There isn’t the usual frenzy that New Hampshire voters are used to in the days leading up to the presidential primary, which this year takes place on Jan. 23, 2024.
But even without the traditional debates between candidates and back-to-back public appearances by candidates, voters are still being inundated with advertising, including by mail, explains Dante Scala, a political science scholar and expert on elections at the University of New Hampshire. Voters there understand the particular significance of their participation in the first primary of the election season, Scala said.
The voter makeup in New Hampshire has some unique aspects, Scala explained in an interview with The Conversation. This is the main factor that could shift the expected results of Tuesday night’s election.
Every four years, the national media descends on New Hampshire. What do they get wrong about the state’s voters?
The chief misconception is media outlets tend to group undeclared voters with independent voters. Voter registration works differently in different states. In New Hampshire, you can register as a Democrat, Republican or an undeclared voter. Undeclared means that you are undeclared toward either party, Democrat or Republican. Undeclared voters make up the largest portion of the New Hampshire electorate.
What polling reveals is that a lot of undeclared voters are really partisans. They behave as partisans, their voting patterns are partisan – except for the fact that they choose not to declare as such on the voter rolls.
Political campaigns will aid and abet that perception, saying that their candidates will be very popular here because their strategy includes reaching independent voters. That kind of strategy goes back decades.
There are true independents here, but they are a minority of those undeclared voters.
What is the purpose of registering as an undeclared voter?
They are the free agents of New Hampshire politics. People might want to be discrete about their political identity. It also allows them more freedom.
As an undeclared voter, I could go to the polls and ask for either a Democrat or a Republican ballot and can essentially become part of either party for the five minutes it takes me to vote. I can then fill out a form that then reverts me back to undeclared status.
Right now, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is losing badly to former president Donald Trump among Republican voters in New Hampshire. She is hoping that a lot of the undeclared voters show up and vote for her.
Do undeclared voters make polling less accurate in New Hampshire?
Even at the last minute, there can be volatility in turnout and voter preferences. The best example of that is in 2008, when there was a Democratic presidential primary debate just before the New Hampshire primary. Famously, a panelist asked Hillary Clinton about her likability. Clinton answered, and then candidate Barack Obama interjected, saying, “You’re likable enough.”
That became the stuff of legend. Women voters in New Hampshire felt that Obama’s remark was condescending to a female candidate, and there was backlash against Obama. Who’s to say what really moved the vote, but Clinton won in New Hampshire.
There can be a lot of last-minute volatility in a primary that polling might not catch.
To me, it feels as though the undeclared voters are the only flipping point in this election. Republicans, and especially conservative Republicans, make up a majority of the electorate here – there are a lot of moderates, but conservatives outnumber them. And current polling suggests, over and over, that conservative voters have made up their minds.
The flipping point could be an unexpectedly high turnout of undeclared voters, as well as independent voters and Democrats, registered as undeclared, who participate in the primary because they want to disrupt the Trump train and vote as undeclared. This is the biggest variable out there.
Do New Hampshire voters feel any pressure leading up to the primary?
A lot of them do. The electorate is relatively politically attentive and well educated.
This time around, though, when I turn on the evening news on the statewide TV station, there is a vibe that this is not an especially competitive race. And the national political media, as well, is saying that this New Hampshire primary is not very competitive. Will the mood on Tuesday be what it is today, which is that the outcome is all but inevitable and Trump will win?
More attentive voters will show up regardless on Tuesday, because they feel like it is their obligation. My question now is how will this attitude affect the more casual voter, if they think that the election is already determined?
What’s the question the media asks about New Hampshire that you never want to hear again?
Different types of media will ask different things. International media will want a primer on how the presidential nomination process works, which admittedly is complicated and hard to explain. A news site like Politico may want to do a dive on independent suburban voters.
I am getting a little tired of talking about independent voters. It is the right focus, but I am mostly tired of hearing myself talk. I have been asked repeatedly about independent voters, and my answer is not going to change much from Monday to Friday. To me, my favorite part of what happens on Tuesday night is after the polls close and I see what I got right and what I was wrong about. When all is said and done, there is this quiet, and the voters speak.