During the 1988 presidential race, then-New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu served as co-chair of Vice President George H.W. Bush campaign in the Granite State. Sununu would go on to become Bush’s White House chief of staff, a period he chronicles in “The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H.W. Bush,” forthcoming early next month. In the book, Sununu describes his efforts to boost support for Bush in the 1988 GOP primary against his main rival, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, in part by deploying an unexpected weapon in the arsenal of New Hampshire influence-peddling:
One of the interesting discoveries I made when I became governor was how strongly coveted low-digit automobile license plates were. For some reason, everyone with a car in New Hampshire wanted to have just two or three or even four numerals under the “Live Free or Die” state motto on their license plate. It was a brag of sorts. By tradition, when a low-digit registrant moved out of state or died, the governor, via the director of Motor Vehicles, got to choose who received the number when it was reissued. When I became governor, I wasn’t sure on what basis I could or would decide how to reissue those numbers, so I temporarily ordered that none of them be reissued until I resolved the process in my own mind. During my first four years in office, a few hundred of these plate numbers piled up. Most were four-digit plates that were quite coveted, but also in the mix were a few three-digit ones and, most prized of all, a handful of two-digit numbers. They turned out to be a gold mine.
Once we got the Bush campaign rolling, I quickly decided how I wanted to put those license plates to use. As we rode around the state encouraging the more influential political figures to join us on the Bush team, we quickly discovered that whenever one of the more desirable opinion leaders was having trouble deciding whether to support Bush or Dole, the promise of a low-digit license plate was a very effective tie-breaker. In 1987 and 1988, we built the deepest, broadest, and most effective political campaign machine ever assembled in the state. I attributed much of that success to making good use of that hoard of license plate numbers tucked away in the bowels of the DMV.
Low-digit plates produced high-digit votes. After a disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Bush prevailed in the February 1988 New Hampshire primary, winning 38 percent of the vote over Dole’s 29 percent. “From there,” Sununu writes, “it proved to be a relatively downhill glide to locking up the nomination.”
Sununu also discussed this use of license plates in an oral history with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia in 2000. “Other than the U.S. dollar, the second most important currency in the state of New Hampshire are license plates, low-digit license plates,” he said. During the 1988 campaign, “we would run into somebody who wanted to be town chairman who wasn’t quite decided between Bush and Dole, but if it’s Bush and a three-digit plate, there’s no question.” The three-term governor added: “That’s what politics is all about, and that’s why Governors have currencies, in the plural, that make for political strength in campaigns.”
If you’re wondering why the opinions of New Hampshire opinion leaders can be so easily swayed with this particular inducement, check out this terrific 2010 article in New Hampshire Magazine on the allure and history of low-digit plates in state politics. “The lowest number plates show you’re the crème de la crème and an ‘in’ in the state of New Hampshire,” State Rep. Andre Martel of Manchester is quoted. “I guess in some people’s eyes it’s the closest thing to being The Pope.”
John H. Sununu’s “The Quiet Man” will be published by Broadside Books on June 9. Look for a full review in this space soon.
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