NH Presidential Primary

Citizens Count Editor

By state law – and helped along by national party rules – every four years New Hampshire holds the first presidential primary in the United States. The next first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary will take place on February 11, 2020. 

View a list of declared and potential candidates for the 2020 New Hampshire primary

What is a presidential primary?

In the United States, the Democratic and Republican parties choose their nominees for president through a system of state primaries and caucuses.

In a primary, voters from each party choose their favorite candidates on a ballot. Different states have different rules for who may appear on the ballot and who may vote in the primary. 

The Democratic and Republican parties give each state a certain number of delegates to appear at the national party conventions. Very generally speaking, delegates at a convention vote for the candidates who won the most primary votes in their home states. 

The candidate with the most delegate votes at the national party convention wins that party’s nomination for president.

What about caucuses?

Some states use caucuses instead of primaries to choose their favorite candidates for president. Party members must show up to caucus sites at a specific time. They gather in groups for each candidate and ultimately elect delegates. Those delegates may go on to caucuses at the county or state level and repeat the process, finally choosing delegates for the national Democratic and Republican party conventions. 

Iowa holds the first presidential caucuses in the United States, typically a week before the New Hampshire primary.

How the NH presidential primary works

Candidate filing

In the Granite State, presidential candidates must file with the New Hampshire secretary of state the November before the primary and pay a $1,000 fee. 

A presidential candidate must be “a natural born citizen,” at least thirty-five years old, and a resident of the United States for at least fourteen years. The candidate must also be a registered member of either the Democratic or Republican party. 

If someone believes a candidate does not meet one or more of these qualifications, they can file a complaint with the state Ballot Law Commission. That commission may rule a candidate cannot appear on the presidential primary ballot.

Setting the primary date

State law requires New Hampshire to hold its presidential primary the second Tuesday in March, or at least seven days before any other state’s presidential primary — whichever is earlier. The New Hampshire secretary of state has the power to select the day of the primary.

The earliest ever presidential primary was January 8, 2008.

Voting in the primary

In New Hampshire, registered Republicans can only vote in the Republican presidential primary, and registered Democrats can only vote in the Democratic presidential primary. However, New Hampshire allows undeclared voters to register as Democrats or Republicans and vote accordingly on the day of the primary. Those voters can then swap back to undeclared on their way out of the polls.

After the primary

New Hampshire sends delegates to the party conventions proportionally — each candidate gets to select a share of delegates based on the percentage of votes they earned in the primary. 

History of the NH presidential primary

The public in New Hampshire and other states did not always get to vote for presidential nominees.  Instead, party officials chose the major candidates for president without public input.

  • In 1916 New Hampshire held its first statewide presidential primary. However, the presidential candidates themselves did not appear on the ballot. Instead, voters elected delegates for the national party conventions. Some of those delegates pledged to vote for certain presidential candidates; other delegates did not.
  • In 1920 New Hampshire repeated the process. That year New Hampshire held its presidential primary before all other states, establishing the tradition of being first in the nation.
  • In 1948 New Hampshire passed a law that placed the name of presidential candidates, rather than delegates, on the primary ballot.
  • In 1979 New Hampshire passed a law that required the presidential primary take place before all other states. This added legal force to New Hampshire’s traditional spot in the primary schedule.
  • In 1999 New Hampshire passed a law giving the secretary of state the power to set the primary date as early as needed to stay before other states.

Impact of the NH presidential primary

The Democratic and Republican parties give New Hampshire a very small number of delegates to the national party conventions, but the media focus on New Hampshire means the first-in-the-nation primary has a big impact. A surprising win or loss in New Hampshire can make or break a presidential candidate.

For example, in 1992 a surprisingly strong second place finish in New Hampshire helped then-Governor Bill Clinton recover from damaging news about marital infidelity.

In 2008 Senator John McCain took the wind out of Mitt Romney’s sails by claiming victory over the Massachusetts governor in the New Hampshire primary.

According to at least one statistical analysis, winning the New Hampshire primary increases a candidate’s share of the primary vote in all states by 27%.

However, winning the New Hampshire primary doesn’t guarantee national victory. In a recent example, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by 22% in the 2016 New Hampshire primary, but lost the national nomination.

The Internet and mass media also make it less necessary for candidates to interact with New Hampshire voters in person. For example, Donald Trump visited New Hampshire far less than other Republican candidates in 2016, but he still won the New Hampshire primary with a large margin. 

The role of national parties

The national Democratic and Republican parties have rules that help protect New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status. Generally speaking, states that schedule a primary before the first Tuesday in March (known as “Super Tuesday”) lose delegates to the national convention. However, New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina are exempted from that rule.

Recent challenges

Over the years several states have tried to move their primaries and caucuses into the early days reserved for New Hampshire and Iowa. For example, in 2012 Florida held its presidential primary January 31. Secretary of State Bill Gardner responded by moving New Hampshire’s primary to January 10.

In 2020 the New Hampshire primary faces a new potential threat: early voting. States that allow mail-in voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and early voting start collecting ballots up to a month before the official primary date.

The 2020 California presidential primary is March 3. That means voters in California will be able to mail in ballots starting in early February, ahead of the tentative date for the New Hampshire primary. Secretary of State Bill Gardner has not said if he will move the New Hampshire primary to avoid any overlap with California.


"For" Position

“New Hampshire should keep the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.”

  • Because New Hampshire is a small state, it levels the playing field between well-funded and lesser known candidates. Through local campaigning, every candidate has a roughly equal opportunity to make themselves known to New Hampshire voters beyond thirty-second messages in mass media.
  • Unlike other states that have an overwhelming interest in one industry, such as mining, agriculture, or technology development, New Hampshire has a diverse economy. This discourages candidates from pledging themselves to represent one economic interest over another.
  • New Hampshire voters are more civically engaged than the population in other states, with consistently high voter turnout. 
  • When New Hampshire’s uniquely engaged electorate puts candidates to the test, voters across the nation are able to observe the results in real time, giving them a valuable perspective when the time comes for them to cast their ballots.

Adapted from a 2011 op-ed by former U.S. Senator John E. Sununu. 

"Against" Position

“New Hampshire should not have the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.”

  • Studies estimate that the average New Hampshire voter wields as much influence as five Super Tuesday voters. The demographics of New Hampshire do not match those of the nation as a whole. White non-Hispanics make up 63.7 of the U.S. population, but a whopping 92.3 percent of the population in New Hampshire. New Hampshire families are also more likely to speak English, or have been born in the U.S., or live in rural areas than the rest of the population. By putting New Hampshire first, parties give disproportionate influence to a small group of mostly white, rural voters, and effectively disenfranchise minority voters.
  • New Hampshire’s primary voter turnout might be high compared to that of other state primaries, but it’s still generally lower than voter turnout in general elections. That undermines the case that New Hampshire voters are exceptionally engaged and therefore deserve their outsized influence.  
  • Supporters of the New Hampshire primary argue the state’s small size gives underdog campaigns more opportunity to take off, since campaigning in New Hampshire is less expensive than mounting a nationwide effort. However, this doesn’t justify why New Hampshire in particular should be the small state with that privilege. Why not a state with more diversity, or a rotation of small first-in-the-nation locations?
  • Polls indicate that most Americans aren’t happy with New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation monopoly. Over 70% of Americans would support alternating who goes first and nearly 75% like the idea of a nation-wide primary. 

Adapted from “I’m from NewHampshire, and the New Hampshire primary has to go” by Dylan Matthews.


Killed in the House

Allows a presidential candidate in a primary to request a moderator or clerk to create an "instant polling place" at a location where a candidate gathers at least 5,000 residents.

Killed in the Senate

Requires any presidential primary candidate to disclose 3 years' worth of his or her federal income tax returns.

Killed in the Senate

Makes the September primary day and presidential primary day state holidays.

Killed in the House

Requires any presidential primary candidate to disclose 5 years' worth of his or her federal income tax returns.

Tabled in the Senate

Establishes a commission on the first-in-the-nation presidential primary to coordinate with and advise the secretary of state in regards to the primary. The secretary of state would retain the power of setting the date of the primary.

Interim Study

"National Popular Vote Bill," an interstate agreement to elect the President by national popular vote.

Signed by Governor

Revises the declaration of candidacy form for presidential candidates so that a candidate does not have to be a formal member of the political party he or she is seeking to run in, and instead only needs to be "a recognized candidate for President in the party in which I desire to file." This could impact candidates such as Bernie Sanders, who is an independent in the U.S. Senate but ran for president as a Democrat.

Killed in the House

Requires disclosure of federal income tax returns by presidential and vice-presidential candidates and posting of the returns on the secretary of state's website.

Killed in the Senate

Requires disclosure of federal income tax returns by presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

Killed in the House

Apportions the state's presidential electors so that two at-large presidential electors shall cast their ballots for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates who received the highest number of votes in the state, and congressional district presidential electors shall cast their ballots for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates who received the highest number of votes in their respective congressional districts.

Killed in the House

"National Popular Vote Bill," an interstate agreement to elect the President by national popular vote.

Killed in the House

States that "If a party seats delegates at the national party convention from this state that have not been apportioned in accordance with [state law], the party shall be prohibited from participating in the next presidential primary election."

Signed by Governor

Removes the requirement that Presidential Primary candidates are listed in the alphabetical order of their surnames on the ballot.

Killed in the House

"National Popular Vote Bill," an interstate agreement to elect the President by national popular vote.

Killed in the House

"National Popular Vote Bill," an interstate agreement to elect the President by national popular vote.

Should NH keep its first-in-the-nation presidential primary?


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Issue Status

The NH 2020 presidential primary will take place on February 11, 2020.


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