February 28th marks thirty years since the 1984 New Hampshire presidential primary. The ’84 election is often overlooked today – mostly because the general election saw Republican President Ronald Reagan beat Democrat Walter Mondale in a landslide - and yet, the 1984 primary was fairly influential.
For one thing, the primary was a test of New Hampshire’s ability to stay first in the nation. The year before, Vermont had decided to move to an earlier date in the nominating calendar. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner exercised his power under the state’s primary law and moved New Hampshire’s contest up from March into February.
That didn’t sit well with the Democratic National Committee, which wanted New Hampshire and neighboring states to hold a regional primary. Gardner says soon found himself face to face with the chair of the party’s Compliance and Review Committee: "And at that time it was a woman named Nancy Pelosi. She came into New Hampshire with some lawyers from the DNC and basically said we better have the primary on that date or our primary will be irrelevant, so we better change the date."
Despite the national party pressure, Gardner stuck with the February 28th date, and the primary lost none of its luster. It’s a pattern that has played out numerous times since.
The "new face"
Nancy Pelosi was far from the only Democrat to visit New Hampshire in the run-up to the 1984 primary. After winning the Iowa caucuses, former Vice President Walter Mondale came to the Granite State with the highest profile and the most support from traditional Democratic constituencies and the party establishment.
Mondale’s goal in New Hampshire was to make his candidacy inevitable; the others in the crowded field were looking to halt his momentum and buy themselves some time.
Political science professor Dante Scala of the University of New Hampshire says it looked like Ohio Senator and former astronaut John Glenn had the biography and the stature to match up with Mondale - at least at first. "It was one of those campaigns that never jelled at any level," Scala says, "to make the run at Walter Mondale that everyone expected."
Glenn’s New Hampshire strategy relied heavily on TV ads and not retail politics, which didn’t help his bid. Over time, anti-Mondale Democrats in New Hampshire started to coalesce around Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who was running as the candidate of new ideas and old-fashioned person-to-person campaigning.
Hart and his supporters knocked on tens of thousands of doors, hoping for a groundswell of grassroots support. Mondale stepped up his New Hampshire campaign as well, and as a result, a poll released days before the primary showed a dead heat between Mondale and Hart: the establishment favorite versus the new face.
"The first presidential primary that WEVO has the pleasure to bring to you..."
Speaking of new faces – there was a new player in the media landscape on primary night 1984: New Hampshire Public Radio, or as it was known then, WEVO – for its one transmitter – was just two and a half years old. Live primary coverage was by far the station’s most ambitious undertaking to date.
Nothing is perfect the first time out - there were a couple of occasions when host Clark Dumont called out to a reporter in the field, only to be greeted with silence - but in time the wrinkles were ironed out and the NHPR team was covering what turned into an unexpectedly strong victory for Gary Hart.
Or, as then-Executive Councilor Dudley Dudley said on the air, maybe it wasn’t so unexpected after all. "People are surprised by Hart’s remarkable showing here tonight, but the rest of the country is more surprised because they only see the candidates through the eyes of the press," Dudley said. "Here we see them on a one to one basis very regularly. That doesn’t make the traditional surprise that occurs in New Hampshire all that great a surprise to us here. It’s somehow expected that something remarkable will happen in the New Hampshire primary and once again it did. "
Many of the other Democratic hopefuls found the evening less than remarkable. Three of the hopefuls - Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, Sen. Alan Cranston of California, and former Florida Governor Reuben Askew - each got fewer votes in the Democratic primary than Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan got in write-in votes. (Reagan, as you might have guessed, won the GOP primary pretty easily as well.)
New Hampshire’s 2nd district congressman at the time, Judd Gregg, sounded almost disappointed that the Democrats had a real race on their hands. "Looking at it from a Republican perspective, I’d have liked to have had Mondale win the nomination right here in New Hampshire to get it over with," he said. "Then we could get down to talking about the philosophies of the two parties without the confusion of a lot of people running around trying to get the nomination. With this occurring, it seems to me that there’s a significant possibility that the party process could end up with a very splintered, even a deadlocked convention. You could have someone like Teddy Kennedy nominated by elimination of the other people. So it seems to me it throws everything into confusion."
While the Democrats didn’t end up with a deadlock, they did have one of the most protracted primary campaigns in recent memory. The New Hampshire contest set the stage for the primaries of Super Tuesday, with no clear winner between the two candidates. And the rival campaigns kept at it all the way to the convention in San Francisco: Hart won slightly more state contests, but Mondale had a narrow edge in the popular vote. And he had many more Democratic superdelegates on his side, which helped him lock up the nomination.
The dramatic primary process then gave way to an anticlimactic general election. In New Hampshire, where Mondale had run neck and neck with Gary Hart, he ran more than 30 points behind President Reagan, who won one of the biggest electoral landslides in American history.
Meanwhile, NHPR’s primary night coverage has risen from the humble beginnings of 1984 to journalistic acclaim. Stations across the country now carry our coverage. And for those of us in the studios, that’s not the only thing that’s changed: at one point, '84 primary night guest Martin Gross informed the audience that Clark Dumont had to step out for "a pizza run."
These days we order out in advance.