In New Hampshire, is it the Indies?

Jan 7, 2008 11:47am

There’s a feature of the New Hampshire Democratic and Republican primaries that’s important to keep in mind as we look forward to tomorrow’s results: A lot of the voters aren’t Democrats or Republicans. They’re independents – Barack Obama and John McCain’s best groups – and in the past their large numbers have compromised the state’s predictive power.

In 2004, nearly half the voters in the New Hampshire Democratic primary – 48 percent – were independents, a remarkable level. In the 2000 Republican primary, 42 percent. Nowhere else, in either of those years, did turnout by independents approach those levels.

It mattered, particularly in 2000: Independents gave McCain his New Hampshire victory that year, while he lost party regulars to George W. Bush. A big win among independents pushed Bill Bradley close to Al Gore in 2000. And Pat Buchanan won Republicans by just one point in 1996 (actually within that exit poll’s error margin), but beat Bob Dole among independents by 9 points.

McCain and Buchanan went on to lose their party’s nominations, and Bradley never came as close to Gore again, in subsequent states where the independent turnout was lower.

Independents seem critical particularly for Obama in New Hampshire; polls from UNH/CNN/WMUR, USA Today/Gallup and Marist all have him leading Clinton by more than 20 percentage points among independents. Among Democrats, by contrast, Marist has Clinton +6, UNH has Obama +5 and Gallup has Obama +8. How Obama ultimately fares among Democrats on Tuesday will be at least as crucial, looking ahead, as his showing among New Hampshire independents.

On the Republican side the pre-election data are a bit more equivocal, but Gallup and UNH alike both have substantially bigger McCain leads among independents than among Republicans; Marist has both groups about the same.

In Iowa last week, Obama trounced Clinton among independents (who were far fewer in number than in New Hampshire) by 41-17 percent, and McCain finished second among independents in the Republican race to Ron Paul. Obama and Clinton finished about even (32-31 percent) among mainline Democrats in Iowa; McCain, by contrast, landed a distant fourth among his party’s regulars there.

In New Hampshire this year, Obama and McCain have to tussle over who draws independents to their party's primary (so-called "undeclareds" can vote in either). And there are a range of variables to consider beyond New Hampshire. Turnout among independents has varied widely in other states. In Maryland Republican primaries, independents have accounted for anywhere from 28 percent of voters in 2000 to 15 percent in 1996.  In Democratic primaries their share has ranged from 40 percent in Wisconsin in 1992 to 29 percent in 2004; and 26 percent in California in 1992 vs. half that share in 2000. (The 1992 exit polls asked political allegiance a little differently, which might account for some of those differences.)

African-Americans are also a potentially key group in the Democratic race – not in New Hampshire, where there are so few of them, but beyond. In Iowa just 4 percent of Democratic caucus-goers were blacks, but they favored Obama over Clinton by a vast 72-16 percent. Imagine the influence that kind of margin would have in places like South Carolina and Georgia, where blacks accounted for 47 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2004; Louisiana, 46 percent; Maryland, 35 percent; or Virginia, 33 percent.

Obama surely would like to retain that kind of support among blacks. More broadly, it seems clear that if he and McCain can fire up independents elsewhere to turn out, it’d help their causes immeasurably. But ultimately, especially outside of New Hampshire, to win Democratic and Republicans primaries, it’d help to win Democrats and Republicans.

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