On Guns and Elsewhere, Candidates' Words Often Leave Independent N.H. Voters Adrift

Feb 1, 2016

Dick Armstrong is one of those independent voters in New Hampshire who feel that their views aren't fully represented by any of the presidential candidates.
Credit Natasha Haverty / NHPR

Primary elections have a tendency to push candidates to the political extreme—fire up the base and draw bright lines around the issues. But during the New Hampshire presidential primary, where political independents play a central role those tactics often mean the campaign rhetoric sometimes doesn’t line up with how voters actually think.

Here are a few voters feeling that disconnect on one issue: guns.


Mark McLaughlin’s been doing his homework. He’s gone to hear most every presidential candidate, Democrat and Republican. He’s that voter who sits in the back of the town hall and asks a thoughtful question if he gets the chance.

Because, even with the primary just days away, he really is still making up his mind.

"I’m an independent, I would consider myself fairly moderate," McLaughlin says. "Still undecided -- my wife calls me noncommittal, which I am."

I meet McLaughlin at a John Kasich event in Newmarket. He’s a biology teacher, from Lee. He says the decision’s been hard this year, because he’s eager to hear real substance from candidates on the stump.

"It’s kind of funny to hear the difference candidates try and put these really complex issues into simple terms to get to voters," he says. "I guess they have to do that."

One of those complex issues is gun control. McLaughlin says nobody’s talking about it in a way that reaches him, so it won’t really weigh into his decision on who he’ll vote for.

"The rhetoric is too strong, so divisive," he says. "I wish we could come together and be more bipartisan. I hope that's possible...maybe it's not."

That wish to be more bipartisan—and for candidates to dig into questions in a more thoughtful way—it’s unlikely McLaughlin’s going to get that wish granted in the next week, at least.

But gun control seems like it’d be ripe for nuance across party lines. For instance, a WBUR poll from December shows a strong majority of declared Republican voters in New Hampshire—75 percent—support some type of gun reform.

Listen to GOP candidates these days—you’d have no idea.

Gary Keene’s another voter still making up his mind.

"I’m undecided," he says.

He’s from Conway, works for the Merchant Marines. He came out this morning to hear what Democrat Bernie Sanders has to say—though some Republicans have also caught his ear.

When I ask if he’s okay with President Obama’s recent moves on gun control, Keene doesn’t blink:

"Absolutely, yeah," he says. "So what the hell’s the problem?"

The problem—Keene answers his own question:

"Nobody’s listening to either side."

So as the primary season reaches fever pitch, there are folks like Keene who feel stuck in the middle, forgotten about. And then there are folks like Dick Armstrong, who feel misrepresented by a lot of candidates.  

"Well I’m a gun owner, I hunt," Armstrong says. "But I am for gun owners having guns, and hunting."

Armstrong quickly adds: he’s for gun safety, too. Wearing a red flannel shirt, he sits in a community center in Concord waiting for former President Bill Clinton to come on stage.

Armstrong was a meat cutter for 37 years—hunters are his friends, his customers. And he says what the GOP candidates are saying about gun control bothers him much more than the thought of stronger safety measures. 

"It frightens me to think that I would be out in the woods and the hunter not too far from me would have a machine gun to hunt," he says. "It’s just not necessary. If you don’t shoot a game animal with the first shot you sure don’t need a machine gun."

And as candidates take their final laps around the state, these voters holding out for more balanced conversations will probably be waiting long past February 9.