The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

"The Direct Line"- Spring 2007

Article Type 

Rockefeller Center Director Andrew Samwick provides commentary on a variety of issues in the Direct Line, which is published at the start of each term.

New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation Presidential primary generates both excitement and learning opportunities for Dartmouth students every four years. As Presidential candidates started arriving in the state this winter, we at the Rockefeller Center were quick to partner with both the College Democrats and the College Republicans to host candidate visits. No matter what their political persuasions, all Dartmouth students share in the unique opportunity to engage with emerging leaders as they come to campus.

Personally and professionally, I enjoy the political season but acknowledge that New Hampshire's privileged status is part of a much larger system that aims to elect the best leader as President. During each election cycle, difficult questions are raised about whether according a small state with less racial and socioeconomic diversity than the nation as a whole such a prominent position serves the ultimate goal well.

In my opinion, the state's small population is in fact an advantage. If the more populous states had the earliest primaries, lesser-known candidates would have a difficult time competing across the whole state, and the election results might well be insurmountable for those who do not win. The issue of diversity is more compelling. If some candidates appeal differentially to different groups, and if New Hampshire's early primary makes its results unduly influential in the nominating process, then its privileged status may not be contributing to the best eventual outcome. Perhaps these concerns have been addressed, however, as contests in Nevada and South Carolina will now be closer in time to the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.

I confess that bigger issue for me during this primary season is the exceedingly early start to the process and the planned televised debates from New Hampshire in early April 2007. While I have no objection to televising political events, the idea of putting the candidates next to each other so early in the campaign, to trade one-minute sound bites about complex policy issues, seems ill-advised.

One of the most interesting aspects about the New Hampshire primary is how much it depends on retail politics—events in small venues with each of the candidates away from the intense media circus of made-for-television events. I think the process actually helps develop the candidates for the national stage and is the best justification for continuing the state's first-in-the-nation primary role. Putting the candidates on television this soon runs the risk of our selecting the naturally telegenic before letting the process of retail politics do its good work.

There are approximately nine months between these televised debates and the New Hampshire primary and about the same amount of time thereafter before the general election. We would lose very little in waiting until the fall before distorting the campaign to accommodate nationally televised debates. What we would gain is an electorate that is enthusiastic about the political process rather than exasperated by it and candidates that had built their platforms in front of people, not cameras. We would also be advantaged by six months of the media spotlight focused on the people actually governing in Washington.

Andrew A. Samwick is the Director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, the Sandra L. and Arthur L. Irving '72a, P'10 Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 2003 and 2004, he served as chief economist on the staff of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. 
Since joining the Dartmouth faculty in 1994, his scholarly work has covered a range of topics, including pensions, saving, taxation, portfolio choice, and executive compensation. Professor Samwick has been published in American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Journal of Finance, Journal of Public Economics, and a number of specialized journals and conference volumes. He graduated summa cum laude with a degree in economics from Harvard College and received his Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He blogs about economics, politics, and current events.

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences