Independent voters play huge role in NH primary voting

PORTSMOUTH�� New Hampshire�s first-in-the-nation presidential primary already contains an enhanced layer of intrigue compared to many other states because it�s open to independent voters.

After tabulating final results from Monday�s Iowa caucuses created chaos, the outcome of the Tuesday, Feb. 11 primary takes on even greater significance. If all goes well in New Hampshire, where paper ballots are still used, the nation will not be waiting on a news cycle or several before knowing which presidential hopeful will finally assert front-runner status in the race that seemingly began Nov. 9, 2016.

Forty-two percent of New Hampshire�s voters are undeclared or “independent” voters, which makes up the largest bloc of people registered, according to the secretary of state�s office. By comparison, 28% of New Hampshire voters are registered Democrats and slightly more than 29% are registered Republicans.

“It�s great so many independents get to participate in the New Hampshire primary,” said Brian Murphy, chairman of the Rockingham Republican Committee. “There are fringe independents on the far left and far right but for the most part, there�s a large independent bloc in the middle, and the open primary here allows candidates from either party to demonstrate their electability to independents across the country in the general election.”

According to New Hampshire political scholar Dean Spiliotes, of the nearly 416,000 undeclared voters in New Hampshire, only about 15% to 18% of them are true “independents,” and will float between voting in the Democratic or Republican primary from election cycle to election cycle, depending on the candidates in the field. The rest, Spiliotes said, typically lean toward one of the major parties and seldom, if ever, vote in the other party�s primary.

“People from outside the state are fascinated with the idea of independents voting in the primary and that they can assign some Machiavellian strategy to affect the vote in the other party if they lean towards one party (if there�s an incumbent president),” said Spiliotes, a political science instructor at Southern New Hampshire University. “There�s no evidence this goes on in any meaningful way, but there will probably be some anecdotes of people taking to social media to talk about how they voted in the Democratic primary to sew more chaos. It�s fun to talk about, maybe some right-leaning independents take cues from Trump and vote for the candidate he wants to face and they�ll vote for Bernie Sanders, for example, because they think it will be easy to paint him as a communist or a socialist in the general.”

Anecdotally, Murphy said, he wasn�t aware of any right-leaning independents who are planning to vote in the Democratic primary to strategically elevate a candidate they view as weakest in a potential general election match up against President Donald Trump.

“People have opinions of who would be best to face Trump but following the craziness in the Iowa caucuses, they are still figuring out what the fight should be on the other side,” Murphy said of Republican-leaning independents. “Even if this does happen in a minimal way, it�s not like large numbers of conservative independents are organizing themselves to go vote for one specific candidate they think would be most likely to lose to Trump.”

One Democratic presidential hopeful is banking on independent voters from across their wide political spectrum, from far left to libertarians, to give her a shot at a surprise finish in the nation’s first primary.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, told Seacoast Media Group’s editorial board last week a large contingent of her support is from undeclared voters, some of whom are disaffected Republicans and conservative-leaning independents. According to Real Clear Politics’ polling averages for New Hampshire, Gabbard has been consistently sitting at 4.8%; besting rivals Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer, both under 4%. Gabbard�s numbers in New Hampshire are much higher than her national polling averages, which have remained at 1% to 2% throughout the campaign, according to RCP.

“The ideological diversity here (in New Hampshire), I think does represent the country,” Gabbard said. “Just as we see reflected across the country, (in our town halls) we have maybe 25% of people Democrat, roughly 25% of people Republican and everybody else, the majority of people in the room, are undeclared or independent or libertarian.”

Asked if she was risking drawing support from right-leaning independents that may evaporate come the general election, Gabbard said she has met numerous Trump voters from 2016 who told her they would consider supporting her against the president should she pull off an upset in the primary contests and win the Democratic nomination.

“There are still some (independent) people who are saying, �I don�t know what I�ll do in the general election but if I have to make a choice, I want it to be between Tulsi and the guy who�s there,�” Gabbard said.

Despite Trump�s popularity within his own party, with 94% approval rating among Republicans, according to Gallup, he will not be immune to a primary challenge in 2020. Most notably, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld is� among the candidates seeking to upset Trump in the primary.

However, several state Republican parties have voted to cancel their primary elections, and no GOP candidates have picked up a large volume of endorsements from prominent national Republicans.

During a meeting with Seacoast Media Group’s editorial board last week, Weld said he views his path to victory in New Hampshire requiring upwards of half the Republican vote and winning independent voters choosing to enter the Republican primary by a wide margin, as was the case in his victories in the gubernatorial primary in Massachusetts.

“Instead of throwing a dart into the Democratic field, hoping to hit the right candidate, come on in here if you don�t like Trump and take an early vote against him, then you know it�s coming out of his (win) column,” Weld said. “The less well Trump does in the primaries, that can be a hole in the bottom of the boat, as it was with Pat Buchanan and George Bush 41 (in 1992). Pat got 37% of the vote but you wouldn�t know it by the reaction; it was like he had won and it was the beginning of the tailspin for George Bush.”

By comparing himself to Buchanan, whose primary challenge of Bush is considered a major factor in the incumbent Republican president’s defeat, Weld said, if his primary bid was unsuccessful, he is prepared to publicly support most Democratic candidates in the general election against Trump.

All except for two, that is.

“I�ve got a little thinking to do about Warren and Sanders,” Weld said. “I�ve added up all the dollars that they … put out to as to how they are going to finance the cost of their proposals; it�d be about a 50% tax increase at large for the entire economy. That�s not how I do business; I cut taxes 21 times (as governor).”

As far as Tuesday�s primary is concerned, Spiliotes said if this phenomenon of “strategic voting” was to occur in any statistically significant manner, it is more likely that Republican-leaning independents would vote in the Democratic primary, as opposed to Democratic-leaning independents to take a Republican ballot and cast a protest vote in favor of one of Trump�s primary challengers.

Spiliotes said Trump coming into the New Hampshire primary is not the same type of incumbent candidate Bush was in 1992, arguing Buchanan was successful at harnessing the anger of voters who make the pillars of the coalition backing Trump.

“There was a real populist anger behind Pat Buchanan supporters, they had a real Trump-like intensity about them,” Spiliotes said. “Bill Weld doesn�t have that.”

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