From The Archives: Richard Upton, The Man Who Modernized The N.H. Primary

Aug 27, 2015

Every four years, New Hampshire welcomes the national political spotlight in the months leading up to the presidential primary. As the hosts of the first primary in the country, Granite State voters have the opportunity to make their voices heard on the campaign trail, at town hall events, and most importantly, at the ballot box.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Before 1949, the primary was a vote only for delegates, not for specific presidential candidates. That’s when Richard Upton came along. Upton, a Republican from Concord, was the N.H. Speaker of the House in 1949. He was the man who proposed the changes that made the primary what it would become. Take listen back to a conversation NHPR recorded with him in 1990. Then, you'll hear my chat with NHPR’s current senior political editor Dan Barrick.

From the archives this week, Martin Murray’s 1990 interview with Richard Upton.


Richard Upton: Well of course I was a lot younger then – 40 years younger. And I had more adventuresome ideas. The 1948 presidential primary in New Hampshire was a vote solely for delegates, that’s the way it had always been done up to then. And there was a lot of dissatisfaction with that. Delegates would file and run unpledged. Voters had no chance to let the delegates know for whom they should vote when they went to the convention.

And it seemed to me the time was ripe for us to try an experiment that had been tried in Oregon and certain other states, where prominent political figures in each party could be put on the ballot and there could be a preference expressed by the voters of each state, which would guide the delegates, give them a better idea of what to do.

We didn’t know how well it would work. But the first time around, in 1952, it worked exceedingly well. We had a very spirited contest between General [Dwight D.] Eisenhower and Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, with Governor [Harold] Stassen of Minnesota the third candidate. On the Democratic side, Estes Kefauver, Senator from Tennessee, challenged the incumbent, President Truman. And Kefauver developed a style of personal campaigning – up and down the streets with his coonskin hat – and he did real well, I think he got the majority of the delegates. So the first time around, it was great.

[Note: Kefauver did indeed defeat President Truman in the 1952 primary – which led Truman to stop campaigning for renomination.]

Martin Murray: It sounds like it was all just politics. And yet today, the reason everyone here loves the New Hampshire primary is that it brings in the media attention and it brings in the tourism and the dollars that follow. It sounds like that wasn’t really in the minds of the legislature back 40 years ago.

RU: No, we had no idea it would prove to be so appealing to the various candidates. Of course New Hampshire is a small state; it’s a way to get exposed to a body of electorate without spending your last dime, so to speak. You could be a self-starter as a matter-of-fact, although not many of them succeeded. But it made it possible for some unknown person to have a try at it.

MM: Well now the word is that the state of California is moving toward a presidential primary that will occur in that state just one short week after New Hampshire’s. What do you believe that will mean for New Hampshire’s presidential primary?

The primary was in my mind something for the benefit, originally, of New Hampshire's voters, to make the primary more meaningful to them and to get greater participation. - Richard Upton

RU: Well I think it’s very hard to tell. A lot depends on the situation at the time. The question is, “Will the candidates come to New Hampshire and campaign here facing the California primary?” I don’t think you can tell for sure. Let’s consider who the candidates might be, because that would have a bearing on how it operated the first time around, assuming the California law goes though.

If President [George H.W.] Bush runs for reelection, as seems likely at this time, it would be very unlikely he’d have any real opposition in the Republican primary. So it might not make too much difference there. But I heard an interesting theory expounded by John Chancellor, who’s a noted commentator of many years, on NBC television, in which he said the California primary, if it goes through, will be made to order for the candidacy of the Reverend [Jesse] Jackson on the Democratic side.

Well that’s his idea, not mine, but without regard to anything else but who might win, it has some plausibility. That would be very interesting.

MM: What’s special in your mind about New Hampshire and its primary that makes it vital to the presidential process?

RU: While the primary was in my mind something for the benefit, originally, of New Hampshire’s voters, to make the primary more meaningful to them and to get greater participation, it’s grown into a huge media event in which New Hampshire is considered a bellwether state. And that of course attracts more and more candidates here because they don’t want to be left out.

Indeed, at the last Republican convention, the slogan was bandied about, “New Hampshire: Always First, Always Right.” And it is a fact -- no one has ever been elected president who didn’t first win either the Democratic or Republican primary in this state.

[Note: This was true as of 1990. The streak was snapped in 1992, when future President Bill Clinton lost to Paul Tsongas. Eventual President George W. Bush also lost New Hampshire to John McCain in 2000, and President Barack Obama fell to Hillary Clinton in 2008.]

So, we have gotten to be a so-called bellwether state because it seems that the electorate here use very good judgment as to the electability … and the most electable person, all factors considered, leadership and other good factors …

MM: I’ve heard you wore one of those [“Always First, Always Right”] buttons proudly at the last convention.

RU: Yes I did – although we were not particularly popular with the other delegations, who thought we might be assuming too much.

MM: Is now a time to go on the offensive, do you think, and contemplate changes here to our primary to maintain the status of it? Or do we simply have to wait and see?

RU: Well, we do. Here’s what might be done – I’ve thought about that, I’m not in on the know anymore, that’s handled by the leaders in the parties, I’m not too active politically – but someday, before too long, someone may think that the New Hampshire primary ought to be moved a little earlier. So say we had a window of two weeks in there, or three weeks – that would restore, perhaps, a greater opportunity for people to campaign both here and in California. Watch for that. That might happen.

That was Martin Murray in 1990 speaking with Richard Upton – the man who first proposed changing the New Hampshire primary to its current format. Upton died in 1996.

Now for some context and current perspective, a conversation with NHPR senior political editor Daniel Barrick:

Eric Larrabee: What did you find most interesting about the 1990 interview with Richard Upton?

Daniel Barrick: Well, a couple things. One is the fact that pretty much since its inception, the New Hampshire primary has been fighting off potential encroachments from other states. And that's been the case for decades, really, that other states, especially seeing the prominence that the early primary brings to New Hampshire and trying to seek some of that limelight themselves, have sought to play with the calendar to bump New Hampshire's prominence down.

Both the Democratic and Republican National Committees have tacitly endorsed the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses for decades now by releasing official calendars of the nominating contests that have Iowa and New Hampshire first and second, and writing rules actually that will punish states that try and move their primaries ahead.

EL: I'm glad you mentioned Iowa. Commenting on the differences of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu once said that “The people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents.” And in the interview we just heard, Richard Upton described New Hampshire as a bellwether state. However, since 1992, three presidents have been elected who did not win the New Hampshire primary. So – how would you assess New Hampshire's primary today? Is it as important as it was in Upton's time?

DB: Well certainly, Upton saying "always first, always right," that's no longer the case -- you're right. But I think you could argue in each case, the New Hampshire primary played a pivotal role in that year's election. And in some ways, and Richard Upton sort of alluded to this, the real test of the primaries is not so much how other states try and leapfrog, but whether the candidates show up. So if the candidates show up and lavish attention on New Hampshire and Iowa, that means that those states will be relevant.

EL: We’re still over five months away from the 2016 primary. With that being said, how would you assess the state of the race so far?

DB: I have to say it's as competitive and lively a race as I've seen. I mean, '08 was a pretty amazing year too. But this year, I think a lot of people are surprised by the competitiveness on the Democratic side, with Sen. Bernie Sanders making a very strong race out of it. If Joe Biden ends up entering, that will really mix things up.

And the Republican side, obviously Donald Trump has shaken the Republican race quite significantly. But even outside of that, you have very strong candidates -- a lot of Senators and current or former Governors, and I really do think it's a real toss-up. 

EL: Dan, you recently reported on a new study by the Coalition for Open Democracy that details declining civic engagement in New Hampshire. What can you tell us about that study and the implications for the 2016 primary? 

I think we still have a fairly high rate of some of those civic engagement measures. - Daniel Barrick, NHPR Senior Political Editor

DB: It was an interesting study. It looked at a number of things. It looked at voter participation rates, it looked at things like the influence of money and lobbying on state elections. But if you look at things like voting rates, the last time we had this double-barreled primary, where both parties have a contested election without an incumbent,  2008, just over half of eligible voters bothered to actually show up on voting day.

One caveat is that study didn't have how New Hampshire compares to the rest of the country. So relatively, I think we still have a fairly high rate of some of those civic engagement measures. But those of us in the media and politics, one way we defend this position, this little prize we have, this first place, is by saying, "We've earned it." And it's good to sometimes really ask ourselves, "Well, have we? How well are we doing the nation's business and vetting these candidates if, even in the most hotly contested race in years, only half of folks bother to show up on election day?"

Daniel Barrick is senior political editor for NHPR and directs the “State of Democracy” series.

The 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary is currently scheduled for February 9.

Be sure to tune in next week, when I’ll speak with Martin Murray – former host of “New Hampshire Daily.” The show was the first daily news program produced by NHPR, and has provided us with the stories you’ve seen on the blog all summer long.