Habib Olapade is a second-year law student at Yale University.
In January 2008, Hillary Clinton surprised most political commenters by winning the New Hampshire primary. Clinton’s chances were thought to be severely diminished after Barack Obama defeated her in the Iowa Caucus. Indeed, some pre-election polls in New Hampshire showed Clinton trailing Obama by as much as 13 points. Although political pundits attempted to explain this surprise by pointing to polling errors, groupthink among reporters, identity politics, and a critical, decisive mass of undecided voters, one explanation has been neglected: ballot order.
Before 2008, New Hampshire created a two-step process for primary ballots. First, state officials randomized the name order, and then they rotated name order on ballots precinct by precinct. This method ensured that each candidate appeared first on the ballot for approximately the same number of voters. The New Hampshire State Secretary refused, though, to rotate names during the 2008 primary. The result? Joe Biden was listed first, followed by Hillary Clinton in the fourth slot, and Barack Obama in the eighteenth position. This ordering triggered the ‘primary effect’ phenomenon whereby individuals are more likely to select one of the first choices on the ballot. Judging from historical data, this may have given Clinton as much as a three-point bump – her margin of victory – on Election Day.