Independent voters a key to race

FREEDOM -- Success in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary may hinge on how well candidates win over the politically fickle as well as the party faithful.

New Hampshire's independent voters -- those unaffiliated with either political party -- have doubled in number since 1992. They make up 44 percent of registered voters, more than Republicans or Democrats, and can vote in either primary, making them a potentially powerful force in 2008.

In a recent poll, 68 percent of undeclared voters likely to vote in the presidential primaries said they plan to vote for a Democrat. That's a significant shift from 2000, the last election with contested races in both parties, when about 60 percent of the independents who turned out voted in the Republican primary.

Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll, attributes the shift to three factors:

  • Changing demographics have made New Hampshire more Democratic, like the rest of New England.

  • Increasing opposition to the Iraq war has made voters generally more interested in Democrats as members of the party most likely to end the war.
  • Candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have attracted enormous media attention on recent trips, raising the profile of the Democratic contest.
  • "With the big visits by Obama and Hillary, I think there's just that attention factor," Smith said. "It's in your face."

    Who are the independents? Other than being a bit younger, New Hampshire's independent voters don't differ much demographically from party-affiliated voters, said Smith, who argues that few undeclared voters are truly independent. Most vote consistently with one party or the other, he said.

    Carroll County, which stretches along the state's eastern border, has the highest proportion of independents. And the most independent town in that county is -- what else? -- Freedom, where 48 percent of the 1,137 registered voters are undeclared.

    Donna Fereira, 46, jokes that just living in Freedom is a political statement. She generally votes for Democrats, but remains an independent "because I don't particularly like either party."

    In the 2004 primary, Fereira voted for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, but she's leaning toward Clinton this time.

    "She's a very strong person," she said. "Especially with everything she's been through."

    Fereira, a project administrator for IBM, lists taxes, gas prices and the war in Iraq as her top concerns, and said she doesn't care that Clinton has refused to apologize for her vote authorizing the war.

    "I think in the beginning, we all thought it was a good idea," she said.

    Though Clinton was the top choice among independents and Democrats alike in a February poll by the survey center, Smith believes the former first lady could suffer the most if independents flock to the Democratic race. He said Clinton will have to guess at the depth of their anti-war sentiment and then ask herself, "How far to the left can I tack on the war issue before I get into trouble?"

    "It's much easier to run in a primary when you know who's going to show up," Smith said.

    Obama, who came in second among both independents and Democrats, probably stands to benefit the most, said Dante Scala, associate political science professor at Saint Anselm College.

    "My guess is that New Hampshire's undeclared voters tend to get excited about the new face in politics, and so far, Obama seems to have laid claim to that," he said. "The undeclareds also are probably the most wary of another Clinton presidency -- they're tired of the same old faces."

    In 2000, it was Arizona Sen. John McCain who captured the hearts of New Hampshire independents. According to exit polls, 61 percent of the undeclared voters in the Republican primary chose McCain, compared with just 19 percent who voted for George W. Bush. McCain -- who won the New Hampshire primary -- also captured more Republican votes than Bush, but it was independents who accounted for the magnitude of his New Hampshire victory.

    This time around, McCain's aura as a Republican rebel -- which previously proved so attractive to independents in 2000 -- has faded as he's sought to position himself as the party establishment's candidate.

    "It's going to be a much more homogenous Republican electorate and much more conservative electorate than it was in 2000, so I think it makes perfect sense for him to tack to the right because that's likely going to be the voter in the primary," Smith said.

    If anyone is going to challenge Obama for the independents, it will be former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Scala said.

    Michael Lee, another independent voter from Freedom, said he has voted for Democrats in the past but probably will vote for a Republican next year.

    "Unfortunately, none of the Democrats look any good," said the 43-year-old boiler maker. "They're liberals, they're not Democrats."

    Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College, cautioned against reading too much into how independents say they will vote this far ahead of the election. Her research has shown independents to be easily swayed by events. She points to 2004, when tracking polls showed independents favoring Howard Dean just before the Iowa caucus, then switching quickly to John Kerry a day or two after Dean "self-destructed."

    "What we saw was people were churning all over the place," Fowler said. "I think independent voters are very susceptible to momentum."