Picking a President: How Three N.H. Voters Are Navigating This Year's Field

Dec 8, 2015

Over a presidential campaign season that grows longer every four years, candidates have long counted on voters changing their minds before Primary Day. But we don’t often hear about how or why voters make up their minds in the first place. NHPR followed up with three voters to see how they are forming – and changing—their opinions over the course of the campaign.

Amanda Sobel of Durham works for UNH and is studying for her masters in biology. She’s a conservative who back in September was really excited to see Ben Carson speak on campus.

"I think Ben Carson is very refreshing," she said back then. "He's very well spoken, he has a sincere and very deliberate finesse about the way he speaks and I really appreciate that."

A few weeks later, I met with Sobel back at UNH -- this time, without the backdrop of a presidential campaign event. I asked if she still finds Carson refreshing.

"I do still think that," she said. "I think over time though, he's showing his inexperience as a politician, obviously. I'm not sure if I would vote for him today, but I still think he has a lot more qualities that are good for this role than some of the other candidates."

She also remembered how well she liked hearing Carson rail against political correctness back in September. But in the weeks since, Carson's tendency to push the limits of political speech has, at least once, missed the mark with Sobel.

"He said something about how if Jews in Europe had guns, that maybe the holocaust would've gone differently," she said. "And I understand what he was trying to say...it was just an overblown, under-thought statement unfortunately for him, and I think that's probably going to hurt him."

When politics gets personal

Over in Winchester, you find an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter -- though she wasn’t always so. Back in early September, Linda Neilson was struggling to settle on a candidate in the Democratic primary. But then she heard Howard Dean stumping for Clinton, at a house party in Keene.

"The way he emphasized her no-nonsense attitude, that she's a lot stronger than I was giving her credit for. And we're going to need a very strong president," Neilson said.

And when Neilson was asked then about whether she would stick to her decision…

"...talk to me in November but I'll probably be the same -- I don't change fences easily."

I did talk to Neilson in November, and sure enough, her support for Clinton has only deepened. In fact, she even volunteers one day each week at the campaign’s Keene office. She says the way Clinton handled herself during the hearings on Benghazi helped solidify her earlier decision.

"That cussing eleven hour debate, or grilling, or witch hunt, or whatever it was -- she never broke a sweat," Neilson said. "She's just dealt with everything that people have thrown at her with strength and a cool head and, God, if we ever needed a cool head in the White House, now this is the time."

Another deciding factor for Neilson is more personal.

"I'm 73 years old," she said, "and when I was coming up and getting ready to be a productive citizen, so many times I had doors slammed in my face because 'You're a woman, it's not a woman's job'. I have done my very best not to let gender issues cloud me one way or the other, but there is a very small part of me that is saying it is time for a female in the White House. It is past time."

Second -- and third -- choices

Joe Magruder of Concord is also surveying the Democratic field. In early September he traveled to Claremont to see Larry Lessig announce his presidential campaign. Lessig, a Harvard Law professor and political activist, was running a single-issue campaign focused on getting money out of politics. It was a message Magruder was onboard with that fall day.

"The key thing that he convinced me of is that we aren't getting anything done - from wherever you are on the political spectrum - while all of Congress is so dependent on money," Magruder said that day.

Of course, Lessig has since dropped out of the race. So who has Magruder turned to?

"I'm leaning towards Sanders," he said.  "In fact, if the election were today, I'd vote for him."

Magruder has seen his share of candidates. As a former editor and reporter for the Associated Press in Concord, he’s covered eight presidential primaries. But that’s not really shaped his political outlook.

"I retired in 2009, which was in the pit of the recession," he said. "I watched my retirement nest-egg investments sink by about 45 percent. And I read voraciously about who did what and how we got there and everything that happened. And, just frankly, I got radicalized."

Magruder says that Sanders's critique of Wall Street is the best fit for his mood this primary season. But, he’s not limiting himself to just one candidate. In fact, Magruder is anticipating that at some point he’ll support his third choice: Hillary Clinton.

"I think she's the most qualified," he said recently. "I expect her to be the nominee. And come November, I will work for her."

This process that Sobel, Neilson, and Magruder are in —of deciding on a possible president— is a just a glimpse into how so many New Hampshire voters are thinking through their choices right now. And there are still two months to go.