New Hampshire voters cast ballots today in the first presidential primary of the 2012 campaign, a quadrennial tradition that dates to 1952.
With President Barack Obama free of serious opposition on the Democratic side, the spotlight is on the race for the Republican nomination. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has led in polls of likely primary voters in the state, though his lead has been shrinking. His rivals are jostling for second place, as the race next turns to South Carolina.
Here’s a closer look at the New Hampshire contest and its mechanics:
How is the New Hampshire primary different from the Iowa caucuses that were held Jan. 3?
The primary is state-run, while the Iowa caucuses are party-operated meetings that begin at night and require a longer time commitment to vote. New Hampshire voters simply must go to polling stations, most of which will open in the early morning and close at 7 p.m. local time. Other polling locations will close at 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m.
The northern New Hampshire hamlets of Dixville Notch and Hart’s Location will continue a tradition of voting and reporting their results minutes after midnight today, before everyone else. The Associated Press will report results as soon as they get them, though it won’t project a winner until after all polling stations have closed at 8 p.m.
Who may participate in the Republican primary?
The vote is open to registered Republicans and voters who haven’t declared a party preference. Also, residents who haven’t registered to vote may do so on primary day.
According to the office of New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner, there were 231,611 Republicans and 312,621 undeclared voters as of Dec. 14.
How many voters will show up?
Gardner has predicted a turnout of 250,000 for the Republican primary, a little higher than the almost 240,000 ballots cast in the past two competitive Republican primaries.
Turnout was 239,793 in 2008, when Arizona Senator John McCain beat rivals including Romney. In 2000, there were 238,206 votes cast in the primary in which McCain defeated then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, who went on to become his party’s nominee and win the presidency.
Unlike in 2000 and 2008, this year’s Republican primary isn’t competing with a contested Democratic race for the attention of the 41 percent of voters who don’t declare a party preference. President Barack Obama, then an Illinois senator, lost the 2008 Democratic primary to then-Senator Hillary Clinton of New York by 2 percentage points. In the 2000 Democratic race, then-Vice President Al Gore defeated former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey by four percentage points.
Why has Romney led in the polls?
Romney campaigned frequently in New Hampshire, where he also owns a home. He was governor of neighboring Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 and placed second in the New Hampshire primary in 2008.
Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a social-issues conservative who finished second to Romney in the Iowa Caucuses by eight votes, isn’t doing as well in New Hampshire because the state doesn’t have as large a bloc of evangelical voters. In the 2008 Republican primary, 23 percent of voters told pollsters they were born-again or evangelical Christians, compared with 57 percent in last week’s Iowa caucuses.
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas has run second in the polls, buoyed by a core of supporters attracted by his libertarian, pro-state rights positions. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. is staking his candidacy on his showing in New Hampshire; to that end, he has conducted more than 150 public events in the state.
How are Republican voters spread throughout the state?
Two counties, Hillsborough and Rockingham in the state’s southern part, will cast more votes than the other eight. Hillsborough, which includes the cities of Manchester and Nashua, cast 30 percent of the Republican vote in 2008. Rockingham, which takes in Portsmouth and Derry, cast 25 percent.
In the 2008 primary, Romney carried Hillsborough and Rockingham, two of the three counties that abut Massachusetts. McCain won the other eight counties to beat Romney statewide by 37 percent to 32 percent.
How many delegates are at stake?
New Hampshire has 12 delegates to the national Republican convention, or 0.5 percent of the total of 2,286. Its delegation was reduced from 24 because it is holding a binding nomination contest before Feb. 1, in violation of a Republican National Committee rule.
The delegate penalty is a small price to pay for the media exposure and candidate visits to a state that influences the momentum of the race more than the delegate math.
How are the delegates allocated among the candidates?
Candidates win delegates in proportion to the votes they get, though they must win at least 10 percent of the ballots cast to be eligible for the allocation. The statewide winner gets the remainder of the 12 delegates if the threshold requirement leaves some unaccounted for.
How often does New Hampshire’s Republican primary winner capture the party’s nomination?
Of the five winners of Republican primaries between 1980 and 2008 that didn’t include an incumbent president, three went on to claim the nomination -- Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988 and McCain in 2008.
In 1996, Bob Dole won the nomination after losing the New Hampshire primary to Pat Buchanan by 1 percentage point. In 2000, George W. Bush lost to McCain in New Hampshire by 19 points then won the nomination.
Why does New Hampshire hold the nation’s first primary?
The national political parties generally allow New Hampshire to hold the first primary. A state law directs New Hampshire’s secretary of state to select a primary date that is at least seven days before any other primary. The next primary this year is Jan. 21 in South Carolina.
New Hampshire’s presidential primary dates to 1916, when it began direct election of delegates to national party conventions. It began voting directly for presidential candidates in 1952, when primaries were still less common than caucuses or state conventions for selecting convention delegates.
That year, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee focused on the state in his bid for the Democratic nomination when it was still unclear whether President Harry Truman, also a Democrat, would seek another term. “All these primaries are just eyewash when the convention meets,” Truman said at a White House news conference, according to a 2003 book by Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
Kefauver won the primary, and Truman announced a few weeks later that he wouldn’t seek re-election. The New Hampshire primary has increased in importance ever since.