Earlier this month, the Democratic National Committee officially voted to revoke New Hampshire’s status as the first-in-the-nation primary and bestow that honor upon South Carolina. New Hampshire and Nevada will follow South Carolina with a same-day primary.
Since New Hampshire has held the first presidential primary for both major parties since 1920, this represents a significant change in the election calendar.
One of the biggest arguments for the New Hampshire primary being first is that its small population allows lesser-resourced candidates to compete equally with better-resourced candidates and forces candidates to engage with rural issues.
Are these reasons valid, and does moving South Carolina undermine these goals? It is a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no, and a changing media landscape is to blame. I think South Carolina and New Hampshire are the ideal states to lead off the primary calendar because they are well-situated to achieve both goals.
The New Hampshire primary has historically forced candidates to get out, meet the voters, and listen to their issues. But is that still relevant in the current landscape? Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican primary without engaging in traditional retail politics. The nationalization of politics and social media has changed how candidates interact with voters. People are more likely to consume news from national outlets through social media or national cable news stations. Trump’s success points to a path to victory that eschews many traditional hallmarks of New Hampshire primary campaigning.
However, candidates like Pete Buttigieg in 2020 and John Kasich in 2016 overperformed in New Hampshire relative to their polling numbers elsewhere. These successes show the value of having a small, more rural-than-average state at the top of the primary calendar. You may not be able to win a New Hampshire primary relying solely on retail politics, but you can make a strong impression and boost your national profile. Even if these candidates do not get the nomination, the early recognition can often lead to other positions of power within the next administration. They still have the incentive to do well in early states, and these people must understand the rural perspective and the concerns of rural voters.
There is also the question of whether New Hampshire is the best state to provide the rural perspective. I say no, but mostly because there is no singular rural perspective. New Hampshire and South Carolina both offer it through a different lens. New Hampshire has a rural economy based mainly around tourism. Its agrarian past was mostly built around subsistence and small-scale farming.
In South Carolina, the proportion of the population that is rural is nearly twice that of national proportion. Its rural perspective is shaped by its history as the home of large plantations, which comes with a lot of social and economic consequences. Rural South Carolinians struggle with the effects of intergenerational poverty and the ramifications of the policies of the Jim Crow South.
Further, the states have similar metropolitan profiles. The only major metropolitan areas (with populations of over 1 million) are bleed-overs from neighboring states (Charlotte in South Carolina and Boston in New Hampshire. Otherwise they have medium-sized or small metropolitan areas.
While South Carolina has more land area and a larger population, both states have roughly the same population density.
As for the “rural perspective,” New Hampshire and South Carolina should be seen as complements, not competitors. Both states are more rural than average, lack a major metropolitan city within their borders, and offer dramatically different perspectives on “rural.” While the importance of retail politics has diminished in recent years, it has not entirely gone away. States like New Hampshire and South Carolina are still important, and the DNC’s new primary calendar is well-positioned to ensure that potential presidents hear the rural perspective.
Christopher Chavis is the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles. He grew up in rural Robeson County, North Carolina, and is a frequent writer and speaker about access to justice in rural areas. He is a citizen of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.