The Independent Effect in the New Hampshire Primary

Jan 10, 2012 11:07am

New Hampshire holds the first in the nation primary today. The stakes are high for the remaining GOP candidates, with the exception of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is foregoing New Hampshire to campaign in South Carolina.

New Hampshire’s primary has a rich history, and residents of the Granite State take their state’s role in nominating presidential candidates seriously. In 1988, then-Gov. John Sununu said of the New Hampshire primary, “the people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents.”

New Hampshire’s contest is different from Iowa in several way: Its primary awards delegates, its voting contest uses a traditional ballot featuring a long list of names, and New Hampshire’s primary is open to independents – or as they register in New Hampshire, “undeclared”- voters.

Of the 767,383 registered voters in New Hampshire, 312,621 are registered as “undeclared,” or roughly 41 percent of the total registered voting population, a larger percentage than both Republicans (30 percent) and Democrats (29 percent). Historically, these voters have contributed in large blocks to the Republican party primary. According to past exit polls, voters who identified as being “independent” have never accounted for less than 30 percent of the total voter turnout in the GOP primary in the past 20 years.

The group hasn’t always voted in line with the Republican Party. In 1992 they split even for incumbent President George H.W. Bush and his primary challenger, Pat Buchanan, at 48 percent each. In 1996 they split evenly again- this time for Pat Buchanan and then Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, 27 percent each. Bob Dole, who eventually went on to win his party’s nomination that year, lagged behind with 18 percent of the independent vote.

In 2000 Independent voters overwhelmingly supported John McCain, with 62 percent among voters identifying with this group. McCain still received the majority of votes from the independent sector in 2008, but his margin of victory was smaller — he received 38 percent of the vote, while Mitt Romney received 30 percent.

“Independent voters are not necessarily predictable,” says Professor Dante Scala of the University of New Hampshire. “They break late, they don’t have strong partisan allegiances. We’re not talking about all undeclared voters, because some of them behave like partisan voters, but there is that group in the middle that is truly independent.”

Scala believes that candidates who are currently running ads might benefit from this middle group of independents. The most likely beneficiary in that scenario, Scala hypothesizes, is Jon Huntsman, who is one of only three candidates running ads in the state. Ron Paul and Mitt Romney are the other two candidates on the airwaves in the Granite state.

While Romney has consistently polled as the front runner, and Ron Paul supporters are a very dedicated group who have likely supported Paul for a long time, Huntsman could benefit from that casual, late-breaking voting block, asserts Scala.

“If you’re a casual voter and you’ve seen Jon Huntsman in the last week and you really haven’t been following the race much you might say ‘I like Jon Huntsman.’ But he’s got to depend, in part, on that casual voter getting out there.”

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