Overview: NH's vote grabs a national spotlight

The Presidential primary system traces its roots to the reform efforts that swept the nation in the early part of this century. In 1910, New Hampshire became the first New England state to use the direct primary process for the nomination of state candidates.

The man who won the governorship that same year, Robert P. Bass, as a state senator had led the fight in 1909 to nominate candidates by popular vote, rather than party convention.

The Bass administration was noted for its progressive initiatives, but it failed to extend the primary law to include election of delegates to the two national nominating conventions.

After losing in 1911 by a single vote in the state Senate, in 1913 the reformers enacted a presidential primary law with little opposition. The original law set the election for the third Tuesday in May 1916, a time late enough in the spring to permit the political situation to develop. But the 1915 session of the Legislature advanced the date to the second Tuesday in March - Town Meeting day - allowing one fewer election to be held in presidential years. So for no other reason than Yankee thrift, the state chose its early-season voting.

In 1916, the primary followed Indiana's by a week and was the same day as Minnesota's. By 1920 Indiana had delayed its primary until the first Tuesday in May and Minnesota had dropped its primary. Since then, New Hampshire has always held the initial presidential primary.

From 1916 to 1948, the voters' decision was solely for the selection of delegates; there was no vote on the presidential contenders themselves. Delegates could file for a fee of $10 or by a petition signed by 100 voters of their party. These candidates could choose to run either as a delegate pledged to a presidential hopeful or as an unpledged delegate. The date was early in the national campaign. As the media did not cover the electoral process as fully as they do now, and with no direct vote on presidential candidates available, little politicking occurred.

In 1932, delegate slates pledged to New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt and the 1928 Democratic nominee, former New York Governor Al Smith, did clash. The Roosevelt campaign spent more money here than in any other state ($12,000) to assist FDR's partisans. They expected to lose a few delegate slots to Smith supporters, but they enjoyed a clean sweep, leading a buoyant James Farley to predict a first ballot nomination for Roosevelt.

Since the New Hampshire voters' choice was restricted to would-be delegates - usually prominent state politicians vying for a seat to the national conventions - the early primary was often little more than a popularity contest among local politicians.

In an effort to heighten citizen interest, in 1949 the Legislature passed a revised primary low, which was signed by Governor Sherman Adams. This instituted a Presidential preference poll or "beauty contest." A candidate's name would be placed on the ballot by petition if the signatures of 50 registered voters from his party in each of the two congressional districts were secured. It would remain there unless a disclaimer of candidacy was filed within 10 days of receipt of a notice from the New Hampshire secretary of state. A delegate category of ''favorable'' (although unpledged) was included in this revision as well.

These changes, combined with dramatic shifts in the manner of conducting and covering presidential campaigns, would bring more attention to the Granite State than the authors of the 1913 law ever could have envisioned.

The allegiance of a majority of the thousands of delegates means everything at the mid-summer national nominating conventions. But in New Hampshire, delegates mean little since the catch is so small; just 22 Republican and an equal number of Democratic delegates were at stake in 1984.

What does matter is a candidate's showing in the popular preference balloting as this state's primary-night results are reported across the nation. The winners - and those who do better than expected - can reap financial contributions, endorsements, media attention and volunteers to separate the remaining serious contenders from the also-rans.

In 1952, the first primary with both candidates and delegates at stake, the New Hampshire primary gained the prominent position on the political map it still holds.