There’s a ritual that plays out virtually every time presidential candidates pay their first visit to a given state.
Contestants are asked by a local reporter how important that state is going to be in fulfilling their White House dreams. The correct answer is simple.
Reporter: How important is _____ going to be to your campaign?
Candidate: _____ is going to be very important!
That may or may not be true. Candidates could be merely passing through, say, California to pick up buckets of cash to dump into other states. They may be waging the most half-hearted of campaigns.
But saying so would be impolite, not to mention impolitic. Thus, presidential hopefuls will solemnly swear, every state matters and every voter is super-duper important.
In February, Kamala Harris made her first trip to New Hampshire after declaring her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. She faced the inevitable question, and California’s junior senator aced it.
“I’m here because I believe that this is a very important state, and intend to spend a lot of time here, and I intend to compete for the votes here, and I’m going to put a lot of effort into doing that,” she told reporters in Concord, the state capital.
The next day, however, Harris appeared on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” where she ascribed a more sinister motive to that most commonplace of queries.
“The first line of questioning I got was, ‘You’re in New Hampshire, and we heard you’re not going to come to New Hampshire. We thought you weren’t going to compete in New Hampshire,’” she recounted in a kind of incredulous singsong. “And what no one said, but the inference was, well, the demographic of New Hampshire is not who you are in terms of your race and who you are.”
Actually, no, said the reporter who posed the question to Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India. That was not the implication.
“The question … was not aimed at the candidate’s race,” Paul Steinhauser wrote in the Concord Monitor. “Rather, it was based on the lack of any prior visits to New Hampshire by Harris over the past year and on the national media narrative that Harris may spend more time in the other early voting states as well as her home state of California.”
A narrative, it should be said, that reflects the fact that Harris is, indeed, counting heavily on South Carolina, a state with a large African American population, along with her home state and next-door Nevada to deliver her the Democratic nomination.
She has already made several trips to South Carolina and campaigned in Reno, Carson City and Las Vegas; Harris’ planned visit to New Hampshire next week will be her first since that initial February foray.
New Hampshire, of course, is not just any state.
It holds the first presidential primary, a politically vital and financially lucrative franchise the state jealously guards and fiercely defends against any who suggest New Hampshire, among its flaws, is too white to bear such weighty responsibility.
Harris has done nothing in the intervening weeks to suggest she plans to vigorously compete here.
“One of the most scarce resources a campaign has is a candidates’ time,” said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor and longtime student of the state’s presidential history. “And by that metric it’s clear, thus far, Harris is not spending much on New Hampshire.”
She didn’t help her cause by introducing race into the conversation, highlighting an area of particular sensitivity. It’s something protectors of the primary are still grumbling about and, Scala said, “I can see reporters returning to that comment” if Harris’ candidacy falls flat.
There is precedent for a high-flying California candidate losing altitude over the Granite State.
In 1995, Gov. Pete Wilson was seen as a political behemoth, fresh off a walloping reelection victory in a state both parties viewed as a key presidential battleground. (Bill Clinton’s win in 1992 marked the first time a Democrat carried California in nearly 30 years; Democrats have won handily ever since.)
There were plenty of reasons Wilson’s candidacy imploded before the calendar even turned to the election year 1996. There was his ill-timed throat surgery, a broken promise not to run for president if reelected governor and a relatively moderate record out-of-step with the conservative mood of the national GOP.
But it also didn’t help that Wilson managed to alienate New Hampshire Republicans on his very first visit.
For decades, candidates in the tightfisted state have taken “The Pledge,” as it is known in political circles, promising to never ever support higher taxes.
Asked by a reporter if he would make that vow, Wilson was befuddled. His glib response: Did the pledge have something or other to do with alcohol?
The quip exposed Wilson’s lack of preparation and betrayed a streak of seeming arrogance. No one laughed.
Much time has passed and a great deal has changed politically in the 20-plus years since Wilson tripped and fell in his Granite State debut. Most candidates start fresh and the result of one campaign doesn’t necessarily presage the outcome of another.
But there is one constant that applies today just as it did when Wilson ran for president. How important is it to avoid heedlessly antagonizing voters and the political press corps in a key early primary state?