The Presidential Primary Blues
Twenty years ago, Delaware made a bid to become first in the nation again. Win some, lose some.
Illustration by Tim Foley
Delaware never had a chance against New Hampshire.
If it had, Delaware would not be getting ready to hold its 2016 presidential primary this month, more than three months after New Hampshire voted.
Twenty years ago Delaware had a political fantasy that it could be right up there in presidential politics with Iowa and New Hampshire. It just made so much sense. There was maybe even a little sense of destiny that Delaware had what it takes to be an early state in the presidential nominating calendar.
Iowa—the first-in-the-nation caucuses. New Hampshire—the first-in-the-nation primary. Delaware—the one, the only, the original first-in-the-nation state.
Besides, Delaware could actually be a better presidential gauge than Iowa and New Hampshire are. Delaware is a microcosm of the country.
Iowa has farmland. New Hampshire has seacoast. So? Delaware has farmland and seacoast. Iowa has trail markers for the Lewis & Clark expedition. Delaware has a statue of Caesar Rodney. New Hampshire has mountains. Delaware has, well, Mt. Cuba.
Delaware even looks more like the nation at large. Iowa and New Hampshire are 90 percent white, give or take, and Delaware is 64 percent, a fair model for the United States as a whole, which is 62 percent. People can look it up in the most recent statistics from the U.S. Census for 2014.
Delaware had its illusions of grandeur during the lead-up to the 1996 presidential election. Delaware was a caucus state, like Iowa, at the time, but it was not working out. The caucuses were long, tedious and complicated, and only the eyes of the most ardent political insiders did not glaze over at the thought of them.
The idea of a primary—allowing all of the state’s Democratic and Republican voters to make a short in-and-out stop at the polls—sounded good. And if Delaware was going to make a change, why not go for the glory?
As a sister small state, Delaware had too much respect for New Hampshire to even think about butting ahead of its primary, but Delaware figured it could piggyback. At the time, New Hampshire scheduled its primaries on a Tuesday, and Delaware scheduled its primaries for state office on a Saturday, so it looked like a logical way to proceed.
A new law was enacted in Dover to set Delaware’s primary on the Saturday after New Hampshire’s, four days later.
Delaware envisioned itself as a Triple Threat. First in ratification of the U.S. Constitution. First in corporate law. First in line behind New Hampshire. Except it did not account for one thing.
New Hampshire freaked out.
New Hampshire was really, really protective of its status as the first-in-the-nation primary. Maybe even a little addicted. It was so zealous, it had written a state law that provided for New Hampshire not only to be first, but to be first by a full week. If Delaware wanted to vote four days later, it was horning in, as far as New Hampshire was concerned.
Delaware kind of shrugged. What could New Hampshire do about it?
As it turned out, a lot.
New Hampshire warned all the presidential candidates to boycott Delaware or else. New Hampshire knew it had so much presidential clout, the candidates would be terrified of giving offense.
New Hampshire is not called the Granite State for nothing.
New Hampshire’s secretary of state actually sent out a letter of warning. “Welcome Candidates,” it said. “The primary has served the nation well, and we ask the candidates now to stand with us. We ask all candidates who respect the New Hampshire tradition and recognize the value to the presidential nominating process not to aid Delaware.”
It worked. Bill Clinton, the Democratic president who was running for re-election, stayed out of Delaware. So did leading Republican candidates Bob Dole, who would go on to be the nominee, Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander.
Steve Forbes did come here. Perhaps it was not so much intrepid on his part, but more a gamble by a Republican candidate who had nothing to lose. Forbes was a rich, wonky publisher of Forbes magazine from New Jersey, with no political experience, and he did not stand a chance in New Hampshire.
Forbes was ardent. The Delaware Republicans swooned. Besides, he seemed kind of like a du Pont.
Forbes won Delaware. Days later he won Arizona. Delaware had made a candidate. Not for long, though. Forbes soon faded, and so did Delaware’s designs on presidential glory.
Delaware caved. New Hampshire had its way. Delaware fiddled around for a while, trying to decide when it should schedule its primary, eventually falling back into a pack with other states from the East Coast.
Delaware will vote this year on Tuesday, April 26, the same day as Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut and Rhode Island and months after the Front Four of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, which voted in that order throughout February.
“Delaware has done the best it can to associate with others who might help magnify the impact of its votes. But the reality is that they will be the least of the East in both parties,” says Joe Pika, a presidential primary expert who is a professor emeritus in political science from the University of Delaware. “Having been shut out from the early window, when both parties settled on one relatively small state in each region, this is about the best we can hope for.”
Not that Delaware has not had its presidential moment or two.
Barack Obama came here in 2008, filling Rodney Square with 20,000 enthralled Delawareans, including Jack Markell and John Carney, who jointly and amicably introduced him, though they were locked in a Democratic primary for governor at the time.
There have been candidates who tried to imitate Steve Forbes, giddily romancing Delaware to get a win somewhere, anywhere, so they could keep their candidacies alive. Joe Lieberman did it in the Democratic primary in 2004. So did Newt Gingrich in the Republican primary in 2012. They made Delaware their last stand, but they lost here, too, and they went home.
It was almost like a reverse of the old saying about New York City: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. But in the Delaware primary, if you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.
So much for Delaware and presidential glory. Vice presidential lightning-in-a-bottle is as close as it gets.