In N.H., the Swing Voter Is Vanishing

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

CONCORD, N.H. -- As Sen. John McCain, a Republican running for president, touted the endorsement Monday of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a maverick Democrat-turned-independent, it seemed designed to capture a legendary brand of New Hampshirite, a state icon on par with the moose: the independent voter.

New Hampshire law allows people who are registered as "undeclared" to vote in either party's contest in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. That has led political strategists to speak respectfully of the swing voters who wait until the last minute to decide which party's primary to vote in, thereby exerting an outsized, and unpredictable, effect on the outcome.

Such voters are expected to make up at least a quarter of the vote on Jan. 8, and all the candidates are in hot pursuit. McCain (Ariz.) is touting his appeal among centrists such as Lieberman (Conn.). Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is offering his mix of social moderation, fiscal conservatism and hawkish anti-terrorism rhetoric. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is promoting his reach across the political divide, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) argues that there is nothing more independent on offer than his grass-roots libertarian crusade.

Yet the battle for the independents is taking on a new aspect this year, with implications for both parties' primaries: There are signs that the true swing voter, trying to make up his mind between parties, is much less in play.

Political scientists studying the state have noted in recent years that most of its undeclared voters favor one party, with a slight majority now leaning Democratic, and are thus independent in name only. While a growing share of the state's voters are undeclared -- 44 percent -- at most a third of those voters are seen as true independents.

"A lot of these independents are people who have a leaning, but are typical Yankees who don't want to be identified with any party. Who knows -- maybe they think that they'll get less appeals for money that way? But the bottom line is that they either lean Republican or lean Democratic," said Steve Duprey, a former state Republican chairman who is advising McCain here.

The partisan cast of the undeclared is being borne out even more this election season because of the polarizing effects of the Iraq war and President Bush's tenure in general, both of which are unpopular with the state's unaffiliated voters. In 2000, McCain, running as an anti-establishment reformer, vied with Bill Bradley, the former Democratic senator from New Jersey, for the affections of New Hampshire independents -- a battle McCain won, and one that probably cost Bradley an upset win over Al Gore.

This time, there is far less evidence of a direct battle for independents between McCain (or Giuliani) and Obama, the Democratic candidate who is appealing to many of the same voters that Bradley did. There is a gulf between the platforms being offered by McCain and Giuliani on the one hand, and Obama on the other, that is unlike anything that existed between McCain and Bradley.

McCain and Giuliani vow to stay the course in Iraq; Obama cites his early opposition to the war. McCain is relying heavily on the support of older veterans, while Obama is going after the youth vote. Obama is proposing a large expansion of health insurance, but Giuliani mocks such plans as socialistic.

Many independents who voted for McCain in 2000 or considered it say doing so in January is out of the question because of his staunch support of the war.

"I think George Bush has been simply horrible . . . and I'm afraid that Mr. McCain just doesn't see the direction the country is going in," said Bill Nostrom, a retired dairy farmer from Newmarket. He voted for McCain in 2000 but is planning to vote for Obama.

McCain's weakening hold on independents holds enormous potential for Obama. In opinion polls done by the University of New Hampshire this year, 55 to 70 percent of undeclared voters said they would vote in the Democratic primary. (In 2000, 62 percent of independents who voted did so in the GOP primary.) A few months ago, there was little sign that Obama was taking advantage, as polls showed him doing no better among undeclared voters intending to vote Democratic than he was among registered Democrats.

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