In 1984, for the first time, New Hampshire voters threw off a front-runner the old-fashioned way: They gave somebody else more votes.
The primary that year resembled the state of things 12 years earlier, with a front-runner who had been on the party’s last losing ticket starting out as the heavy favorite: Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine before, former vice president Walter F. Mondale this time. Muskie had nonetheless been able to win his neighboring state, while Mondale had no geographic advantage, but plenty of support from labor unions.
Rival candidates correctly saw Mondale’s lead as flimsy. On Feb. 5, three weeks before the primary, the Boston Globe’s poll found Mondale ahead with 37 percent, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio behind with 18 percent, a surging Jesse Jackson at 16 percent, and Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado in the back of the first tier, with 12 percent. But the pattern was unmistakable: Mondale, who’d led all year, had slipped from 46 percent to a place where someone might be able to overtake him.
As in Iowa, the smart money was initially on Glenn. As in Iowa, Hart outworked him and built broader appeal — a candidate of generational change against a more conservative Democrat who did not offer many clear distinctions with Mondale. The former vice president leaned on his experience, while Glenn leaned on his compelling biography.
“One of the joys of running for office, not having been there, is that problems always seem more simple on the outside than on the inside,” Mondale, a Minnesotan, said in the final pre-primary debate.
Mondale’s strength set up the primary as a semifinal, a race to determine Mondale’s strongest challenger. Hart made that explicit, asking New Hampshire voters not to “ratify” the Mondale lead and end the primary before the party had a real debate about its future. “This party will not gain responsibility as long as leaders of the past debate whose policies of the past are worst,” Hart said in the New Hampshire debate.
The Democrats had just eight days between Iowa and New Hampshire to sort this out. Hart, the second-place finisher in Iowa, gained every single day and wound up beating Mondale by nine points. The Mondale-Hart contest would dominate the next few months, with Glenn imploding and Jackson hanging around to win delegates, but Hart’s limitations were clear even as he triumphed. In the exit poll, even as he lost, Mondale tied Hart with voters who worried that their economic situation was growing worse.
“Mr. Mondale’s best voter groups were under-represented in New Hampshire,” Hedrick Smith wrote in the New York Times. “In the nationwide survey, blacks constituted 21 percent of the likely Democratic primary electorate and Mr. Mondale outpolled Senator Hart in that group by 67 percent to 0. But blacks make up only about 2 percent of the New Hampshire Democratic electorate.”
Mondale’s campaign argued that he would recover and win the nomination once the race moved to more diverse states. Within a month, that was exactly what happened.