New Hampshire Independents Could Boost Kasich, Sanders

Some voters are crossing party lines in the Live Free or Die state.

Republican presidential candidate John Kasich speaks during a town hall event in Nashua, New Hampshire, on Feb. 7, 2016.

Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Nearly half the voters in New Hampshire's presidential primaries Tuesday aren't registered in either political party, and that could be good news for Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Kasich has built his appeal in New Hampshire around a Midwest-sensible persona and tight-fisted fiscal record that many independents love. These undeclared voters are why some predict Kasich could pull off a strong finish here even without the star-power of Donald Trump or the youthful appeal of Marco Rubio.

“He’s not bad-mouthing anybody,” said Suzanne Appleton, 76, who isn’t registered with a political party and usually supports Democrats but is backing Kasich this time. “He’s just saying, ‘You know, there’s a job to be done, and let's just do it.’”

Forty-four percent of voters in the nation's first primary state are independents, up from 40 percent in 2008, according to the secretary of state. They're allowed to vote in either party's primary on Election Day, which could give them significant clout if they weighed in on a Republican contest where at least four candidates are clustered behind Trump for second place.

“It’s a factor that’s gotten bigger every cycle, and it shows no signs of slowing down,” said Steve Koczela, who's surveyed New Hampshire independents as president of MassINC Polling Group and found Kasich and Sanders buoyed by the most favorable perceptions among these voters in a mid-January WBUR poll.

Kasich has made clear he has his eye on these voters, holding more than 100 town hall-style events and embracing his crossover appeal. “I ought to be running in a Democrat primary, I've got more Democrats for me,” he joked on Saturday, according to CBS.

On the Democratic side, Sanders has a “large” advantage over Hillary Clinton among these independents—as well as in the overall horse race—said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “The fewer undeclareds are voting, that would help Clinton,” he said. 

Make no mistake, registered Democrats and Republicans are still essential to the candidates hoping to occupy the White House. No candidate has won a party primary without a plurality of them, said Andy Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. John McCain's 2000 victory with independent voters has somewhat obscured the fact that he also beat George W. Bush among registered Republicans, albeit by a lower margin.

Still, they're a group to watch on Tuesday. A CNN/WMUR tracking poll released Monday found 7 percent of undeclared voters unsure of which party's primary they'll vote in, while the rest were divided about equally between Democratic and Republican.

“They’re the most volatile,” said Tom Rath, a former state attorney general who is supporting Kasich. “The game of three-dimensional chess is always revealed more in the fight for undeclareds than anything else."

JoEllen Cuff, a newly retired medical technologist from Stratham, said she sometimes votes for moderate Republicans but is going for Sanders this time because of his positions on the economy and campaign finance reform.

“I did the calculation on the salary I started with and the salary I finished with, and with inflation involved, I got no raise for 42 years,” Cuff said. 

—With assistance from Mark Niquette in Manchester, New Hampshire.

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