New Hampshire voters hit polls: why the Granite State matters

Many Americans say they're independent voters, but tend to stick to one party, anyway. Granite Staters could be the real deal, adding to the primary's suspense.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
Voters walk to cast their ballots in the presidential primary at Bedford High School in Bedford, N.H., Tuesday.

Are New Hampshire voters the real deal when it comes to "independence"?

Plenty of Americans love to claim they're "Independent" voters: a record high of 43 percent told Gallup in 2014 that they were neither Republicans nor Democrats, an odd statistic in light of politicians' seemingly unprecedented polarization. Yet most of them "lean" towards one party or the other, leaving just 11 percent of American voters truly noncommittal. 

But as the first primary of the 2016 election gets underway on Tuesday, New Hampshire Independents stand poised to make a big impact: 44 percent aren't registered in either party. Unlike Iowa, where a party registration is required to caucus, all those Independents can make their voice heard in the "Live Free or Die" state's primaries.

Three weeks before the primaries, a poll from Boston's WBUR found that 29 percent of New Hampshire's Independents planned to vote in the Democratic primary, and 38 percent in the Republican. Just 9 percent were truly undecided, but that still could be enough to change the game, pollster Steve Koczela said.

According to the poll, which was conducted by Mr. Koczela's MassINC Polling Group, Granite State Independents liked John Kasich and Bernie Sanders by a wide margin: the only candidates who made a positive impression, in fact. At the time, 6 percent of independents had a favorable opinion of Gov. Kasich, and 27 percent had a favorable opinion of Sen. Sanders. The race to be least likable was a near-tie between Donald Trump, at 37 percent, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who "won" by a hair at 38 percent.

If lots of those Kasich admirers show up to the polls, Kasich could be nearly tied with Mr. Trump among independents. Those dynamics leave Trump and Hillary Clinton nervously hoping that their opponents' fans will stay away from the polls, be convinced to vote for them at the last minute, or vote for someone from the opposite party – anything to take away votes from their nearest competitors. 

Despite Americans' fondness for the "Independent" label, actual swing voting is becoming less frequent. Swing voters have become "mythical creatures, unicorns," Peter Grier wrote for The Christian Science Monitor in December, in a cover story exploring how extreme partisanship has shifted Congressional politics, grassroots voters, and even the presidential primaries. 

"Campaigns are changing their strategies to focus on the people who are at the ideological extremes rather than centrist voters," Fordham University political scientist Costas Panagopoulos told Mr. Grier, since politicians feel increasingly safe that they can capture the same partisan votes over and over. Democrats and Republicans can risk backing controversial policies embraced by their most fervent backers, since fewer people are truly debating which party should get their vote. 

New Hampshire may be one of the last hold-outs for "real" Independents: actual swing voting, switching one's party vote from election to election, is frequent, Mr. Koczela told WBUR.

And indecisiveness has no party boundaries: as of early Tuesday morning, 55 percent of Republicans in New Hampshire didn't know who they'd vote for today, nor did 36 percent of Democrats, according to a WMUR/CNN poll. Trump led the Republican field with a predicted 31 percent, and Sanders led Democrats with 61 percent; Sen. Marco Rubio, Senator Cruz, and Mrs. Clinton trailed with 17 percent, 14 percent, and 35 percent, respectively.

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