Democrats battle for New Hampshire's 'undeclared' voters

Democrats battle for New Hampshire's 'undeclared' voters
© Greg Nash

The Democratic White House hopefuls are battling for the late-breaking “undeclared” voters who make up the state’s largest voting bloc, adding a level of uncertainty to the outcome of Tuesday’s primary.

New Hampshire is peculiar in that a plurality of voters — more than 42 percent — are registered with the secretary of state’s office as “undeclared.” Only about 29 percent are registered Republicans, and 28 percent are registered Democrats.

The number of undeclared voters spiked by about 65,000 people directly after the high-turnout general election in 2016.

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These undeclared voters can choose to pick up either a Democratic or Republican ballot on Tuesday, and most are expected to cast a ballot on the Democratic side since President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE will, in all likelihood, win the GOP primary in a landslide.

In speeches at packed school gymnasiums and concert halls across the state, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE (I-Vt.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE, the leading contenders according to the latest polls in New Hampshire, have been tailoring their final pitches to draw in as many independents as possible.

But no one knows which way independents will break, or even how many will vote on Tuesday. New Hampshire voters are notorious for deciding late in the process, often on election day.

“It’s part of the magic of it,” said New Hampshire state Rep. Renny Cushing (D), a Sanders supporter. “It forces candidates to think about what it is that really resounds with all people across political lines.”

The Sanders campaign believes their candidate is a natural fit to match the state’s fierce “Live Free or Die” independent streak.

Sanders has been running as an independent in nearby Vermont for decades, and he won New Hampshire over former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Democratic demolition derby Juan Williams: Don't count Biden out Candidates in Obama's orbit fail to capitalize on personal ties MORE by more than 20 points in 2016.

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Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign, told The Hill that they think more undeclared voters will turn out for the Democratic primary in 2020 since there will be only one contested primary this time around.

“Northern New Englanders tend to be pretty staunchly anti-establishment and Bernie Sanders has always stood up against corporate power and big money interests,” Weaver said. “That’s something that’s appealing to independents here.”

Sanders is facing a legitimate challenge in New Hampshire from the fast-rising Buttigieg, who is betting he can draw right-leaning independents and what he describes as “future former Republicans” into the Democratic primary.

Speaking to a crowd of nearly 1,000 people on Sunday night at the Londonderry Middle School, Buttigieg got a big round of applause when he appealed to disillusioned former Trump supporters and offered them a home in his campaign.

“I do think there are a lot of people who have thought of themselves as conservative but can go no further with this president,” Buttigieg said.

“I mean, if you’re conservative because you care about fiscal discipline and you see this president running a trillion dollar deficit ... or if you’re a conservative because you believe in values but you’re starting to learn that your family values has a place for a family like my household, then maybe we have a chance to find common cause.”

Former Lebanon, N.H., Mayor Suzanne Prentiss, a co-chairwoman for Buttigieg’s New Hampshire campaign, is the kind of undeclared voter that all of the campaigns are hoping to win over.

Prentiss was a registered Republican who supported former New York Gov. George Pataki’s 2016 presidential bid. In 2017, after growing tired of what she viewed as Trump’s divisive politics, she registered as undeclared.

Prentiss came across Buttigieg’s town hall on Fox News and started looking into his record.

“I swung to the middle, and Pete has created a home where everyone is welcome,” Prentiss said.

Buttigieg will face stiff competition from former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Judd Gregg: Bloomberg rising MORE (D-Minn.). Both are pitching themselves as pragmatic centrists in an effort to draw New Hampshire’s undeclared voters to their campaigns.

“I think the undeclared voters are choosing between Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar,” said former New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Chris Spirou. “This was once a moderate Republican state.”

Complicating the picture in New Hampshire: Voters have a record of breaking very, very late in the process, often rendering polls taken only days before the primary useless.

“People here tell a pollster one thing and then go to bed and wake up on election day and cast a ballot for someone else,” said Democratic National Committee member Bob Mulholland. “Some will read the paper on Monday and see that the person they like is only in single digits and then move to someone else. There are a lot of tactical voters like that.”

The fight for the undeclared voters will also take place at the state party level.

The independent voters will have the option to return to being undeclared after voting in the Democratic primary. If they leave the voting booth and do nothing, they’ll remain registered Democrats.

In a state that Clinton won over Trump by fewer than 3,000 votes, the state party will be looking to keep these crossover voters staying on as Democrats ahead of the November election.

“People in this state like being undeclared — this is a state with lots of independently-minded voters,” said Holly Shulman, the spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “We hope that many of the undeclared voters who have become so disillusioned with the Republican Party because of Donald Trump’s and Chris Sununu’s broken promises on health care, women’s rights, and the environment say enough is enough and become Democrats for life.”