lead in New Hampshire.

At midnight on January 23rd, all six residents of the unincorporated community 30kms from the Quebec border are expected in the living room of the Balsam Resort’s Tillotson House to cast their ballot. They are likely to be joined by hordes of media, and perhaps a candidate or two.

In a process that lasts a minute, the poll will close, the votes will be counted, and the earliest primary results will be announced nationwide.

It’s all part of a long-standing tradition of New Hampshirites exercising outsized influence on the US presidential race in this first-in-the-nation primary.

Since 1960, Dixville Notch has been the first of firsts.

Though every other poll will be open on Tuesday during business and early evening hours, New Hampshire state law allows towns with fewer than 100 residents to open polls at midnight and close them as soon as all registered voters have cast their ballots.

In fact, Tuesday will mark the first time in decades that only one Granite State community will hold a midnight vote. Hart’s Location (which first held midnight balloting in 1952) and Millsfield (which cast midnight votes in 2016 and 2020) will opt for normal polling hours.

How does the New Hampshire primary work?

Like most, the New Hampshire primary looks a lot like a general election.

The state government sanctions, funds, and oversees the primary, which is conducted by secret ballot at polling stations across the state. Primary voters will choose among candidates whose names appear on the ballot. Though, they are electing delegates who will formally nominate a candidate at their party’s national convention this summer.

New Hampshire is one of 15 states to hold a semi-closed primary. Registered Republicans and Democrats can vote for their respective party. Undeclared voters (Independents) are also eligible to vote by choosing either a Democratic or Republican ballot at a voting place. By doing so, they become registered members of that party, unless they declare themselves “Independent” before leaving the polling station.

There are 22 delegates up for grabs (at least for the Republicans—see more about Democrats below).

Candidates are allotted delegates based on their proportion of the statewide vote. A candidate needs 10% of the vote to be eligible for a delegate.

In 2016, Donald Trump won 35.2% of the vote in New Hampshire on his way to the Republican nomination and the Presidency. Going into Tuesday, statewide polls have him 13 points ahead of his closest rival, Nikki Haley, at 43%.

On the heels of his historic win in Iowa, and with legal issues occupying his time, Trump will have the chance to demonstrate the Teflon-like nature of his campaign or perhaps show himself somewhat vulnerable.

Why does New Hampshire go first?

In 1920, New Hampshire aligned its presidential primary with “town meeting voting day”, which took place on the second Tuesday in March. That date, it just so happens, came before any other state held its primary.

And so, a tradition was born.

Since, the tradition has deepened in the minds of New Hampshirites and grown in influence on the nation.

In 1948, New Hampshire was the first to introduce a direct vote for candidates. Until then, voters had marked an X for the delegates who would support candidates at party conventions.

During the 1952 cycle, as scholars largely agree, New Hampshire’s influence on the presidency was cemented. That year, unpopular Democratic incumbent president Harry S. Truman abandoned his reelection campaign after a poor showing in New Hampshire. At the same time, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower scored an upset victory on his way to the presidency.

In 1975, the New Hampshire state legislature passed legislation to enshrine its first-in-the-nation status in law. Like Iowa, it has held true since. And like in Iowa, the real prize in New Hampshire, ever since, has been momentum.

Are times changing?

Last year, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) approved a 2024 primary calendar that put South Carolina ahead of New Hampshire.

Despite an ongoing war of words and threat of legal action, the DNC is holding firm in its decision to defy New Hampshire state legislators, law, and tradition. It has signaled that Tuesday’s vote will be null and void, calling it a “non-binding presidential preference event”. Biden, himself, has not registered his name on the ballot. Though, a heavily funded write-in campaign for Biden is afoot.

Many have argued that South Carolina offers a more representative sample of US diversity and voter preference. Conceivably, though, the decision has as much to do with the DNC’s desire to demonstrate “The Big Mo” for current unpopular incumbent president.

As of today, over 56% of Americans disapprove of Joe Biden. He trails Trump in head-to-head polls.

Consider that in 2020, Joe Biden garnered only 8% of the primary vote in New Hampshire. Pundits were asking if the then 77-year-old former Vice President was past his prime. Sound familiar?

A mere two-and-a-half weeks later in South Carolina, Biden broke through with 49% of the vote and 39 of a possible 55 delegates, catapulting him to the nomination, and ultimately the presidency.

“As Dixville Notch goes, so goes the country”—Dixville Notch voter.

In 2020, at least, this was true. Joe Biden received endorsement of all five votes cast in the township.

In 2016, though, Hillary Clinton received four votes to Donald Trump’s two—Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson received one vote and Mitt Romney (who was not even on the ballot) earned a single write-in ballot.

We all remember how that race turned out.

What will Tuesday bring? We’ll have to stay up late to find out.

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