On the Political Front: How Undeclared Voters Could Be N.H Primary's Wild Card

Jan 25, 2016

Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

"On the Political Front" is our weekly check-in with NHPR's Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers.  

The weekend brought Hillary Clinton some endorsements from the Concord Monitor and Boston Globe. The Monitor had also endorsed Clinton in 2008; the Globe chose then-Senator Barack Obama. You’d have to see this as good news – perhaps needed good news -- for Clinton.

I’d say so. Clinton also picked up the support of the Des Moines Register out in Iowa. Given the state of this race it’s fair to say every little bit helps, but the endorsements have piled up for Clinton from the start. They haven’t made life easy for her yet.

Both Clinton and Bernie Sanders will be focused on Iowa this week. They were both in New Hampshire late last week; Clinton sat down with NHPR for a candidate forum Friday.  What's your sense of how this race is going?

Well, both Clinton and Sanders have sharpened their critiques of each other. Clinton’s suggestion, pretty much regardless of the issue, is that Sanders’ approach is impractical. Sanders' argument is that Clinton has gotten some big things, fundamental things for many Democrats, wrong: her Iraq war vote, her eager collection of millions in speaking fees from moneyed interests -- close to $700,000 from the financial firm Goldman Sachs, is the most often cited  -- after stepping down as Secretary of State but while readying her campaign.

These critiques square with polling, I assume.

Yes. A poll out last week from WMUR found 60 percent of likely primary voters see Clinton as the more plausible president based on credentials. It also showed those about half of those polled voters see her as the least trustworthy Democratic candidate. Now the trust issue isn’t a new problem for Clinton, but polling suggests it seems to be getting worse. Not a good time for that, obviously.

Hillary Clinton at The Exchange's candidate forum.
Credit Kate Brindley for NHPR

Now you are talking about likely Democratic primary voters. That’s Democrats and independent, or undeclared voters.

Yes, and the role of undeclared voters, who at about 40 percent of the electorate, do outnumber either party, is something campaigns are struggling to sort out this year.

Isn’t it always a struggle?

Well, there are a few rules of thumb. One is that primary winners have always carried the majority of their party – in 2008 for instance President Obama had more independent support than did Hillary Clinton but she had the support of more registered Democrats and won. Another thing worth remembering is that undeclared voters, at least the ones who vote regularly, tend to lean – often decidedly – towards one party or the other. So some true swing voters are out there but most independents aren’t likely to swing much. Yet there is also some truth to the idea that independents will go where the action is, i.e. vote in the more exciting primary and that competitive races boost their turnout.

One thing I’ve heard from some undecided independent voters is I haven’t made up my mind, but I know I don’t want to vote for Trump, and I don’t want to vote for Clinton.

I’ve heard some of that too. And whether its attributable to the fact that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the best-known candidates running and evoke strong feelings, or if there is something more nuanced to be gleaned I don’t know. I’ve spoken to enough people who lean Democrat who say they plan to take GOP ballots to try to slow down Trump, and enough people who lean Republican who want to weaken Clinton that I’m prepared to believe there will be a good deal of what you might call strategic voting this year. But if you look at the numbers from the last time we had competitive races on both sides of the ticket, 2008, there were around 530,000 ballots cast, and about 197,000 of which came from independents.

Donald Trump
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

So is it possible that the New Hampshire primary might be won this year by a candidate who didn’t carry the majority of their own party?

Well, when you’ve got candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – who sell themselves as real breaks from their parties, and in the case of Sanders, the guy only became an official democrat when he filed to run in NH, who knows? But if it were to happen it would be far more likely on the GOP side where there are more candidates to split the registered Republican vote. The arithmetic on the Dem side makes it less likely. But as far as the Democrats go I’ll mention another thing about that WMUR poll I noted earlier that was interesting:  it showed Sanders leading Clinton among registered Democrats. A first for that poll, and while it could be an outlier, if it were to hold, Sanders would be looking very good.

Two weeks is a long time in at the tail end of a New Hampshire primary year.

That’s a very good thing to bear in mind.