From The WGBH Vault: The New Hampshire Primary

By Bob Seay, Elizabeth Deane & WGBH Archives Staff

Jan. 10, 2012

jfk in nh

Sen. John F. Kennedy stops in a diner in Nashua, N.H., during the primary campaign. (JFK Library)

BOSTON — Today's New Hampshire primary is the very model of a modern-day election: Polls, pundits and non-stop analysis of the candidates' every word and move. But New Hampshire didn't always command such attention. We go into WGBH's vault for historical recordings showing the primary's rise to prominence.

The year is 1952 and political observers and New Englanders alike are trying to make sense of what happened in New Hampshire. The state's once-dormant primary rose up and captured national attention by playing a major role in determining who the presidential candidates would be that year.

The start of the primary system
Several states established primaries in the early 20th century to wrest control of the naming of presidential nominees from the rich and powerful. Interest in some primaries waned and New Hampshire’s primary eventually became the first in the nation.
According to professor Andy Smith of the University of New Hampshire, the scheduling was due partly to a classic Yankee trait: frugality.
"We had Town Meeting day on the second Tuesday of March," he said. "The town fathers… saw no reason to open up the town hall twice and turn the heat on twice so they decided to have the primary on the same day as Town Meeting."
(It has stayed first because state law now says that it has to be, even if it means casting votes while Christmas shopping.)
The 1952 campaign

The first New Hampshire primary was in 1916, but it wasn’t until 1952 that it really attracted attention.
Former N.H. House Speaker Richard Upton started it all when he was upset with how little interest voters had shown in the 1948 primary and set about to change things. He crafted a bill that would have the candidates’ actual names on the ballot — unlike before when only unknown party reps were listed.
In historical footage, Upton recalled then-Gov. Sherman Adams having his doubts about the new approach.
"He wasn’t too sure that he ought to sign it," Upton said. "He called me in and said 'What does this bill mean?' I gave it as my opinion that it would quicken the interest of the voters, that there would be a real, I hoped, a real lively contest and that our state would be put on the map."
The results went far beyond what Upton had hoped: Turnout more than doubled in 1952 despite a big snowstorm. And the campaigns and voting results in New Hampshire were seen nationwide on something new — television news, culminating on Election Night when broadcasters announced the win of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.
To earn the nomination, Eisenhower defeated conservative hopeful Robert Taft of Ohio. Taft just never could get into pressing the flesh with the common man; New Hampshire voters responded by giving him a stinging defeat from which he never recovered.
1952’s New Hampshire primary was decisive for the Democrats as well. President Harry S. Truman was coy about his intentions in 1951, saying, "One of the things I’ve been thinking about is next year’s election. I ‘m not going to make any announcement about who the candidate will be." But it wasn’t going to be him. He never clearly indicated he would run but and when he decided to enter the New Hampshire primary it was too late. He lost to Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver. It made big news and put the state's primary on the map.

Few people get to go inside the WGBH vault... a temperature-controlled storage room that houses thousands of tapes and recordings. It's a room full of living history and it helps WGBH News provide a perspective no one else has.

The common touch

Adlai Stevenson ultimately became the Democrats’ candidate that year. It was Kefauver, however, who perhaps more than any other candidate established the style of presidential campaigning needed to win in New Hampshire.
The late Sen. Thomas McIntyre described it thus:
"If we had a toboggan he would ride in the toboggan. If there was an ice skater or something, he'd would try to skate with him. And every kind of a gadget — we found an old fire truck in Hooksett and that was all rigged up with lights and we ran it up and down the streets of Manchester at night with Estes trailing along with 'em shaking the hands of everybody he could find."
Once Kefauver did it, McIntyre added, everyone had to do it.
Smith said that kind of up-close-and-personal interaction is what New Hampshire adds to the political debate today.
"The one thing that the New Hampshire primary really allows the candidates to do is to listen to real voters express their concerns in public forums. So there’s an expectation that candidates have to talk with voters —  that they can’t just run a tarmac campaign or a TV campaign," he said.
A 40-year tradition of victory

There was one candidate who realized early on how crucial a win in New Hampshire would be for his candidacy. John F. Kennedy skillfully worked with state Democratic leaders to craft his New Hampshire victory in 1960, which led him eventually to the White House.
From then on, whoever won the New Hampshire primary went on to win their party’s nomination. Even in 1988, when George Bush was trounced in Iowa, he won New Hampshire and then went on to win the presidency… over the winner of the 1988 Democratic primary in N.H.: Michael Dukakis.
It took 40 years to break the streak. Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas won New Hampshire in 1992. The second-place finisher started to call himself "The Comeback Kid." Bill Clinton did indeed come back. It was the first time since 1952 that a New Hampshire winner did not become president.
Smith thinks that Massachusetts neighbor Mitt Romney will likely win on Jan. 10 — but you can’t trust the polls in the Granite State.
"If you go back historically, polling in New Hampshire and predicting the primaries is typically way off either predicting the wrong winner or significantly overestimating or underestimating the magnitude of a win for a candidate," he said.
Which makes the day that more interesting and suspenseful, ensuring that the New Hampshire primary continues as a political force to be reckoned with by any who seek to occupy the White House. 

Historical audio excerpts are from the film "The Premier Primary," produced by Accompany Video Production and from the WGBH archives. Visit the WGBH archives online at

Email Sign Up Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.


Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor