Politics & Policy

Independents’ Day

There are probably enough Independents to go around to both John McCain and Barack Obama.

In the final days before the New Hampshire presidential primary, the million-dollar question appears to be “will Independents vote for John McCain in the Republican primary or Barack Obama in the Democratic primary?”

The answer is likely to be that there are enough Independents — or “registered undeclared” to give each candidate what they need.

Republican Senator Judd Gregg puts the undeclared at about one third of the state, while McClatchy calculates that of New Hampshire’s 850,000 or so registered voters, 44 percent are undeclared. Republicans account for 30 percent of the state’s registered voters, and 26 percent are Democrats. The latest Suffolk/WHDH sample put undeclared at 32-percent.

So we’re talking about a third to a plurality of the Granite State electorate when we talk about Independents or undeclared. But only a much smaller percentage are actually deciding between Obama and McCain.

University of New Hampshire professor Dante Scala, who blogs under the name GraniteProf, cited the research of his colleague Andrew Smith to boil down how many independents might truly be trying to decide between the two party primaries:

There are roughly 375,000 undeclared voters right now in New Hampshire (out of a total of 850,000 registered voters). Maybe 40-45 percent of them will turn out to vote next Tuesday. (Roughly this percentage turned out in 2000, the last time we had contested primaries in both major political parties.) That’s a universe of 160,000 voters. Of those folks, let’s say 25 percent of them are truly independent voters. That’s roughly 40,000 voters. If EVERY ONE of them were deciding between Obama and McCain (and I have seen absolutely no evidence for this, other than a few anecdotes), that would constitute a “swing vote” of 8 percent, assuming an overall turnout of half a million New Hampshire voters next Tuesday.

Scala concludes, “So my guess is that the number of New Hampshire voters deciding between Obama and McCain probably is no more than 3 to 4 percent of ALL likely primary voters, at most.”

So of that four percent or so, how is it splitting?

One New Hampshire politico thinks there may be a late surge of interest in the Republican race, a phenomenon echoed in CNN’s most recent polls. With his big Iowa win, there is an expected bandwagon effect for Obama, which would appear to take some of those ‘four percent true independents’ away from McCain. But as the last round of polls shows Obama’s lead growing, some voters may conclude, as this politico suggests, ‘well, it looks like Obama’s going to win, so let’s vote in the other one.’

But the vast majority of the undeclared could perhaps be more accurately described as all-but-declared. There are right-leaning undeclareds, and left-leaning undecideds, and Patrick Hynes — a consultant to the McCain campaign, who has worked in New Hampshire for fifteen years — put it,

if you could track, say, five undeclareds from year to year, you would find numbers one and two consistently voted in the Democratic primary, and numbers three and four consistently voted in the Republican primary, and number five was the only one who shifted between the two.

For quite some time, the expectation was that the Independents were going to be more interested in the Democratic primary. As Scala notes, “In 2004, 56-percent of Independents voted for John Kerry. Polling in 2007 indicates that 60-percent of undeclareds plan to vote in the Democratic primary.”

But there is some evidence that Independents may suddenly be becoming more interested in the GOP race. It is worth noting that in CNN’s Jan. 4-5 poll, independents said they would split 51 percent for the Democratic primary, 49 percent for the Republican one, and two days earlier it was 56 percent for the Democrats, 44 percent for the Republicans. A week earlier it was 63-37 in favor of the Democrats, suggesting some volatility in those numbers, and the numbers were in that range for much of 2007.

Going with Scala’s formula, if there are 160,000 undeclareds expected to vote tomorrow, then roughly 96,000 will vote in the Democratic primary and 64,000 will vote in the Republican primary.

If the split in CNN’s most recent poll is accurate, 81,600 will vote in the primary for the Democrats, while 78,400 will vote in the primary for the Republicans.

Barack Obama should be grabbing a disproportionate share of those Democratic-leaning Independents; Marist puts the split at Obama 43 percent, Edwards 22 percent, and Clinton 16 percent. John Zogby has Obama leading 47 percent to 22 percent over Hillary among Independents.

The thinking in the McCain camp is that they’re currently sitting pretty, as most polls show them with a modest lead over Romney among registered Republicans. They calculate that if they can win or even tie Romney among registered Republicans, they should still win big, as they think McCain is carrying the Republican-leaning undeclared votes by a margin of 2 to 1.

Interestingly, Marist puts McCain up among registered Republicans, 33 percent to 31 percent, but only up one point among Independents, 34 percent to 33 percent. Zogby puts McCain over Romney among Independents 43 percent to 26 percent, and the two tied among Republicans.

Zogby suggests that the split on the GOP primary will be 76 percent registered Republican 23-24 percent Independent; on the Democratic side, it could be 65 percent registered Democrats, 35 percent Independents.

Expect a lot of the post-vote spin on the Republican side to revolve around the breakdown of the New Hampshire vote, the primary within the primary. If Mitt Romney wins the vote among Republicans, he and his campaign will try to make the case that he’s the true Republican choice, and that as nice as Independents are, that the Republican nominee ought to be selected by actual Republicans. Under that scenario, McCain and his team are likely to argue that they have rediscovered the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s, that they have become, “McCain Democrats.”

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog on NRO.

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