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New Hampshire Launches Primary Season in Early January: What Is a Primary?

On January 8, 2008, the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire will be the first to hold a primary election that determines voter preference for presidential candidates. In this segment of "How America Elects," VOA's Jeffrey Young explains how primary elections set the stage for the November, 2008 showdown between the Democratic and Republican parties.

New Hampshire is small in size, and has only 1.3 million people out of the U.S. total of about 300 million. But when New Hampshire votes, it commands the attention of the entire nation. And, the results reverberate all the way to the White House.

Every four years, New Hampshire temporarily becomes the center of the U.S. political universe. The northeastern state is the first to hold a primary election, where voters show preference for a particular Democratic or Republican presidential candidate. In most states, voters registered with a political party can only vote for that party's candidates. But some states, such as New Hampshire, also let voters not registered with a party take part.

American University's Candice Nelson explains another dimension of primaries. "The purpose of the primary season is to get – to enable – candidates to introduce themselves to the voters, to let the voters get to know the candidates, to think about the candidates over the course of three or four months."

Candidates have always campaigned person-to-person in primary states such as New Hampshire, going from town to town shaking hands, attending rallies, and other means of contact with the electorate.

When George W. Bush was a candidate for president in 2000 he told a crowd, "Thank you for having me. Thank you for having me. Thank you for giving me a chance to come and visit a little bit [while] about why I am asking for your vote. I'll be glad to answer a few questions."

The presidential candidates are usually in New Hampshire nonstop in the days just before the primary. They, and their campaign teams, keep hunting for votes right down to when the polls close, as Democrat John Kerry demonstrated in 2004. "We have to go out and do the work. We have to turn out the vote. We have to make those calls. We have to knock on those doors. We have to complete the mission."

The traditional three or four month period of states holding primaries and caucuses has been shrinking in recent presidential elections, as states go earlier and earlier in hopes of gaining greater visibility and power in determining the party's presidential nominee. Some people have proposed that all states conduct their primaries or caucuses on the same day.

The arguments on that, both pro-and-con, are stated by Georgetown University's Mark Rom. "The main advantage of a national primary is that the voters, the votes from individuals across the nation, would count equally toward choosing the presidential candidates. That would be a good thing. The bad thing about a national primary is [that] it would give special advantages to those [candidates] who have raised the most money, and those who have the highest popularity when the race starts.

In primary elections and caucuses, a vote cast for a presidential candidate is actually a vote for that candidate's delegates to their political party's national convention, which takes place about two months before the final vote. The candidate with the greatest number of delegates overall becomes that party's presidential nominee in the November general election showdown that leads to the White House.