MANCHESTER, N.H. — Like many voters in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, David Wilson kicked the tires on more than one candidate before making up his mind.
He was charmed by Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator. But in the end, he was swayed by the experience of former senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
“Up until the Democratic debate in Durham, I went back and forth between Hillary and Bernie,” said Wilson, a retired special education teacher here in Manchester, the state’s largest city.
“I like Bernie, but I don’t think he is realistic. I don’t think people will cooperate with him. I think Hillary will get it done.”
After months of taking measure of the candidates, voters appeared to turn out in strong numbers for the first primary election of the presidential campaign, dutifully making their way through the aftermath of a snowstorm to cast their ballots.
At polling stations across the state, many voters said they backed candidates they hoped could shake up national politics, while others chose candidates they felt were best equipped to bridge partisan divides. In interviews, many said they carefully compared a range of candidates, even across party lines.
For many Democrats, Sanders’ populist message resonated.
“Bernie Sanders totally spoke to my heart,” Betsey Carter of Portsmouth said. “He’s bringing politics back to the people.”
On the Republican side, the polarizing campaign of real estate tycoon Donald Trump loomed large, motivating supporters and detractors alike.
Martha Spalding, 59, stood outside in the snow at her polling center in Salem to encourage voters to support Trump.
“He’s an entrepreneur; he’s had a lot of experience working with people,” said Spalding, who is retired from the Coast Guard. “And I think he can make America great; I think he will fulfill that promise.”
But Deb Richard, a special education educator from Manchester, said her overriding goal was to derail the Republican front-runner.
“I’m really just trying to stop Trump,” said Richard, who voted for Governor John Kasich of Ohio. “That’s my issue. We need to get Trump out.”
In Nashua, Ward 1 moderator Pat Chadwick said the election was one of the busiest she had seen in her 30 years working at the polls. By early afternoon, poll workers had already filled and sealed multiple boxes of completed ballots, emptying the machine so it wouldn’t get too full.
“We don’t usually have to pull ballots this soon,” Chadwick said.
Some couples, like Pat and Rudy Parent in Salem, split their votes. Pat, 70, voted for Clinton, while Rudy, 69, backed Sanders.
“I have been disappointed with the Democrats for the past three to five years because they let the Republicans get away with everything,” Pat Parent said.
In Hollis, Ron Ace, an undeclared voter, said he was drawn to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida as the best alternative to Trump and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, each of whom he described as too extreme. “There are a few other ones I think are OK but don’t have much chance of winning,” he said.
Several voters said their votes were strategic and didn’t necessarily reflect the candidate they want to be elected.
Sanders supporter Kim Beers said she voted for Kasich specifically to hurt Trump.
“I plan to vote for Bernie in the general election,” she said.
Renee Van Leuven, a retired nurse and undeclared voter from Manchester, said she wrestled with her choice before picking Clinton for her “experience and wherewithal.”
“None of the Republicans caught me and made me want to vote for them,” she said. “Bernie has energy and great ideas but not a lot of substance.”
Maria Ryan, 51, a hospital chief executive, voted for Republican Carly Fiorina, saying she had faith in her.
“I just wish she had more traction,” she said.
Dave Lagrowe, a 63-year-old cost manager from Salem, supported Cruz, the winner of the recent Iowa caucus. “He stands up for what he believes in, tells the truth, and has a backbone,” he said. “What more could you want?”
Billy Thompson, 26, a regional account manager for Verizon, voted for Sanders but didn’t sound thrilled about it.
“He’s the lesser of four or five evils,” he said.
A Kasich voter, Tim Horgan, 30, said he was adamant about bridging the partisan divide.
“We need voters to vote for people who will work with the opposite side,” he said.
Voters were also confronted with a new law requiring them to show identification. As a first-time New Hampshire voter, Julie Marie Hoey had to register before she could cast her ballot in Nashua. But even with a heavy crowd, she was out in 20 minutes. That didn’t include a 15-minute stop to chat at the bake sale in the corner.
“It was very simple — easier than I expected,” she said.
In Manchester, Ed Donnelly was among two dozen early voters who woke up before dawn to clear the snow from their cars and beat the crowds.
“I voted for Trump because I’m voting for change,” says Donnelly, 68, a retired painter. “I think he’ll shake things up.”
Although he is a registered Republican, Donnelly says he was also seriously considering Sanders for the same reason, change. But Trump won him over with his strong stances.
“I like what he stands for,” Donnelly says. “All of it.”
In a state with a proud political tradition, some voters felt a twinge of nostalgia.
In Manchester’s eighth ward, Trump supporter Jim Bennett recalled casting his first presidential vote for Jimmy Carter. It’s a vote he now regrets. “I used to be a Democrat,” he said. “Then I migrated to Ronald Reagan. I see Donald Trump as an American icon, a modern-day Teddy Roosevelt. He knows how to create jobs, and he will.”