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January 26, 2000 Contact: Melissa Ring (617) 496-9761

Americans Inflate New Hampshire Primary

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In the eyes of Americans outside the state, New Hampshire's presidential primary is more than just a critical first test of the candidates' support. It is seen as a decisive contest in the allocation of delegates to the national party conventions. Although the New Hampshire primary selects only about 1% of the delegates, Americans think the total is much larger. When asked in the weekly Shorenstein Center national poll whether New Hampshire selects 25%, 10%, 5%, or 1% of the national convention delegates, only one in eight respondents said 1%. More than three times as many picked a higher figure, and 14% even claimed that New Hampshire selects 25% of the convention delegates.

  Voter Involvement Index
Jan. 19-23 26%
Jan. 12-16 25%
Jan. 5-9 25%
Dec. 28Jan. 2 12%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll
Sampling error: ±6%

"This is an indication that the primary system, as currently structured, is simply too complex for most people to understand," says Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project for which the poll was conducted. "Too many Americans exaggerate New Hampshire's importance and role."

The inflated perception of New Hampshire stems from the enormous attention that its first-in-the nation primary receives from candidates and the news media. In recent presidential elections, no primary has received as much national news coverage as New Hampshire's, and the pattern is unlikely to change this year.

Nevertheless, most Americans believe that their state is likely to have as much or more influence than New Hampshire on the selection of the presidential nominees. The Shorenstein Center poll found that 19% believe that their state will have more impact than New Hampshire while 40% think that its impact will be roughly the same.

However, this outlook is concentrated among residents of the more populous states, such as California, Texas, and New York. Slightly more than 70% of these residents put their primary on par or higher than New Hampshire's. On the other hand, small-state residents have a relatively dim view of how their primary stacks up with New Hampshire's. Only 4% of the residents of the fifteen least populous states felt that their state's influence on this year's presidential race will be greater than New Hampshire's.

Americans have a relatively favorable opinion of New Hampshire's special role in the nominating process. By 44% to 30%, poll respondents were more likely to claim that "New Hampshire is a good test of the candidates' ability to be president because they have to talk directly with voters" than to claim that "New Hampshire has too much influence because it is a small and unrepresentative state."

However, there was a division of opinion on this issue. Residents of larger states were nearly twice as likely as small-state residents to believe that New Hampshire has too much influence. "Californians or New Yorkers are not nearly as likely as people in South Dakota or Nevada to think that New Hampshire's high-profile primary is a useful device," says Thomas Patterson, project co-director and Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "Whatever the reasons, New Hampshire's primary will always generate some resentment or controversy, at least as long as it remains the first in the nation."

The survey results reported here are from a nationwide telephone survey of 1,018 adults conducted January 14-18, 2000. The poll has a sampling error of ±3%. The Vanishing Voter Project is a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Funding for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project is co-directed by Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and by Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's office in Washington.

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