Independent voters in New Hampshire share a proud, stubborn resistance to let a party define their politics, but not much else.
These unaffiliated voters are a huge electoral force in the state, outnumbering both Republicans and Democrats, and because New Hampshire’s primary system allows them to vote in either Democratic or Republican primary, they could technically sway the entire election.
These voters don’t vote in anything resembling a bloc, and with just a contest on the Republican side, they may not turnout in large numbers in 2012.
“I think we'll see a lot less independents voting, because there's no contested Democratic primary,” said Mike Dennehy, a Concord-based Republican consultant who worked for John McCain in 2000 and 2008. “Some will say Democratic-leaning independents will go in and muddy the waters for Republicans. That really isn’t the case.”
“If they’re motivated mostly by Democratic candidates, they’re not going to go out and vote for a Republican. It’s just the way it is,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean all of these voters won’t be a hard push from GOP candidates turn up their efforts, and they’re already bracing for the onslaught.
Standing Alone, Leaning Republican
Richard Carter of Antrim, N.H., knows that every four years, campaigns have him in their sites, but he’s not sure if that’s a good thing. “Are we coveted, or harassed?” he said, laughing.
He voted for John McCain in the 2008 Republican primary, but he resisted labeling himself as anything other than an independent. “That means I can kind of go either way, depending on who's running and what they stand for,” he said.
And while Republican activists have been organizing house parties and lining up with campaigns for many months now, he’s said it’s way too early for him to get too concerned with the field at this point: “Gotta wait until they all throw their hats in. In New Hampshire, we always have, like, 57 candidates.”
He does know, though, that he wants Obama out.
“I hope he’s only a one-term president,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone spend their way out of debt.”
He’s the kind of voter that campaign organizers like Dennehey would target: an independent with a clear bent toward the Republican party.
And that’s how pollsters handle the field at this point too. This poll out this week, which found Rick Perry just behind Mitt Romney, based its findings on 70 percent Republicans and 30 percent independents “likely to vote in the Republican primary” based on 2008 GOP primary demographics.
Sticking with Obama, Staying Out of the Primary
President Barack Obama won New Hampshire in the 2008 general election by nearly 10 points, but in a poll this July, his approval rating has slipped to 39 percent among independent voters (up from a high of 65 percent during his first year in office).
And for those New Hampshire independent voters who still back Obama, they don’t see a reason to get involved in Republican race.
“Probably not,” Lisa Murray of Temple, N.H., said about whether she’ll vote in the GOP primary. “Unless there's candidates that really strike me that I'm really wanting to support or to not support by my vote. But that hasn't been the case thus far.”
She’s been an independent since Ross Perot’s run for the White House back in 1992, but she said she’s increasingly less likely to consider GOP candidates.
“My impression of the Republican Party over the last few years makes me much less curious than I’ve been in the past,” she said, pointing to “the polarization, the dirty politics sort of thing.”
She said she’s likely to stick with Obama through his reelection campaign. “I think he’s just faced with an incredibly nasty political climate. Under the circumstances, I think he’s hung in there. And I continue to support him,” she said.
The Wily Uncommitted
Between these two poles, there are those independent voters in New Hampshire who refuse to be pinned down and defy all conventional political groupings.
They include voters like Chip Parquette, a retired police officer from Manchester.
“I don't like the Obamacare plan. I think that's terrible,” he said, particularly bristling at the idea of a mandate for health insurance coverage. Between that and the economy, it’s enough to make him want Obama out. “We need a change. We're getting carved here.”
Parquette said he’s checking out Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann. But he said he leans Republican, but hasn’t always stuck to the GOP primaries – including his vote four years ago.
“In 2008, you're going to laugh,” he said. “I voted for Hillary Clinton.”
These more unpredictable independent voters have more leeway to make candidates nervous when there are two contested primaries, because more is up for grabs. That was the case in 2000, when Democrat Bill Bradley lost independents’ support not to his primary opponent Al Gore, but to Republican John McCain.
In 1996, the last year when there was only a contested Republican primary, political forecasters had a difficult time predicting how the impact of independent voters. In the weeks before that contest, the Pew Research Center declared that “independent participation in this primary is an open question.”
Pat Buchanan narrowly beat Bob Dole in the 1996 primary with the help of independents, suggesting that at least for some independents, they valued Buchanan’s anti-establishment streak over Dole’s more moderate politics.
But reaching these potentially decisive voters requires a different strategy than the base-building organizing for reliable Republican voters.
“They’re not going to work for you, they’re not part of the organization, because they’re independents,” said Michael Dupre, a political sociologist at St. Anselm College’s Institute of Politics. “What you hope is that you can convince them.”
What that means is a lot of direct mailings and phone calls. Just ask Glenda Smith, an independent from Deerfield, N.H.
“Honestly, I got rid of my landline because I would get home every day and there would be 5,000 messages on my answering machine from every political party there is,” she said.
Betty Champaigne, an independent who is “usually a Republican, but can go either way,” gets the same pitches year after year, but she said they don’t do much to affect her choices. “I’m too independent, I guess.”
Her voting record lines up with that. Champaigne, a retired nurse from Goffstown, N.H., supported John McCain in the 2008 primary, but voted for Obama in the general election. She’s not supporting the president anymore.
“I am disappointed in Obama so far, unfortunately,” she said, noting that health care and Medicare are her top priorities. “Initially when he was there, he was doing good things, but for some reason, he has turned a corner that I don’t particularly care for.”
On the Republican field so far, though, no one sticks out yet.
“Nobody can make up their mind, right?” she said laughing. “That’s New Hampshire for you.”