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New Hampshire’s Unaffiliated Voters Have a Knack for Deciding Late

January 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
New Hampshire's unaffiliated voters could make or break some GOP presidential contenders' campaigns in Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary. Gwen Ifill spoke with some still-undecided Granite State voters.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Gwen Ifill has been in New Hampshire for us for the last six days, taking the pulse of voters who aren’t affiliated with either party and who could make the difference tomorrow.

GWEN IFILL: Melindia and Don Byrne of Bedford have a lot of thinking left to do.

WOMAN: Well, for me, it’s really been a process of elimination.

DON BYRNE, undeclared voter: I had to decided who I wanted to vote against in an effort to come down with a small pool of people that I could then see I think that I could support.

GWEN IFILL: The Byrnes, she a college professor, he a business owner, say they are a divided, but undecided household, as independent voters, neither Democrat nor Republican.

He liked former Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s overseas experience. They threw him a party at their home and planted signs on their lawn. She liked Mitt Romney’s personality and family background. But after they heard Romney engage in what they consider China-bashing at this rally last week they changed their minds. By the end of the week, they were checking out Texas Congressman Ron Paul with his uncompromising message of small government, and Newt Gingrich, too.

We have really high turnout. And that means that it's not the activists who determine who wins in New Hampshire like is the case in Iowa. It's regular voters who don't pay that much attention to politics.Andrew Smith, University of New Hampshire

The Romney signs ended up in their trunk.

DON BYRNE: We still have our two Jon Huntsman sign up.

GWEN IFILL: In New Hampshire, such swing voters register as undeclared.

DON BYRNE: It comes to, I have got one vote. Do I vote strategically for the person who I think could beat the president? Do I vote tactically for the person who I think represents my views?

JON HUNTSMAN (R): The only person on this stage as well to have lived overseas.

GWEN IFILL: Melindia is now thinking about voting for Paul or Huntsman. Don is torn between Huntsman and Gingrich. They watched a pair of weekend candidate debates hoping to decide.

The Byrnes are part of the New Hampshire 41 percent, unaffiliated voters who have a knack for deciding late. John McCain won them in 2000 and 2008. And this time, three candidates are competing for their attention, Huntsman, Paul and Romney.

New Hampshire Republicans are less conservative than their counterparts in either Iowa, which preceded them in voting, or South Carolina, which holds its primary in two weeks.

Andrew Smith is a political science professor and director of polling at the University of New Hampshire. Undeclared voters, he said, do not easily fit into a political box.

ANDREW SMITH, University of New Hampshire: We have to think of them as three different groups. There are undeclared who are really Democrats, and they vote and behave like registered Democrats, undeclareds who are really Republican and vote and behave very much like registered Republicans. And then there are those people in the middle that are kind of not partisan, not as political. They’re the ones who are kind of wild cards.

MITT ROMNEY: This president has failed on almost every dimension.

GWEN IFILL: Romney, who was governor of neighboring Massachusetts and leads in the final pre-election polls, pitched part of his appeal to those middle-ground voters during yesterday’s debate.

MITT ROMNEY: We can work together, Republicans and Democrats are able to go across the aisle because we have common — we really do have areas of common interest.

GWEN IFILL: But he was challenged by his competitors on the stage when he claimed not to be a career politician.

NEWT GINGRICH (R): Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? The fact is, you ran in ’94 and lost.

RICK SANTORUM: We want someone, when the time gets tough — and it will in this election — we want someone who’s going to stand up and fight for the conservative principles, not bail out and not run — and not run to the left of Ted Kennedy.

REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas: I don’t see how we can have anybody really compete with Obama who doesn’t challenge this huge empire we have overseas and the overseas spending. I mean this is how nations come down.

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas: As I look from here down to Rick Santorum, I see insiders, individuals who have been the big-spending Republicans in Washington, D.C.

JON HUNTSMAN: The American people are tired of the partisan division. They have had enough. There is no trust left among the American people and the institutions of power and among the American people and our elected officials.

GWEN IFILL: New Hampshire voters who tell pollsters they are weary of Washington and of insincerity appear to be listening for those themes.

Genny Kruzel, a retiree, likes Gingrich’s promise to shrink government, but worries that he can’t be elected. So after Rick Santorum did well in Iowa, she came to see him and was impressed by his social conservatism.

Is it unusual for you to take this long to make up your mind?

GENNY KRUZEL, undeclared voter: No. But the last election, I really wasn’t sure. The last election, I was a registered Democrat, and I switched. and New Hampshire, you know, they don’t like to be predictable. And when the press comes predicting it, they’re going to go the other way.

GWEN IFILL: And Renee Paradis said she is trying to choose among Santorum, Romney and Gingrich.

RENEE PARADIS, undeclared voter: I want somebody to tell us things are in a mess and we have to fix them, and that means it’s going to hurt. And I would rather, you know, him say, all right like Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, they’re huge issues and they need to be tackled.

GWEN IFILL: Newt Gingrich is saying that, too. And so is Mitt Romney.

RENEE PARADIS: I know. I know.

(LAUGHTER)

RENEE PARADIS: So how to decide among the three. And this is why I want to see them all in person. Rick Santorum strikes me as a genuine good guy. Mitt Romney strikes me as a good man. Newt Gingrich strikes me as he’s a little bit maybe, a little on the edge. Everybody I know is undecided.

GWEN IFILL: Jim and Jane Greene started their weekend at a Romney rally.

JIM GREENE, undeclared voter: I like Mitt. I have always like Mitt, but I like Newt Gingrich too. I want a conservative leader that sees the American values with less government, but a strong military.

JANE GREENE, undeclared voter: Because we are given such a privilege of being the first primary that most of the people really understand that it’s important, their single vote is important, and really pay attention to what’s going on.

GWEN IFILL: But registered Republicans still determine the winner. So appealing only to the truly undeclared and undecided has its risks. Among them, they don’t always vote. Registered Republicans do.

The University of New Hampshire’s Andrew Smith predicts two-thirds of them will cast votes on Tuesday.

ANDREW SMITH: We have really high turnout. And that means that it’s not the activists who determine who wins in New Hampshire like is the case in Iowa. It’s regular voters who don’t pay that much attention to politics.

GWEN IFILL: And those regular voters, according to the latest polls, may have already settled on Tuesday’s winner.

ANDREW SMITH: There’s been a perception among both voters in New Hampshire, as well as the other campaigns, that Mitt Romney has this thing nailed down. I think a lot of the campaigns have conceded New Hampshire to Romney. And they’ve taken the scant resources they have got and invested them in states like Iowa or South Carolina where they’ve got a better chance of reaching a more socially conservative electorate.

GWEN IFILL: That electorate will ultimately decide which candidates live to fight another day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With more on the candidates’ closing arguments and which contests they look to next, Gwen joins us now from New Hampshire.

So, Gwen, you’ve not only been out there with the voters. You’re following the candidates. How does it look on the ground?

GWEN IFILL: Well, it looks pretty down and dirty at this point.

Today, we had all of the candidates deciding they’re going to jump right on Mitt Romney because of course he’s the one who looks like he’s going to pull this out tomorrow night, if the polls hold. The interesting thing is that voters have not made up their minds, as we saw in that piece but on the last days of these campaigns, as you know, Judy, the people who show up at these rallies they all have are so curious.

They still have more questions to ask. They may have decided already. They may like the guy or hate the guy, but they still want to know things. Meanwhile, the candidates are accusing each other. I think Rick Perry in South Carolina now has a ringtone making fun of Mitt Romney for saying that he would fire people. Everyone — all the Republicans are attacking Mitt Romney from the left. All the Democrats are attacking Mitt Romney from the left. It’s kind of a raucous final day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is the comment — Romney’s comment that he likes to fire people, is that getting as much attention as it sounds like here and how is he handling it?

We heard him say, well, you know, that happens and the Obama people are going to jump it. But in fact it’s his own Republican competitors who are.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I was at his — he had a little press conference today after an event. And I was there. And he was asked about this very thing. And his answer was, you know what? I’m a big boy. I can take it if people jump on me.

But his larger point was that his comments were taken out of context. When he said he liked to fire people, he was likening that to people having the choice to switch insurance companies. That was the question he was responding to. But, you know, context sometimes doesn’t count, especially in the last 24 hours of a campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Gwen, as we said, he is still far ahead in the polls. He’s expected to win in New Hampshire. A lot of this contest there seems to be coming down to second place and third place.

So my question is, how much of what the candidates are saying is really intended to pitch forward to South Carolina and beyond?

GWEN IFILL: You got it. Everyone is trying to pitch forward, except it’s really kind of interesting, because, as you know, as we talked about this is a very independent state in lots of ways.

And so you hear in the last day Newt Gingrich while still accusing Mitt Romney of being a Massachusetts moderate also saying, you know, I would govern with Democrats in the Reagan model, and speaking to independents. You hear a lot of the other candidates doing the same thing, at the same time saying, you know, I’m going to have a much warmer place to land. This is the Georgia former congressman in Newt Gingrich in South Carolina.

Mitt Romney bringing with him to New Hampshire this week the governor of South Carolina to campaign here with him as well as there. And other candidates — and of course Rick Perry is already on the ground there. Jon Huntsman is do or die here in New Hampshire. They’re all looking forward, but really not much past tomorrow night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gwen Ifill in front of a very sparkling New Hampshire background, thank you. And we will see a lot of you tomorrow night.

GWEN IFILL: See you then, Judy.