Why Independents Hold the Key

By: Wall Street Journal

Presidential campaigns, like sports events, play out amid a blizzard of statistics. But if you have to keep in mind just one number, make it this one: Almost 45% of New Hampshire’s voters are officially registered as “undeclared” — that is, they are independent voters.

These independents, able under New Hampshire rules to vote for either party in the nation’s first primary on Jan. 8, may represent the most important group of voters in the land. They are likely to determine, among other things, whether John McCain’s candidacy can be revived, whether Barack Obama can sustain whatever momentum he gets out of Iowa’s caucuses, whether Mitt Romney actually is best-positioned to win the Republican nomination and whether Mike Huckabee’s rise in Iowa will turn out to be just a flash in the pan.

More than that, New Hampshire independents are a reflection of the growing number of independent voters nationwide, who have been trending toward Democrats in the past couple of years. Their behavior in New Hampshire will be a good clue about how independents will behave in the general election in 2008. “They’re the ones who hold the wild cards,” says Tom Rath, a longtime Republican activist in New Hampshire now working for Mr. Romney. “They tell you a lot about the general-election electability of a candidate.”

Important as these New Hampshire independents are, though, their behavior is nearly impossible to predict right now. It is likely to be heavily influenced by the outcome of the Iowa caucuses just five days earlier. Their unpredictability, in fact, makes the campaign a game resembling 3-D chess.

Here’s why: Under New Hampshire’s rules, undeclared voters can show up on primary day and choose a party in which to vote. In essence, they can simply move to whichever primary looks more interesting or important.

On paper, at least, they are the single biggest force in the state. As of the end of October, just under 30% of New Hampshire’s voters were registered as Republicans, about 26% were registered as Democrats and just below 45% were undeclared, according to the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office.

Some of these undeclared voters, of course, are really Democrats or Republicans at heart, and will vote accordingly. Mr. Rath estimates that the share of New Hampshire voters who are truly independent is more like 25% than 45%.

Still, they will determine the shape of the game, and the trick isn’t to own them but to rent enough of them for the day on Jan. 8. So far, tracking done by the campaigns suggest these independent voters, leaning the same way as independents nationally, may be twice as likely to vote Democratic as Republican.

Yet that’s subject to rapid change, as history has shown. In the 2000 campaign, it appeared that many New Hampshire independents were poised to vote in the Democratic primary to back former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who had tailored an antiestablishment campaign to appeal to them.

But when then-Vice President Al Gore thumped Mr. Bradley in the Iowa caucuses, many of these independents decided Mr. Bradley was a lost cause. So they readily crossed over and voted in the Republican primary for Sen. John McCain, the other 2000 candidate who had cultivated a maverick persona and targeted his message directly at independents. That propelled Sen. McCain to a dramatic victory, ending Mr. Bradley’s hopes and nearly derailing the Republican candidacy of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Now Sen. McCain, his national campaign struggling, is trying to use New Hampshire’s independents to catch lightning in a bottle again. He’s running ads aimed straight at them, stressing, among other things, his crusades against pork-barrel spending.

But the McCain appeal has two problems. The first is that his stance in support of the war in Iraq doesn’t go down well with many independents.

The second is that the Democratic campaign is starting to look exciting enough to lure away many of these independents. If Sen. Hillary Clinton were to win in Iowa, she might well appear to be on her way to winning almost everywhere else, considering the lead she enjoys in other states. Independents may decide the more meaningful vote would be in the Republican primary, which appears far more fluid.

But right now, Sen. Clinton actually is running just behind Sen. Obama in Iowa, which means the Democratic race in New Hampshire may be a hot ticket that draws in undeclared voters, some of whom are intrigued by Sen. Obama anyway. That would leave mostly core Republicans to vote in that party’s primary — bad news for Sen. McCain and good news for Mr. Romney, who leads in New Hampshire polls.

So Sen. McCain’s hope has to be for Sen. Clinton to pull ahead in Iowa, making the Democratic race less competitive and liberating New Hampshire mavericks to step into the Republican primary and vote for him. That may explain why he often has nice things to say about Sen. Clinton.

Oh, and a footnote: One other person watching the behavior of the New Hampshire undeclareds closely will be New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the one person who could yet launch a truly independent presidential campaign that would go after such voters head-on next year.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:

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