Politics

Some N.H. voters are flexible when it comes to ideology

Senator Bernie Sanders greeted Southern New Hampshire students Thursday.
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Senator Bernie Sanders greeted Southern New Hampshire students Thursday.

PLYMOUTH, N.H. — After seeing nine candidates, including four in a single week, Bruce McCracken thought he had finally decided on whom to support in the primary: John Kasich.

McCracken, a 66-year-old retired teacher from Wolfeboro, said he was confident the governor of Ohio could stop Donald Trump from winning the GOP primary — saving the state from “a big embarrassment.”

Then a strange thing happened. McCracken found himself drawn to the opposite end of the political spectrum; he is considering voting instead for the self-described democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders.

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“Kasich, I think, is the best Republican. He’s done a lot. He’s reasonable. He’s just got passion,” he said. “But Bernie has a lot of energy, and he’s surging.”

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McCracken is part of a fickle and potentially pivotal slice of the New Hampshire electorate who say they are deciding between candidates not only from opposing parties but also of very different ideologies. Such gyrations are injecting another element of uncertainty into what has been an utterly unpredictable primary season.

Voters in the state are notoriously late deciders, and independents can switch between the Democratic and Republican contests, voting in whichever contest they find more compelling the day of the primary. With candidates presenting so many options this year, some voters say they are flirting with seemingly contradictory possibilities — say, choosing between Sanders, who promises to fight for state-sponsored health care for all and free college tuition, and Kasich, who vows to rein in federal spending and balance the budget.

Sandra Ziehm, a registered Republican from Nashua, said she has narrowed her choices to Kasich and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — both members of the GOP’s establishment wing. But with a hint of mischief in her eye, she confessed she may become an independent to vote for Sanders in the Democratic primary.

“He’s very good,” she said after listening to the Vermonter denounce the corrupting power of the wealthy at a forum on poverty and the presidency in Nashua on Thursday.

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Ziehm said she liked how Sanders blasted the family who owns Walmart for paying low wages, telling the Waltons to “get off of welfare and start paying your workers a living wage.”

“Anybody who has a brain can’t listen to that about the Waltons and not realize there’s some truth in that,” said Ziehm, who is president of the Nashua Board of Education and a Hillsborough County commissioner. “To me, that’s about being an American.”

She said that while some might accuse her of disloyalty to her party, she believes there is nothing inconsistent about considering a vote for Rubio, Kasich, and Sanders. All three share a similarly even temperament, she said.

“We need people who can verbalize their differences, without alienating the people they’re talking to,” she said.

Independent voters make up about 44 percent of the New Hampshire electorate, and a WBUR poll last week found that about one-third of them have not decided whether they will vote in the Democratic or Republican primaries on Feb. 9.

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The survey found that Kasich and Jeb Bush would benefit most from a strong independent turnout in the GOP primary, while Sanders would get an edge if large numbers of independents voted in the Democratic contest.

“There are still many voters who have not decided which ballot they’re going to pull,” said Steve Koczela, president of MassInc Polling Group, which conducted the survey for WBUR. “They are either totally undecided, leaning in one direction, or have kind of made up their mind but could change.”

New Hampshire has long venerated the role of independents, assigning them an almost mythic power in shaping the state’s political culture. Every four years, they are showered with attention and flattery, held up as proof of New Hampshire’s flinty, maverick spirit.

But only about 4 percent of the electorate are independents who have swung between Democrats and Republicans in recent elections, said Andrew E. Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. The majority of independents tend to regularly vote for one party, Smith said.

“The truly independent, undeclared voters just don’t vote in primaries, so you will find some people who do that but certainly not enough to make much difference in a campaign,” he said.

Smith pointed out that Jon Huntsman heavily courted independents in the 2012 New Hampshire primary, but finished third and dropped out of the race five days later. This year, Smith said, Kasich may also be attempting what Smith called “the full Huntsman.”

Brian Kelly, a 61-year-old caseworker from Hopkinton, N.H., said that despite their differences, he is truly torn between Kasich and Sanders.

“Kasich, I always liked his policies,” he said. “And Bernie has a very powerful message. Neither one is very bombastic. Trump, and Hillary, and [Senator Ted] Cruz — the bark seems worse than the bite. We’re sick of all the noise from the candidates.”

Kasich’s campaign said it has noticed a recent flare of attention from Sanders supporters, and Kasich is almost giddy at the development. The governor said it shows he’s unpredictable and unconventional.

“You know what that tells you?” he said in an interview: “‘Boy, I tell you, I can’t really define him. He’s really interesting. And he’s different.’ What could be better than that?

“It’s not the Democratic primary or the Republican primary,” Kasich added. “It’s either Sanders or Kasich. And they’re different.”

Governor John Kasich of Ohio campaigned last week in Laconia.
John Minchillo/Associated Press
Governor John Kasich of Ohio campaigned last week in Laconia.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson. Matt Viser can be reached atmatt.viser@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.