The walls of The Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire, are a campaign history lesson: Donald Trump sticks a thumb in the air. Barack Obama slings an arm around two patrons. Bernie Sanders, Rudy Giuliani, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton all gaze down on the action at the century-old restaurant. Which, on a recent Monday morning, did not amount to much. When a server arrives at my table, I ask her whether any candidates vying for the 2024 presidential ticket have made recent appearances. “Yeah,” she drones. “But don’t ask me to remember who.”

In every lead-up to the primary election, candidates flock to the southern New Hampshire eatery about an hour north of Boston to sip milkshakes, pose for photo-ops and pitch their platforms to voters with face-to-face campaigning. Media outlets have dubbed it “the diner that every future president must visit,” to win the New Hampshire primary, which has been revered as a bellwether for the presidential outcome. Today, it’s one of the few remaining strongholds of traditional American retail politics. Though this year it feels lifeless, much like the campaign itself. 

President Joe Biden did not register for the primary ballot or campaign in New Hampshire. Former President Donald Trump is facing lawsuits as states seek to disqualify him from primary ballots; his name is already erased in Maine and Colorado, although whether that stands will be up to the Supreme Court. Still, Trump has decided not to participate in any debates, as both he and Biden have polled so far ahead of their competitors since the start of the race they’ve all but eroded any sense of contest. Since the Iowa caucuses last week, Ron DeSantis has dropped out of the race, leaving Nikki Haley as Trump’s lone rival.

“This is the first election in generations where the primary is almost nonexistent on both sides,” says Jared Leopold, a Democratic communications strategist who has worked on state, federal and local elections. “I think it’s the least competitive primary since at least World War II.” 

Yet, despite their leads, most voters nationwide find neither candidate favorable. Pew Research Center reported in September that 63 percent of Americans feel little to no confidence in the future of the country’s political system. Somewhere along the way to election day, the primary — its traditions and its verve — has been dashed. Its absence lingering like a phantom limb in New Hampshire is a warning for the rest of the country. 

Somewhere along the way to election day, the primary — its traditions and its verve — has been dashed. Its absence lingers like a phantom limb in New Hampshire.

Last February, the Democratic National Committee reordered the official primary calendar, selecting South Carolina as the first ballot host for the Democratic nominee, a role that had belonged to New Hampshire for a century.

The rationale was to prioritize states with more diverse populations. But New Hampshire chose to bypass the committee’s decision altogether and move forward with holding their state primary on January 23, even without Biden on the ballot, citing a state law that mandates New Hampshire host the nation’s first primary for every presidential election. “There’s a culture of taking it seriously,” says Linda Fowler, an emerita professor of government and chair of policy studies at Dartmouth College. “Because the state parties have one thing they agree on: maintaining the first in the nation status.” Rather than support the unsanctioned election, Biden chose absence. The incumbent candidate did not register nor campaign in the state. Democrats organized a meager write-in campaign for Biden so voters still had a chance to cast a ballot for the front-runner. But, since the election was deemed noncompliant with the official calendar, the winner of the New Hampshire primary will receive no delegates. 

Before the 1920s, party leaders and corporate interests held total control over which candidates advanced to the presidential ticket. Caucuses consisted solely of members of Congress handpicking presidential nominees. Only after Americans pushed for Progressive Era voting reforms in the early 20th century did the candidate nomination process become public and transparent. Voters demanded a right to participate in primary elections. And by 1968, when then-President Lyndon B. Johnson sought reelection, Americans understood just how influential the new primary system could be.

Eugene McCarthy, a lesser known U.S. senator from Minnesota and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, challenged the incumbent for their party’s nomination. Despite the lack of name recognition, McCarthy almost outpolled Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. The narrow results made Johnson realize that his push for the war had hurt his chances for reelection. It influenced his decision to drop out of the race altogether (Richard Nixon defeated the Democratic Party’s eventual nominee Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president). Since then, New Hampshire and Iowa have served as campaign forecasters. They are where candidates go to gain momentum — or, as in Johnson’s famous case, lose it. “We’ve been able to look at these candidates up close and personal, and if we vote a certain direction, people in other states may say, ‘Oh, maybe there’s something to look at here. Let us do our own homework.’ That’s the value I think we play with the first primary,” says Chris Ager, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee. “It doesn’t have to be this way. But I think it’s the best way because instead of the power brokers and the money and the media picking the winner, the winner’s picked by the people in a small state like New Hampshire.”

The 2024 election deviates from that norm. So much so that Biden’s choice not to run in New Hampshire appears inconsequential to his overall re-election strategy. When Trump visited the state for a campaign rally in October, he outright told his audience: “You don’t have to vote, don’t worry about voting.” If primaries serve as bellwethers for the future of American democracy, the present election forecasts that future as uninvolved and uncertain.

“Candidates aren’t here in the way that they used to be,” says Christopher Galdieri, a professor of politics at Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics. “I haven’t even seen yard signs, highway signs, that sort of thing. The enrollment in my class on the presidential primary process is lower than it was four years ago and lower than it was eight years ago. It’s just been a lot less activity than I’d seen in the other three cycles I’ve been here. That’s been disappointing.” The same democratic privileges Americans pushed for decades ago, the ability to shape primary elections, is now hardly exercised. Research indicates that one of the main causes for this breakdown is that it feels like participation doesn’t make a difference, for candidates or voters.

Whenever voters feel like they’re taken for granted, that’s when they start to pull away either from the party or from voting. That’s the danger.

I arrived at Chez Vachon in Manchester on a Tuesday morning, ready to consume crepes. As I sat down in a corner booth enveloped by periwinkle walls, it was hard to not overhear a customer’s conversation with their server. I learned that I’d narrowly missed a visit from Ron DeSantis. “I’m glad we weren’t here,” a patron says. “I couldn’t deal with the campaign craziness.” 

Trump visited Chez Vachon to eat alongside locals during his 2016 campaign; Biden did the same in 2019. Before them came a league of lesser-known hopefuls, from John Kerry to Ron Paul. DeSantis’ visit was decidedly not irregular for Chez Vachon. What was unusual was the fatigue on display in response to it. 

Pew Research Center’s September report found that about two-thirds of Americans feel exhausted at the mere thought of politics. More than 60 percent are not satisfied with the candidates present in the 2024 race. The number of contestable swing states has shrunk to five states from about 30 in a few decades. That deflates the public’s sense of impact and disincentivizes engagement, especially in a race where two active presidential candidates, DeSantis and Trump, have campaigned on the message that the 2020 presidential election results are illegitimate.

Results from a November survey published by CIRCLE, a nonpartisan organization at Tufts University that focuses on youth civic engagement, found that 57 percent of people under 35 plan to vote in the 2024 general election. “I think it indicates that the voter turnout may be pretty good, but there’s still half of the young people left behind who may be nowhere near ready to vote,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsburg, Newhouse director of CIRCLE. “Whenever voters feel like they’re taken for granted, that’s when they start to really pull away either from the party or from voting generally. That’s the danger.” 

Academic scholars and experts have agreed for more than a decade that democracy is in decline due to a lapse in the freedom and fairness of elections. State legislatures across the country have passed measures that limit access to the ballot, and the country has seen a rise in election deniers in recent years. These obstacles and more have caused the Economist’s Democracy Index to drop the United States in its rank — from its former spot among the world’s “full democracies” to a new placement among the “flawed democracies.” “Our constitutional system is changing. Our constitutional system is fraught with contradictions,” says Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University and founder of the American Political Science Association’s experimental research section. “The remedy is to have a different constitutional system, but we’re not going to get one so we can pretty much throw out that idea.”

Losing the primary as we know it, a system intended as a check and balance against corrupt elections, risks slipping further down the slope. “We could really see a major change in our way of life here if we give up on the democratic norms and procedures that we’ve fought for,” says Mike McGrath, director of research at the National Civic League, a nonpartisan organization that works to boost civic engagement. When primary elections become afterthoughts for candidates and voters, it risks taking the process away from the people. It eschews involvement and transparency at a time when democracy needs them most.

As I mop up the last of my crepes at Chez Vachon, the sense that something once symbolic of lauded American political tradition now feels dated seeps in. The faces smiling from frames and campaign stickers smattered with slogans act as distant memories of when any election outcome felt possible, and any electoral success appeared hard-won. Maybe that was never the case, but at least there was the feeling that it was.