In New Hampshire, independent voters turn to alternative media

The undecided in the first US primary use the Web and e-mails for news to get closer to candidates.

Anyone who doubts that voters are often bypassing traditional media to learn about candidates should spend a little time with Russ Ouellette.

The New Hampshire independent estimates that he spends six to seven hours a week these days reviewing his options on which presidential contender to vote for. He keeps a list of all of them, crossing names out one by one as he eliminates them or they drop out of the race. Spirited discussions with his wife or his father are nearly as frequent as perusing websites such as The Hankster or getting Google News alerts pegged to key words he's chosen, including "independent."

Then there are the four to five e-mails his friends send each day with Web links he should check out. That's how he discovered Democratic candidate Barack Obama's speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa last month. And he was wowed but not completely sold, he says.

As voters like Mr. Ouellette mull over their choices, they're using old means of communication – like word-of-mouth and personal contact with candidates – as well as new ones like the Internet. What they're relying on less is traditional media. Even here in New Hampshire, where voters make more of an effort to stay informed than the average citizen, many are paying less attention to TV news and newspapers than in past election cycles. Though these civically-minded voters can't ignore it, especially with the myriad debates on cable news, they're finding that it's not all that helpful in their decisionmaking and sometimes serves as a mere distraction.

"People are deeply cynical about the media these days," says Michael Krasner, a political scientist at Queens College in Flushing, N.Y. "They are relying more heavily on friends and family, and it may open up the Web as an alternative source of information."

Nationally, a majority of people are suspicious of press coverage of the campaign. Sixty-four percent do not trust it, and 61 percent say that 2008 coverage focuses too much on trivial issues, according to a survey released last month by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University.

In the Granite State, home of the nation's first primary, it's a running joke that New Hampshirites can't make up their minds until they meet the candidates. "They want to see them in the flesh, talk to them and ask them questions," says Mr. Krasner. The sheer number of candidates in such a small state means that voters can often trip over them.

Democratic candidates more visible

Nearly three-quarters of Democrats or undeclared voters likely to vote in the Democratic primary have been called on the telephone by a campaign, while 35 percent attended a campaign event, according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll released this month. Just 17 percent had spoken with or shaken the hand of a Democratic hopeful. In contrast, among Republicans or undeclared voters planning to vote in the GOP primary, 54 percent have been called, 17 percent have attended a campaign event, and 15 percent have spoken with or shaken the hand of a GOP candidate.

But lately it has become more difficult for voters to see candidates of either party up close. A compressed primary calendar has states' contests so close together that New Hampshire is competing for attention among the other states with early contests, including Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida.

"It's not that they're snubbing New Hampshire but that the compression ... requires them to be in other places," says Wayne Lesperance, professor of political science at New England College in Henniker, N.H. New Hampshire's primary on Jan. 8 comes just five days after the Iowa caucuses.

Under these circumstances, voters find that it's best to get as close to the source as they possibly can. When Donna Richards, an independent, isn't poring over a candidate's website, she may be grilling a candidate's representatives when they come to her door or call her up, she says.

"I find that the candidates have some very articulate and knowledgeable young people working for them and they're able to pretty accurately speak in their stead, which is helpful," Ms. Richards says.

The staff of Democratic contender John Edwards has impressed her. She refers to an 80-page online document that outlines his policies. "His campaign workers have it down cold," she says.

She also discusses candidates with family members. When her brother came to her Nashua, N.H., home, he noted the Obama sign on her lawn, which her college-age son had put up. It precipitated a discussion at the dinner table about Obama, whom her "die-hard Republican" brother also likes. "My son likes Obama; my brother likes Obama. I probably will consider that in my decision," she says.

And campaign coverage from cable news? CNN is "celebrity news network," Richards says dismissively.

Lunch hours of online politics

For Betty Ward, an independent, picking a candidate is equally intense. Each day the third-grade teacher devotes her lunch hour to reading websites such as AlterNet, BuzzFlash, Digg, and The Huffington Post. She frequently skips over the mainstream media outlets, saying that they're not as objective as she would like. As Ms. Ward ruminates over candidates, she often talks over with friends the issues she cares about, including Iraq and the economy.

When Richards can see the candidates, she, like many New Hampshire voters, prefers townhall-style venues where the candidates can engage with voters and see "how they answer questions off the cuff." She was offered tickets to see Oprah in Manchester but turned them down for that reason.

Richards approaches whom she will vote for the way she does all other important decisions in her life, she says. She's researching and digging, but still waiting for the "aha" moment. "It hasn't hit me yet," she says.

Independent voter Andre Gibeau says being flooded with information is the best way to make an informed decision. The self-described news junkie says he watches MSNBC's "Hardball," CNN, listens to NPR in the car, and reads all different news websites. "I probably watch more news than most people find healthy," he says.

Voter: Media unfair to underdogs

But even he expresses disappointment with the coverage because he wants the media to "give truly equal time to all candidates and all ideas – not just give time to the candidates everybody thinks are popular."

Though he talks about the race with his wife and father, "it's very personal in terms of who I finally choose." He's leaning toward picking up a Democratic ballot but hasn't settled on a candidate yet, he says.

While experts note that voters are often led by a feeling, Mr. Gibeau says this should not supplant reason. "We're all given the ability to reason. The gut feeling is an excuse for not using reason."

Similarly, he says relying on "faith is a little too mystic for me. Faith is something that I rely on for everyday. Praying to show me who the best candidate is I don't think is going to do it."

Negative campaigning can change a person's opinion of a candidate. Say, for example, if a candidate were personally attacking another candidate's intelligence or morality, Ouellette would reconsider voting for him or her.

Gibeau says he tunes the candidates out at this point, figuring that they're not sincere.

For voters, the decision can rest on whether they like a candidate and whether they see the contender as electable. It could be strategic, too, says Dante Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

"Strategic voting could happen in New Hampshire more than other places because of the open process," says Mr. Scala. "Undeclared voters can be a Democrat or Republican for five minutes with no consequences. There's no lingering cost for crashing one party and leaving."

Voting strategy crosses party lines

Ouellette explains how he's caught between wanting his vote to be "meaningful" and wanting to vote for candidate he likes.

"Do I vote in the Republican primary and vote for Ron Paul because he's a maverick and I want to send a message? Or do I vote for Obama and do something for Obama so that he can beat Hillary [Clinton], because I know she's not someone I want? I'm not voting for: 'Yeah, this is the guy.' This is the decision process that I'm getting into. I don't want to do that. I want to feel compelled to vote for someone because I love them and I feel passionate about them," he says.

Gibeau's rationale is a bit different. "This is the fun one where you get to vote for whoever you like. The general [election] is about the lesser of the two evils," he says.

Part 1 appeared Nov. 20.

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