AILSA CHANG, HOST:
On Monday we'll find out the date of the first in the nation presidential primary. Many political observers think it will be held on February 11, a week and a day after the Iowa caucuses, as is the tradition. But in New Hampshire, it's not official until Secretary of State Bill Gardner says it is. Lauren Chooljian and Jack Rodolico are the hosts of Stranglehold, a podcast about the New Hampshire primary. And they'll explain why picking that date is so important to New Hampshire.
LAUREN CHOOLJIAN, BYLINE: We're not expecting any drama around the announcement this year.
JACK RODOLICO, BYLINE: But 20 years ago, New Hampshire and Iowa got into a big fight.
ROB TULLY: Holy buckets. It was (laughter) it was interesting.
RODOLICO: This is Rob Tully, then head of the Iowa Democrats.
CHOOLJIAN: And it sounds weird, right? Iowa and New Hampshire, the two firsts in our political election calendar, what would they have to fight about?
RODOLICO: In its most basic form, it was a scheduling conflict. Iowa picked a day for its caucus.
CHOOLJIAN: And New Hampshire wouldn't let them have it.
TULLY: Basically it came down to this. I'm just going to cut to the chase. This is (expletive). We're New Hampshire. And (expletive) damn it, you should move.
RODOLICO: OK, so it was a bit more nuanced than that.
CHOOLJIAN: Basically what it came down to was a New Hampshire state law, the thing that requires Secretary of State Bill Gardner to make sure the New Hampshire primary stays first.
RODOLICO: That law has helped Gardner build a reputation as guardian of the New Hampshire primary.
CHOOLJIAN: He's been in office for more than four decades. And during that time, other states would get jealous and try to move up their primaries, or the national political parties would consider rearranging the election calendar. But each time, Gardner came out of those battles looking like a hero.
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BILL GARDNER: We understand the concerns in other states. You might think that it's not fair that one state goes first all these times. Well, it's maybe not fair that A is the first letter of the alphabet or Sunday's the first day of the week or January is the first month.
RODOLICO: In 1999, Gardner heard that Delaware wanted to move up their primary.
CHOOLJIAN: Delaware figured, hey, we're a small state. We can do retail politics. We should be an early state.
RODOLICO: But Gardner couldn't let that happen. So he announced the primary date a week earlier than the political world was expecting.
CHOOLJIAN: It also totally conflicted with Iowa's plans. To keep that traditional eight days in between the caucuses in the primary, Iowa would be forced to move their date right smack in the middle of an annual pork convention.
RODOLICO: Here's Tully again, the Iowa Democrat.
TULLY: People come from all over the world to this convention here in Iowa. This isn't like, you know, hey, we're having a stand, and we're going to have some barbecue, you know, pork ribs out at the fairgrounds. I mean, this thing is huge.
CHOOLJIAN: But Gardner wasn't budging, and Iowa wasn't either.
RODOLICO: Campaigns and reporters weren't sure when and where to book hotels.
CHOOLJIAN: So Iowa party leaders flew to New Hampshire to negotiate in person. And the meeting was apparently so tense that the Iowa secretary of state had to be physically restrained from starting a fistfight.
RODOLICO: But New Hampshire's secretary of state, Bill Gardner, wouldn't budge. And in the end, Iowa was forced to move their caucus.
CHOOLJIAN: Steve Duprey was head of the New Hampshire GOP.
STEVE DUPREY: There was a lot of pressure on Bill, and he didn't - he really didn't even blink (laughter). You know, some will say he's a curmudgeon and he's inflexible, but he was doing what he thought was right to defend the supremacy of the primary.
RODOLICO: These are the kinds of stories that have built the legend of New Hampshire as this small but powerful state that's gripping tightly to its privileged spot.
CHOOLJIAN: While no one has tried to muscle in on New Hampshire this year, the threats these days are more existential. And sometimes, it's candidates picking the fight.
RODOLICO: Like former Housing Secretary Julian Castro. Here he is on MSNBC last week.
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JULIAN CASTRO: Demographically it's not reflective of the United States as a whole, certainly not reflective of the Democratic Party. And I believe that other states should have their chance.
RODOLICO: 2020 marks the first time candidates are openly criticizing the lack of diversity in New Hampshire and Iowa.
CHOOLJIAN: And then there's the Democratic National Committee's thresholds for making it to the debate stage.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Breaking news right now. Another shakeup in the 2020 Democratic race.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled the plug on his White House bid today.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton has just dropped out after struggling to gain traction and unable to meet the criteria to get on the debate stage next month.
RODOLICO: So some people in New Hampshire worry that this process is becoming more nationalized, taking away some of the first primary states' power to impact how this country picks presidents.
CHOOLJIAN: Now it remains to be seen if the 2024 election could be a year of historic change in the election calendar. But we do know that New Hampshire would likely fight back.
For NPR News, I'm Lauren Chooljian.
RODOLICO: And I'm Jack Rodolico in Concord.
CHANG: They're the co-hosts of the podcast Stranglehold from New Hampshire Public Radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.