PELHAM, N.H. – Don’t even try to predict the outcome of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
No one can. The voters are too independent-minded, too contrarian. Stop them in the diners, shopping malls or while they’re shoveling Monday’s snow off their sidewalks and many will say they’re still making up their minds.
Polls say a third to half of the voters were still undecided in the last hours before polls open just before dawn Tuesday. That’s not unusual as this first primary in the nation approaches; since the modern New Hampshire primary began in 1952, last-minute surprises have been the norm.
That stage is set again Tuesday. Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump have held on to big poll leads for weeks, and polls suggest that they’ll win.
More intrigue lies with the undercard. The drama here involves who’s going to become politics’ next big thing as the campaign caravan decamps Wednesday for South Carolina and Nevada.
Hillary Clinton, way behind in New Hampshire polls, was walking ice-lined streets knocking on doors and visiting a doughnut shop, hoping for a strong enough showing that she could claim momentum.
Among Republicans, Marco Rubio seemed to be moving up, though Saturday’s debate may have stopped his climb. John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie were getting overflow crowds.
In pastoral Pelham, a town of 13,000 near the Massachusetts border, candidates found Selectman Bill McDevitt. He’s leaning to Bush, but “I could change my mind Election Day.” He wants the candidate who’s most electable.
They ran into Fredye Sherr, a school psychologist. She thinks carefully before making a choice. “We want to hear people in New Hampshire,” she explained. She’s seen five Republicans and leans to Christie, the governor of New Jersey.
McDevitts and Sherrs are everywhere. Two of every five voters in New Hampshire register as “undeclared,” meaning they’re not affiliated with political parties and can vote in either primary.
Picking a president here is a delicate responsibility. Yes, Clinton, a former secretary of state, and Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, won Iowa’s caucus a week ago. But to New Hampshire voters, that was an unusual affair in a very different state. This is pure secret ballot. Turnout is usually huge; it could easily top 60 percent Tuesday.
“It’s a cultural phenomenon,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “New York has the Brooklyn Bridge, New Hampshire has its primary. It’s what we do in the winter.”
People are proud of their role. They’ve toppled presidents, fired warning shots to front-runners and upended conventional wisdom.
Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 never visited the state during the primary campaign, won anyway and went on to become president. Eugene McCarthy mobilized anti-Vietnam War sentiment in 1968 and pushed President Lyndon Johnson out of the race and the White House. Jimmy Carter erased the “Jimmy who?” label here in 1976. Ronald Reagan in 1980 began his climb to the White House with a big, unexpected win. Bill Clinton’s 1992 comeback had the same effect. The same year, Pat Buchanan’s strong showing signaled a rough road ahead for President George H.W. Bush.
Polls tease. They say several candidates are poised to be 2016’s breakout star. Clinton is about 13 percentage points behind Sanders in an average of the polls but eyes that all-important beating of expectations to make her the night’s media star.
Her shoe-leather effort impressed Sarah King, a student at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. “I’m a very detail-oriented person, and I like her plan for college affordability,” King explained.
The more volatile race involves Republicans. Trump offers that independent spirit New Hampshire folks love. On Monday he took an unusual step – for him – of barnstorming the state.
At lot of Granite Staters like their outrage less raw, though. That’s an opening for Cruz; Christie; Kasich, the governor of Ohio; Bush, a former governor of Florida; and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
They have appeal as conservatives who are not too doctrinaire, show some leadership skill and have enough orneriness in them to convince people in the “Live Free or Die” state that Washington’s ways won’t consume them. John McCain, the no-nonsense Arizona senator who won the 2000 and 2008 primaries, fit the resume perfectly.
Everyone today has a list of potential choices. The deciding factors: electability and a feeling in the gut that this person could be president.
Stephany Kalil, a Bedford computer programmer, was intrigued by former business executive Carly Fiorina, but “it’s a throwaway vote.” Kasich “appeals to the Democrats,” so that’s a plus.
Denis Robinson, a Portsmouth lawyer, appreciated Trump’s ability to “say what’s on his mind” and was interested in Rubio. “I wish Rubio had more of what Trump does,” he said.
Rubio is the toughest quandary for these voters. They see him as a winner in November, they’d like to have a Hispanic candidate and he has a certain star quality.
Then they think of the Saturday debate, where Christie fired away at Rubio’s inexperience and style while the senator kept responding with the same lines about President Barack Obama’s flaws. The question Tuesday is whether people will remember or forgive.
“Yes, he stumbled. It was a horrible moment,” said Amy Dobski, a Nashua teacher. “But there were some other things he said that were more positive.”
What will decide this election is an intangible, a very personal verdict about who’s best for the job.
Joanne Sawyer, a Goffstown computer analyst, is eying Sanders and Kasich. “I’m all over the map,” she said, laughing. She found Christie “too loud” and Cruz devious.
Sanders is “interesting and enthusiastic,” Sawyer said, and fits her yen for socially liberal candidates. But Kasich has a down-to-earth style and has shown he can work with all sorts of people.
“I’ll be one of those people,” Sawyer said, “who goes into the voting booth Tuesday and decides.”
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