How can a tiny state in northern New England be so important in the U.S. presidential selection process? New Hampshire is miniscule – smaller than the average county in Wyoming, Arizona or Nevada. It’s 42nd in U.S. population — even little Puerto Rico out in the Caribbean has more people, more than twice as many, actually.

Welcome to New Hampshire

Yet, every four years, politicians flock to the Granite State in hopes of a dramatic win in its presidential primary election – the first in the nation.

A loss can be catastrophic. When Democratic challenger Estes Kefauver defeated incumbent President Harry S. Truman there in 1952, Truman abandoned his campaign for a second term. At the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson managed only a 49 percent victory over Senator Eugene McCarthy and withdrew from the race with his famous prime-time TV declaration: “I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

By New Hampshire state law, the primary is the first in the nation. If another state moves theirs up, New Hampshire responds in kind. New Hampshire State Statute 653:9 stipulates that the primary must take place at least seven days before any “similar election” in any other state.

Somehow, New Hampshire lawmakers do not consider the Iowa caucuses to be “a similar election,” so, in recent election cycles, the primary has taken place a week or so after the Iowa event.

But when other states have sought to move up their primaries to dilute New Hampshire’s impact, state law always kicks in. From 1952 to 1968, the primary was held on the second Tuesday in March. In 1972, it was shifted to the first Tuesday in March. From 1976 to 1984, it was advanced to the fourth Tuesday in February. From 1988 to 1996, it was moved up to the third Tuesday in February, then in 2000 was held on February 1.

In 2004, it was moved up to the fourth Tuesday in January, then in 2008, it advanced to the earliest date yet — on the second Tuesday in January, where it remains.

Although only a tiny number of delegates are chosen, the New Hampshire primary’s vast importance comes from the massive media coverage it receives. In recent years, it and the Iowa caucuses received

about as much media attention as all the other state primaries combined.

The state's top attraction, Mt. Monadnock

The result is a public relations bonanza for a tiny state that most people cannot pick off of a map and whose main tourist attractions consist of such forgettable sites as – listed in this order by state tourism officials:

     1. Mt. Monadnock – Algonquin for “mountain that stands alone.” According to the tourist bureau, “Mt. Monadnock rises up majestically from the New Hampshire flatlands, enticing visitors to trek its over 40 miles of foot trails.”
     2. Dartmouth College
     3. Moose Alley, a stretch along Route 3 with a sign that warns: “Brake For Moose”
     4. Loon Mountain and

This memorable historic site, which is on everyone’s bucket list:

     5. Fort at No. 4 Living History Museum

So, it’s little wonder that New Hampshire lawmakers are determined to hang onto this one source of national publicity. After all, shown a map of Vermont and New Hampshire, who knows which is which? They both look as if they should be part of Maine.

John Huntsman and Newt Gingrich at this year's St. Anselm debate

An example of the massive media coverage given the primary would be tiny Saint Anselm College. The otherwise unknown campus has hosted multiple national debates that attracted international media coverage. Without the primary, it would be as prestigious as the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Accupuncture.

One thing that makes New Hampshire attractive to candidates is that up to 45 percent of voters are neither Republican nor Democrat – instead “undeclared.” As a result, thousands of votes are unpredictable and up for grabs. Anybody who can prove they meet state residency and age requirements can register right there at the polling place. They must officially join one party or the other before voting in that party’s primary, however they can change back to “undeclared” immediately after casting a ballot — thus belonging to the party only for the brief time it took to vote.

As a result, in a presidential cycle when a Democratic president is

unopposed for re-election, the big news is who will win the Republican nomination – and all the “undeclared” vote in the Republican primary. However, if a Republican president has no challengers, the “undeclared” participate in the Democratic race.

Without a doubt, success or failure in New Hampshire can make or break or revive a candidate. Analysts show a win in New Hampshire boosts a candidate’s share of the final primary count in all the other states by 27 percentage points.

In 1992, Bill Clinton, although he did not win, did better than expected with his team dubbing him the “Comeback Kid” and propelling him to success in other primaries.

A New Hampshire win does not guarantee a nomination. Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama each finished second in the New Hampshire vote before later being elected to the White House.

Moose Alley

The first New Hampshire presidential primary was held in 1916, but it did not gain national importance until 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower trounced the grandson of former President William Howard Taft, Robert A. “Mr. Republican” Taft, who had been favored for the nomination.

Many New Hampshire winners have failed to win the party nomination: Harold Stassen in 1948, Estes Kefauver in 1952 and 1956, Henry Cabot Lodge in 1964, Paul Tsongas in 1992, Pat Buchanan in 1996 and Hillary Clinton in 2008.

The primary also attracts a number of fringe candidates. Although only the top seven or eight get much attention, 30 Republicans and 14 Democrats are running for president in the New Hampshire primary this year, the largest number since 1992 when 62 candidates ran.

It only costs $1,000 fee to get on the ballot – compared to $35,000 inSouth Carolina. For 2012, the choices include Democratic presidential candidate Bob Greene, who tells the press he is focusing on the one issue that he believes will address national security, jobs and the trade imbalance, all at once: a new form of nuclear power — thorium. His “Project Thor” would put a fresh focus on this overlooked element that he says could satisfy the nation’s energy needs for 1,000 years.

Timothy Brewer tells crowds that speaking with the Almighty through “afterlife orbs” will solve the world’s problems. Ed O’Donnell calls for a return to good manners.Kentuckyairline pilot Christopher Hill says he’s proud to be “a lesser-known candidate” since he stands for “lesser-known Americans.”

Republican hopeful and Ohio home-builder John Davis travels to campaign sites in an RV which is emblazoned with a billboard-sized

photo of himself. He stands for mandatory tooth brushing and promises a pony for every American.

Vintage postcard of New Hampshire's "Beer Bottle car"

Some years ago, the late Mike Royko, the late, legendary Chicago newspaper columnist, was assigned to cover theNew Hampshireprimary and refused.

“So here we have a tiny state, smaller than many American cities,” he wrote. ”It`s a state that doesn`t reflect the ethnic, racial, religious or economic makeup of the rest of the country.

“But every four years we are told that this dinky state`s primary is one of the key events — maybe the key event — in the nominating process.

“Just look at the record of winners of this all-important primary. In 1952 and 1956, Estes Kefauver. In 1972, Edmund Muskie. And in 1984, Gary Hart. How is that for being launched toward greatness?

“So why is New Hampshire so important when it really isn’t?”

Dartmouth College

Simple: A New Hampshire win generates money from across the nation. Tons of it from deep-pocketed donors who have been sitting back and waiting to see who will rise to the top.

“Winners tend to quickly attract more money and media coverage and the ‘losers’ tend to find it hard to raise money and attract the media.” explains Paul Barresi, chairman of Southern New Hampshire University’s political science department.

But it’s more than that: “New Hampshireis a small state, relatively rural and not demographically representative of the country as a whole in terms of race and ethnicity,” said Barresi. “On the other hand, people who live inNew Hampshire are more civically engaged than most Americans and are more politically aware.”

They take their role in the process very seriously. They expect to have intense conversations with the candidates in living rooms and grocery stores and small town diners.

Because New Hampshire is so small, it doesn’t work to blanket the state with professionally groomed TV commercials. Candidates have to get out in person and engage the public – away from their teleprompters. Facing unimpressed farmers and sharp-tongued

grandmothers, candidates show their true colors.

Candidates such as Rudy Guiliani – who in 2008 decided to skip New Hampshire and focus on South Carolina – learned the hard way that it’s vital shake hands with voters in Concord coffee shops. Munching on cookies and coffee in a Manchester living room may not seem as efficient as sending out clever Tweets or posting well-produced commercials to YouTube. However, New Hampshire voters expect it.

And the candidate they choose gets the momentum.

And massive infusions of money.

So, that’s why New Hampshire is the most important primary in the nation. Campaigners tell about a New Hampshire voter who was asked what she thought of the presidential candidate with whom she had just shaken hands.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I’ve only met him three times.”

Over the decades, New Hampshire voters there have grown proud of their role – deciding who will advance to the next round and who will not.

They meet the candidates face to face and listen to whether hopefuls can answer questions honestly while looking Grandma, Sadie the waitress and Joe the mechanic in the eye.

While the entire world watches.

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