For Eitan Hersh, once a registered Democrat, the decision to flip his status to unenrolled was easy.
“It takes like three seconds. And,” the Tufts University professor said, “I want to vote in the Republican [presidential] primary.”
But one question has gnawed at him. “Why wouldn’t everyone?”
With a largely drama-less Democratic presidential field, it’s a question a new super PAC is asking in New England and beyond, hoping to persuade independent voters — as well as Democrats willing to drop their party affiliation — to pick their primary ballots strategically in a bid to reshape the open race for the GOP nomination.
Leaders at PrimaryPivot aren’t coy about their motivations. The super PAC wants to “weaken and defeat” former president Donald Trump in key states, including New Hampshire, with its crucial first-in-the-nation presidential primary; Virginia, a Super Tuesday state where Trump escaped with a slim victory in the 2016 primary; and Georgia, which, like Virginia, has an open primary where anyone can pull a GOP ballot.
Their plan: Convince independent and Democratic voters to flood the GOP race, starting in New Hampshire, where it’s targeting the roughly 130,000 independents who voted in the Democratic primary in 2020 with calls and texts.
“You only have two shots to stop Trump. Don’t throw away the first shot,” said executive director Kenneth Scheffler, a registered Democrat who himself plans to change his party affiliation to Republican in his home state of New York, where its closed primary system only allows those registered in a party to vote in its primary.
Scheffler said the goal is to raise a “few million” dollars to expand the group’s reach, including in Massachusetts, where undeclared voters outnumber both registered Democrats and Republicans. The super PAC has yet to disclose its fund-raising figures, and Scheffler did not detail how much it’s raised to date beyond saying it has 20 small donors, including “friends and family.”
“The one thing that is in our favor is that our message is distinct,” he said. “If there’s ever a time for this to work, it’s now.”
But spurring a wave of strategic-minded voters significant enough to dent Trump’s substantial lead and influence the GOP race is difficult, and may be unlikely, according to pollsters, voting advocates, and political strategists.
Every state operates on its own set of rules and deadlines that can either motivate, or deter, voters from pulling an unfamiliar ballot. Strategic voting is also complicated and unscientific: Should Trump opponents vote against him in hopes of blocking his path to the nomination? Or do they actually vote for him, believing he is the Republican — four times indicted and unfavorably viewed by many Americans — best suited to lose in November?
Then, of course, there’s always voter apathy.
“Don’t underestimate humans’ tendency toward inertia,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “It’s hard enough to get people to vote in their own primary, let alone go vote in the other one.”
In a semi-open primary state like New Hampshire, undeclared voters are free to choose any party’s primary ballot they wish. And in New Hampshire President Biden’s name might not even be on the ballot amid a dispute between New Hampshire officials and the national Democratic Party over the latter’s decision to reshuffle its primary calendar.
But, Smith said, there are also relatively few voters who regularly swing between the party nominating contests, picking one ballot in one cycle and the other in the next.
“You might find 25,000 people,” he said. That’s about 3 percent of the roughly 900,000 registered voters in New Hampshire.
There are also complications that may deter all but the most motivated voter from wading into another party contest. In New Hampshire, for example, any undeclared voter who votes in a party primary then becomes a registered member of that party, unless they sign a card or list declaring they want to return to their undeclared status before leaving the polling place.
And a Democrat who wants to change their party affiliation to cast a GOP ballot must do so months before Election Day. New Hampshire officials have yet to set a date for the 2024 presidential primary, but the last day voters can change their party affiliation before the vote is Oct. 6, a mere few weeks away.
“I’ve never seen an example that primary voters are strategic in how they vote. They vote with their hearts,” said Fergus Cullen, a New Hampshire Republican strategist and a Trump critic. But, he added, he appreciates what PrimaryPivot is trying to do.
“Look,” he said, “if my neighbor’s house is burning down and all I’ve got is one bucket of water, I throw it on the house even though I know it’s not going to do any good. I feel a little bit like that with PrimaryPivot.”
Leaders of Trump’s campaign in New Hampshire, including adviser and former state GOP chair Stephen Stepanek, did not respond to requests for comments.
Twenty-four states have open primaries, in which anyone can vote in the nominating race, or otherwise allow independent voters to cast a primary ballot. In Massachusetts, where the presidential primary lands on Super Tuesday amid a cluster of other states, the pool from which people could splash into a primary is huge. Unenrolled voters in Massachusetts outnumber Democrats 2-to-1 and Republicans more than 6-to-1, and account for more than 60 percent of all registered voters.
Massachusetts is also considered fertile ground for anti-Trump sentiment; Biden’s margin of victory in the November 2020 election was larger in just one state, Vermont.
But expecting many to flock to the GOP primary in a show of civic force is “not the reality of our voters right now,” said Shanique Spalding, executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, a voter engagement and advocacy group.
“They’re not looking at it [as], ‘We’re going to come up with a strategy that really teaches people a lesson.’ The lesson they’re trying to show is, ‘You don’t represent me well, I’m not going to vote anymore,’” Spalding said. “That doesn’t solve the problem in the end. But that’s what I see happening — people being disengaged from the process.”
A nonprofit known as PrimaryPower, working in parallel to PrimaryPivot, is also trying to urge voters, regardless of their party affiliation, to go to the polls, recognizing that even in states like New Hampshire, people still need a push.
“Their choice is not between the Democratic primary or the Republican primary. Their choice is to vote in the Republican primary or stay home,” said Robert Schwartz, the group’s executive director. “Our mission is to have as many of these voters choose to go out to vote.”
The efforts began in earnest last month, when eight volunteers with PrimaryPivot launched a phone bank, reaching about 400 undeclared New Hampshire voters who had cast a ballot in the 2020 Democratic primary, according to PrimaryPivot officials. Some of the voters with whom they spoke appeared to like the group’s idea, according to notes the callers kept. Others hung up or scolded them for calling them during dinner.
One woman said her husband, an undeclared voter, would indeed vote in the Republican primary, but she couldn’t because she’s a Democrat. Then the caller told her there was a process by which you could go to town hall and change her affiliation, according to the notes.
“She said she might consider it with some whiskey.”