NASHUA, N.H. – In the days leading up to today's
primary, candidates in both parties redoubled their
efforts to appeal to political independents, who hold the
key to electoral success in New Hampshire.
The clout wielded by independents has caught the eye of
presidential contenders for a simple reason: This group
has grown from 32 percent of the electorate a dozen years
ago to 44 percent now, far outstripping the rolls of the
two major parties.
Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain of
Arizona and his wife, Cindy, greeted supporters
yesterday during a campaign stop at the town square
in Keene, N.H.
Eight years ago, independents – officially known here
as undeclared voters – made their presence felt when they
overwhelmingly supported Sen. John McCain of Arizona in
the Republican primary, boosting him to a landslide
victory over George W. Bush. Now, pollsters and analysts
say a smaller, but still crucial, segment of that group is
again lining up behind McCain, while a potentially larger
number of independents are preparing to vote for Sen.
Barack Obama, D-Illinois.
Unlike some states, New Hampshire allows independents
to vote in either party's primary.
“It's going to be extremely important on both sides –
because of the volume of it,” pollster Dick Bennett said.
“It is such a big group that it looks like the overall
population of the state, so one candidate is not going to
appeal to all of them.”
Political writer John Marelius will be taking your
questions during a live online chat from 10 to 11
a.m. today at
uniontrib.com/chat, and politics editor
Michael Smolens will be talking presidential
politics at signonradio.com at noon today.
Of the Democratic hopefuls, Obama appears to have
devoted the most time to cultivating independent voters,
often directly appealing to them at rallies. Campaign
observers say his main Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary
Rodham Clinton of New York, has placed a greater reliance
on a strong organization and an appeal to party regulars.
At his first campaign event since arriving here Friday
after his victory in the Iowa caucuses, Obama pointed out
an undeclared voter and good humoredly said that his
campaign would be “coming after you hard.” He alluded to
two of the key concerns of independent voters – the Iraq
war and global warming.
“We have the chance to pull Democrats and Republicans
and independents together and stand up once and for all
and say we are one nation, we are one people and our time
for change has come,” Obama said.
Afterward, one independent voter, John Swope, 70, a
retiree from an insurance company, said, “I think he has a
better chance of bringing the country together than his
opponent – Hillary has an awful lot of baggage. We need to
change America's image in the world and Barack would do
that from the day he's elected. He's preaching hope, and
JOE RAEDLE / Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary
Clinton campaigned yesterday in Manchester, N.H.,
joined by her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, and her
husband, former President Bill Clinton
McCain's aides acknowledge that he will not generate
the same amount of backing from independents as he did in
2000. In large part, that is due to his passionate support
of the war in Iraq, an unpopular cause with many of those
who voted for him before.
But in the last few weeks, no other candidate in either
party has lavished as much attention on New Hampshire as
McCain. He seems to be luring back at least some
independents with a combination of tough rhetoric about
“pork barrel” spending and a willingness to embrace
positions unpopular with the Republican rank and file such
as allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.
Charlie Black, a senior adviser to McCain, said,
“McCain is doing very well among those. So even if there
are fewer independents (in the GOP primary) than there
were eight years ago, we'll win because we'll dominate
however many there are.”
William Gardner, New Hampshire's secretary of state,
estimated that 150,000 independents would vote today and
that overall a turnout of half a million would shatter the
record set in the 2000 primary when 396,000 ballots were
Andrew E. Smith, a pollster at the University of New
Hampshire, said his samplings indicate that about 60
percent of undeclared voters will ask for a Democratic
“I think the war in Iraq is the dividing line for the
undeclareds. We see that undeclareds are much more like
Democrats in their feelings about the war in Iraq,” Smith
said. “So, if you don't like the war and you really don't
like Bush, you are going to the Democratic primary.”
A number of tables at a major Democratic Party
fundraising dinner last week were filled with independents
invited there by the Obama campaign, which paid for their
Russell Ouellette, an independent and a McCain voter in
2000, found himself sitting front and center with other
like-minded voters, listening to what he described as a
torrent of anti-Republican rhetoric.
“Then Barack Obama got up at the end and says nothing
negative,” said Ouellette, 47, a management consultant who
plans to vote for the Illinois senator. “He talks about
the future – about what he is going to do. That is what
independents want to hear. He is paying attention to
While McCain's position on the war has cost him with
voters such as Ouellette, the recent decrease in the
casualty rate in Iraq has given the Arizona senator a
chance to rebuild part of his former independent base.
McCain has also worked hard at casting himself as a
legislator more interested in solving problems than
scoring partisan points. That was the intended message
when he campaigned here last week with Sen. Joe Lieberman
of Connecticut, the Democratic vice presidential candidate
in 2000 and now one of the Senate's two independents.