In 2016, he carried independents by four percentage points across the country, according to the National Election Pool exit poll. But in the states that mattered most, independents pulled him across the finish line. For instance, in Michigan, which had the nation’s closest contest, Trump won independents by 16 percentage points over Hillary Clinton.
So which Democrat is best positioned to benefit from the disenchantment that many of these less partisan voters are feeling about the Trump presidency?
Three months ago, the answer was clear. Former vice president Joe Biden was the only Democratic contender who beat Trump — by a narrow seven percentage points — among independents in a theoretical head-to-head matchup in the Post poll.
But in the latest survey, five of the most talked-about Democratic candidates are besting Trump with independents. Biden has expanded his lead over the president to 17 points, while Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) do nearly as well, each leading the president by 16 points among independents. They favor Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) over Trump by 11 points, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg by 10 points.
In other words, the poll suggests that independents are increasingly willing to vote for a Democrat, no matter which of the most likely possibilities the party nominates. It also erodes Biden’s chief selling point, which is that he is the most “electable” prospect in the field.
New Hampshire, which on Feb. 11 will hold the nation’s first primary (following the Iowa caucuses), is as good a place as any to take the temperature of independents, or “undeclared voters,” as they are known here.
They are allowed to vote in either party’s contest and, given that there’s no real race on the Republican side, could be more likely than usual to vote in the Democratic primary. It would surprise no one if independents account for as many as 40 percent of the Democratic ballots cast. New Hampshire is also very closely divided; in 2016, Clinton won it in the general election by less than half a percentage point, with undeclared voters split pretty much right down the middle.
Over the weekend, I sat down with 17 undeclared New Hampshire voters, who were among the 1,500 people attending a “Problem Solver Convention” sponsored by the group No Labels, which promotes the unfashionable concept that it is still possible to conduct the people’s business across party lines.
Just less than half of them said they had voted for Trump. But one of those Trump voters, Rachel Spierer of Manchester, told me she might be willing to vote for a Democrat if the party picks someone like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), who struck Spierer as “a mensch” during Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
“Even as she spoke up and challenged him, the venom wasn’t there,” Spierer said.
While political scientists will tell you that there are relatively few truly independent voters — those who call themselves that generally side with one party or the other — most of the people I talked to said they had cast ballots for both Democrats and Republicans at some point in the past.
Dale Pike of Newmarket told me he used to be comfortable with Republicans back in the era of George H.W. Bush, but has voted more Democratic in recent years.
Pike likes a political slogan he spotted lately: Any Sane Adult 2020.
“I’m not in favor of a socialist. I’m not in favor of that. Other than that, it’s ‘any sane adult,’ ” he said. “My nightmare scenario is I’ve got to choose between Bernie and Donald or Elizabeth and Donald.”
Warren seemed a particular puzzle to undeclared voters in the state next door to hers. Carolyn Stiles of Penacook has been back and forth regarding Warren. “She’s on my list now. She was off, and now she’s come back on,” Stiles said. But Maureen Comfort of Londonderry has gone the opposite direction. She once supported Warren, “but now, I’ve been thinking, she’s so divisive, and that’s what I want to get away from.”
The people I talked to were also, by and large, supportive of the Democratic House’s vote to move forward on an impeachment inquiry in light of growing evidence that Trump withheld badly needed aid from Ukraine to further his own political interests.
They recognize that it is not likely to remove him from office, as the chances of a conviction by the Republican-held Senate are slim. But at a minimum, an impeachment investigation shows “there is some level of accountability,” Tom McGreevey of Concord said. “I think accountability at some level is what people want.”
Accountability is something independent voters have the power to deliver. And it is looking more and more like they are in the mood for a reckoning.