Salena Zito

Welcome to New Hampshire: home of granite, the first presidential primary in the nation (mandated by state law) -- and mysterious independent voters.

While granite makes a great countertop, and being the first primary state gets you lots of national attention, it is those independent voters who are the most valuable asset of this tiny state.

New Hampshire has a lot of indies -- 44 percent of the electorate, compared with 30 percent who are registered Republicans and 26 percent who are registered Democrats. Their numbers have increased by 11 percentage points since the 2000 presidential election -- and they matter.

Just ask the two candidates who heavily courted them in 2000: Earning their love and affection gave John McCain a whopping 19 percent win over George W. Bush; losing them marked the end of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley’s campaign against Al Gore.

Voting in the New Hampshire primary is a pretty powerful thing, especially if you are an indie. Unlike most states, New Hampshire holds an open primary, which means an indie can walk into a precinct, pick up either a Democrat or a Republican ballot, become a temporary member of either party, and vote.

That drive-thru party affiliation -- and the fact that indies tend to do a lot of looking and don't make their final decision about a party or a candidate until late in the electoral process -- frustrates campaign strategists and pollsters who try to figure out which way indies will swing in any given election.

Jennifer Donahue, a senior adviser for political affairs at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, says sometimes indies take so long because they are weighing whether to send a message to the party in power.

Arnie Arnesen, former Democrat candidate for governor in New Hampshire and now a broadcaster and commentator, is more blunt: “They are unhappy Democrats, they are unhappy Republicans; they would rather not associate with a party, but they would like to either do damage or anoint.”

So far, it looks like the indies are breaking toward the Democrats. A recent New Hampshire Institute of Politics poll last month showed 40 percent of independents plan to vote in the Democrat primary, with 20 percent leaning Republican and 40 percent still undecided.

Fergus Cullen, New Hampshire’s Republican Party state chairman acknowledges that the energy is on the side of Democrats. Yet he adds that “the more it looks like Hillary Clinton is running away with the Democratic nomination, the less likely it is that independents will participate in the Democratic primary."

“They may shift over to the Republicans if it starts to look like a barnburner.”


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.