New Hampshire primary: why late deciders rule

As New Hampshire votes Tuesday, less than half of likely Republican voters say they have made up their minds. For likely Democratic voters, the number is close to two-thirds who have decided which candidate to back.

David Goldman/AP
A voter walks in to a polling site to to cast a ballot in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday in Nashua, N.H.

For some New Hampshire voters, it is almost a fetish: waiting until late in the game to decide whom to support in Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

Reporters are dying to talk to you. Friends and family lobby you. Maybe you even get on TV, enjoying 15 seconds of fame as you opine on the pros and cons of your potential choices. Some voters make a decision, live with it for a while, and then reconsider.

“I was with Carly [Fiorina] but she’s far behind, so last week I landed on Marco [Rubio],” says a retired teacher in Manchester, demonstrating what’s known in politics as the “bandwagon effect” – wanting to go with a potential winner.

“I’m leaning toward [Ted] Cruz,” says student Paul Cahill, attending Donald Trump’s rally Sunday at Plymouth State University. And what about Mr. Trump? “I’m here to watch the show.”

Also there to watch Trump perform was Bill Zeiler of Bow, N.H., who said he came to “look at the unbelievable.” So who would he actually vote for on Tuesday? “I’m not sure yet,” he says. “I”m looking at [John] Kasich and [Jeb] Bush, two guys with proven records” – one the governor of Ohio, the other the former governor of Florida.

Some undecideds call themselves “shoppers,” and announce as much when they ask questions at town halls, essentially telling candidates to “impress me.”

Four years ago, nearly half of New Hampshire Republican primary voters made up their minds in the last few days, pollsters say.

This time the number is even greater, no doubt owing to the large, competitive field: Only 46 percent of likely GOP primary voters in New Hampshire say they have definitely decided on a candidate, 24 percent are leaning toward someone, and 31 percent are still up for grabs, according to the latest University of New Hampshire (UNH) poll, released Monday.

The Democratic side, now down to two candidates, is more settled. Some 64 percent of likely primary voters say they have firmly committed to a candidate, while 21 percent are leaning toward a candidate, and 15 percent are undecided, according to UNH.

What’s clear is that the 2016 New Hampshire primaries will settle nothing, for either party. Polls show Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic vote here easily, so the big question is, by how much? The latest polls are all over the place: UNH has Sanders ahead by 26 points, while the Boston Herald/Franklin Pierce University poll shows Sanders ahead by 7 points. If Hillary Clinton can hold Sanders to a single-digit lead, watch the pundits call that a victory for former Secretary Clinton, as the race heads south into territory that’s friendlier to her.

The crowded Republican field will offer more room for interpretation. If Trump wins here, as expected, the margin will matter. A big margin – along the lines of the current 17-point lead he enjoys in the Real Clear Politics average – will mean he’s still the dominant force in this race. A smaller margin will show that, as in Iowa, he’s not invincible. If Trump loses, that could be devastating for a candidate who has predicated his entire campaign on being a “winner.”

The next question will be how the rest of the field sorts out. If the result is Trump in first, followed by a block of contenders in low to mid-teen double digits, then those candidates are likely to live to fight another day. Those at the bottom may well drop out.

Three in the “establishment” lane – Governor Kasich, Governor Christie, and former Governor Bush – have all essentially taken up residence in New Hampshire, in the hopes of catching fire. Kasich has done more than 100 town halls, has big GOP establishment backing here, and is reported to have a strong ground game. Don’t be surprised if he’s the “dark horse” who emerges from New Hampshire with some buzz, just as Rubio did in Iowa.

Texas Senator Cruz can afford a mediocre performance here. He was busy focusing on Iowa, which he won, and so faces low expectations here.

The biggest question, perhaps, hangs over Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. He performed shakily in Saturday night’s debate, repeating the same line multiple times and reinforcing his opponents’ narrative that he is robotically programmed.

The latest polls didn’t show any significant movement in Senator Rubio’s numbers after the debate. And interviews with voters on Sunday and Monday didn’t reveal qualms about the young senator, at least over his debate performance. Some voters, even those not in his camp, defended him.

“Rubio was staying on message,” says Brian Wienzek, a pharmacist in Manchester attending the Florida senator’s Super Bowl party Sunday evening. “The press is making more of a deal about it [Rubio’s debate performance] than voters.”

And who does Mr. Wienzek plan to vote for? “I’m leaning Cruz,” he says, “but anything can happen.”

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