Independent Vote Key in N.H.

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 25, 2007; 4:30 PM

When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) officially declared his candidacy for president today in New Hampshire, he faced a state whose electorate is tilting Democratic, a much different reality than what he found in 2000 when he trounced then-Gov. George W. Bush in the GOP primary.

Over the past eight years, the number of independents -- who can vote in either party's primary -- has risen in New Hampshire, while the state has become more supportive of Democratic candidates. Meanwhile, the number of Republicans has declined, many of them appearing to move into the independent column.

The trends are visible in recent election results. In 2006, both of the state's GOP congressmen were booted and its Democratic governor was reelected with a resounding majority. The cause of the political bluing is largely demographic: relatively fast rates of population growth, coupled with an increasingly educated populous, among other factors, according to Peter Francese, a demographic forecaster for the New England Economic Partnership.

The evidence is also in voter registration figures and polling. Currently 43 percent of the state's registered voters are not affiliated with any party. That's compared to 38 percent in 2000. The Republicans had a 35-26 edge over the Democrats in 2000. Now, it's narrowed to a 31-26 edge.

Moreover, independents are saying they plan to vote in the Democratic primary, a major break from 2000, the last time there were competitive primaries in both parties. According to a recent University of New Hampshire poll , 68 percent of registered independents will vote in the Democratic primary, compared to the 62 percent of independents who voted in the GOP primary in 2000.

The immediate effect of the changing political currents is greater excitement and enthusiasm for candidates in the Democratic race. In December, at a fundraiser for the state's Democratic Party that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) attended, roughly 1,500 people showed up. In March, at another fundraiser for the party at which Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was present, some 1,100 people were there. "It's stunning that we had 2,600 to a state party fundraiser over a three and half month period," said the state Democratic chairman Ray Buckley. "That's not business as usual."

But the figures could also reshape the pools of Democratic and Republican primary voters come January. "The Democratic primary will be the much more independent primary," says Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. "The Republican primary will be made up of many more true Republicans."

By Smith's lights, that explains in part the reasoning behind McCain's well-publicized courting of party faithful, in contrast to his more maverick bid in 2000, when independents voted for him in great numbers. The Arizona Republican could have significant trouble recapturing the support of independents this time, Smith figures, because they are strongly opposed to the war, the issue McCain has become most associated with supporting. On the other hand, he might not need them, Smith said. "That's the real reason you see John McCain running more to the right now than in 2000."

On the Democratic side, Obama could benefit from the shift, according to some analysts. "The influx of independents are going to crash the party and flood the Democratic primary in significant numbers. That's got to worry Hillary Clinton. That's got to give Obama hope of stealing one from Clinton," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at Saint Anselm College. "My guess is that Clinton does better among core Democrats than she does among independents. Independents will be more inclined toward a fresh face in national politics," Scala said. "They're not bound by such ties of party loyalty to Hillary Clinton."

In current polling, McCain and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani are in a statistical dead heat in the state, while Clinton leads Obama.

And campaign operatives are not ready yet to invest much in the notion that the bluing of New Hampshire -- and what independents are saying they will do now -- will change the race all too much. Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire adviser for McCain, said, "Independents get into the race when they experience excitement, but they generally don't make the decision until fairly late in the game."

Steve Hildebrand, the early state coordinator for Obama, said his candidate isn't targeting independents specifically, but emphasized that he is reaching out to all voters with an anti-establishment message and that will be an important part of his message to independents. "His message is very important, that we need to change the way Washington works," Hildebrand said."The independent voters are an even larger bloc than they were in 2000. It's an incredibly important part of the vote up there and the candidates who can identify closest with the voters are going to win in that primary."

Bill Shaheen, Clinton's New Hampshire campaign chair, said he doesn't buy the idea that New Hampshire necessarily likes independent-oriented candidates. "New Hampshire tests people," he said. "You wouldn't call John Kerry an independent."

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