New Hampshire’s long reign as the nation’s premier presidential primary may be coming to an end.

For the first time since 1968, an incumbent Democratic president seeking reelection will not be on the ballot.

Lyndon Johnson performed poorly in that fateful year. Though his “uncommitted” slate finished first on March 12, the 42% garnered by anti-Vietnam War candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy convinced Johnson to quit the race.

He was the first incumbent president not to seek a second full term since Harry Truman in 1952; like Truman, Johnson was an “accidental” president.

Few imagine a similar fate for Joe Biden, who will also not appear on the ballot. The reason is quite different: Biden is committed to the Democratic National Committee’s calendar placing South Carolina first.

New Hampshire’s state law requiring it to be first, on Jan. 23, means Biden won’t participate, though there will be an “uncommitted” line; South Carolina votes Feb. 3.

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South Carolina was the launch pad for Biden in 2020, where he won big after trailing Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg in Iowa and a finishing a dismal fifth in New Hampshire.

That November’s results — despite endless bleating by his predecessor, Biden won by seven million votes and the Electoral vote by 306-232 — crystallized what had been percolating among Democrats for years.

Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white in a country whose electorate is far more diverse. “People of color” are now a substantial minority and, if long-range demographic projections come to pass, will someday outnumber those identifying as “white” — although the Census’s fine print shows that racial categories are largely a personal choice.

Democrats tried to give New Hampshire the heave-ho in 2012, but failed to figure out who would go first. Biden’s commanding position ensured that this time it would happen.

Yet the reason New Hampshire is losing out goes beyond a restive political party. Its “first in the nation” mystique arose because it predicted the winner.

For two decades, no president was elected without winning New Hampshire.

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The state was then solidly Republican, and from 1968-88, Republicans won five of six presidential elections.

That streak was good fortune for me, since in 1980 I became the very young editor of the weekly paper in Wolfeboro, N.H., then as now a notable GOP town, where Mitt Romney still hangs out.

Republicans had a powerhouse lineup. George H.W. Bush was coming off a surprise win in Iowa, and in a hall packed to the rafters the normally laconic candidate was on a roll.

Appearances can be deceiving. At the larger high school auditorium, Ronald Reagan gave his standard spiel — polished, reassuring to Republicans, with zingers for Democrats that back then had plausibility.

My favorite was Howard Baker, an able Senate leader too moderate to win a primary. Later, Baker spearheaded Reagan’s legislative program and became his chief of staff, while H.W. served as vice president, then president after winning New Hampshire in 1988.

It was a close-up introduction to politics at the highest levels that’s stayed with me ever since.

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The spell was broken in 1992 when Bill Clinton, already dogged by personal scandals, lost badly to Paul Tsongas but won the presidency.

Since then, Republican nominees have won New Hampshire, but it hasn’t always worked for Democrats; Bernie Sanders bested Hillary Clinton in 2016. Biden’s loss was the last straw.

Given national results, it’s hard to argue New Hampshire is representative, though truly no state is. Unless we finally move to regional primaries — still the best idea — we’ll have this debate every four years.

Maine Democrats will have no regrets. The most famous moment of all New Hampshire primaries came when Ed Muskie, presumed 1972 Democratic frontrunner, unwisely confronted the boorish red-baiting publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, William Loeb, by holding a press conference outside the newspaper’s office.

Muskie, responding to a particularly vicious attack on his wife, stood amidst light precipitation. Reporters thought he was crying; Muskie claimed it was melting snow.

No matter; Muskie’s campaign, dogged by Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks and his inability to raise money or excite voters, was already in freefall. Though he won the primary, it wasn’t “big enough” — and George McGovern became the nominee routed by Nixon.

To this day, many believe Muskie was the only candidate who could have beaten Nixon, and the perfidious and illegal campaign tactics Nixon kept employing eventually brought about his own demise. “Watergate” began not with the Watergate Hotel break-in, but much earlier, wielded against Muskie.

New Hampshire has always been a Republican show. In the 21st century, Democrats will pitch their tents elsewhere.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, columnist and reporter since 1984. His new book, “Calm Command: U.S. Chief Justice Melville Fuller in His Times, 1888-1910,” is available in bookstores and from Maine Authors Publishing. He welcomes comment at drooks@tds.net.


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