Every four years, when it’s time to elect a president, Americans are reminded that there still is a New Hampshire. The Granite State’s famed presidential primary, first in the nation since 1952, is a circus of retail politics and national media coverage that often produces surprising results.
To find out how things are shaping up in New Hampshire, we called Joe McQuaid, publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader of Manchester. The conservative newspaper, the state’s major media power despite a daily circulation of only about 60,000, long has played an active reportorial and editorial role in the primaries. This election, says McQuaid, will be no different:
Are you getting ready for the invasion or has it already started?
Joe McQuaid: It’s already started. It really never stops anymore. I wasn’t sure that John McCain was running for president until I invited him up here for a speech at a school I’m involved with. This was I think three days after the 2004 general election? As he talked I realized, “My God, he’s running for president.” I think that’s probably the earliest it’s started, and now it’s just nonstop, and my editor is tearing his remaining hair out trying to figure out how and why we should cover all these people in addition to the regular news.
Do New Hampshire residents dread this process and all the national media attention or do they embrace it?
McQuaid: Oh, they embrace it. People in New Hampshire are quite proud of the fact that politicians come up here to state their case, and New Hampshire people get to talk to them and ask questions of them. Actually, I think New Hampshire has a better voting record in presidential primaries than we do in our own state elections.
Is there a downside to the primary?
McQuaid: No. There may be fatigue on the part of news media up here but there is no downside. For the state, it brings in revenue and you guys. And the politicians and the hangers-on come up here. I hope it elevates the level of discourse. They get asked better questions — the politicians do — by rank-and-file people in the state than they do by the news media.
Is The Union Leader still the strong voice of conservatism in your state?
McQuaid: Yeah, it’s about the only one. It always has been.
How would you describe your brand of conservatism? Can you further define it? Is it Reaganesque? Taftesque?
McQuaid: Taft? You mean Robert Taft? Or his old man?
McQuaid: How old are you?
Robert Taft. He was a good guy. He lost up there, didn’t he?
McQuaid: Yeah, he lost to Eisenhower. William Loeb, who owned this paper for many years, backed Robert Taft in 1952 and was furious when Gov. Sherman Adams managed to get Eisenhower on top. That was the first beauty contest, where names meant something.
Back to your original question, I think we’re certainly in the Reagan mold — a strong national defense, personal liberty and pro-life. I think the whole international trade issue has become a great concern to us. We supported Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. We ended up in 2000 with the lesser of the evils: We backed Steve Forbes rather than either Bush or McCain. I guess that’s our brand.
Who will make the decision about who the paper will support — you or the editorial staff?
McQuaid: It would be me.
OK, so what do you think of the conservative credentials of Messrs. Giuliani, McCain and Romney?
McQuaid: Well, I don’t think I’m going to really get into that yet. I want to see more of all of them. Plus, there are I guess practical reasons for holding off. We’re one of the sponsors of some upcoming debates, and I would like to hear them all out. … I would just say that I am not overwhelmed with any of them at the moment.
The paper will endorse someone at some point?
And it will be a Republican? There’s no chance it’ll be a Democrat?
McQuaid: Oh, we’ve backed Democrats in the primary as well as Republicans in the primary before. We backed Bill Bradley over Gore not that long ago (in 2000). The late William Loeb heartily endorsed Mayor Sam Yorty of Los Angeles (in 1972).
Who’s leading the Democrats right now in the polls in New Hampshire?
McQuaid: I don’t keep track of polls. I think it’s a crock. My editors and some of the reporters love them and keep putting them in the paper. I keep telling them, “Don’t play ’em up because right now it’s still a name-recognition thing.” If I had to guess who’s leading in the New Hampshire polls among the Democrats, I would guess Barack Obama would be on top.
How about the Republicans?
McQuaid: On the Republican side, I think the polls show Giuliani and McCain and then Romney third. But again, I think they’re going to have boots on the ground and we have these debates and when people start paying more attention I think that can change.
What’s the typical New Hampshire voter? How would you describe voters’ politics? Are they necessarily more knowledgeable or opinionated or both?
McQuaid: Oh, I think that the ones who vote are knowledgeable. Interestingly, under party registration the biggest registration is “undeclared.” We call them “Independents” and they outrank Republicans and the Democrats are a close third.
We, like much of the country, just had a sea change in 2006. We elected a New Hampshire Legislature that is Democrat in both houses for the first time in like 100 years. But this is an open primary. If you are an independent you can pick up either ballot, Democrat or Republican. It’s always interesting to see who pitches to what crowd. It’s a little tough on the candidates sometimes. That’s why a guy like McCain could win up here, as he did in 2000 against Bush, because independents chose him. This time around, they may be more interested in the Democratic race and choose one of those candidates. So it’s tough to gauge.
Do you think New Hampshire is going to spring another surprise this time?
McQuaid: I hope so, because I hate to see just the huge money and the star quality of some of these people winning out over people who make the most sense and have the most ideas.