ALTON, N.H. — Amid all the political robocalls, Bob Longabaugh was excited to pick up the phone the other night and hear a real human being on the other end, a pollster calling about the upcoming primary.
From his home overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee, Longabaugh — an 84-year-old independent voter and retired regional planner — could easily provide clear impressions about the candidates, especially the Republicans. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump? Very unfavorable. John Kasich? Very favorable.
But one question stumped him: Just days out from the first-in-the-nation primary, Longabaugh still does not know which ballot — Republican or Democratic — he will pick on Tuesday.
And he is hardly alone. While it’s not uncommon for voters to be torn between two candidates in one party, many longtime Granite State observers say they have never seen so many independents actually torn between parties.
These independent voters,who are allowed to participate in either party’s contest, are debating not just the familiar questions of which candidate most grabs their heart or aligns with their own policy positions —
Perceiving that Bernie Sanders has a wide lead in New Hampshire Democratic polls over Hillary Clinton, some independents such as Longabaugh say they are drawn more to the Republican primary, where their vote could have more effect in a crowded field.
At the same time, it would be for many an “anti” vote — as in anti-Trump, anti-Cruz, or anti-Marco Rubio — and a way to help a more moderate candidate such as Kasich survive beyond New Hampshire.
“I’m truly independent, and if I vote Republican, I like this guy,” Longabaugh said after a Kasich town hall meeting at the local American Legion post. But as a socially liberal “Rockefeller Republican” who feels abandoned by the GOP’s rightward shift, Longabaugh has voted for more Democrats in recent years, and he really likes Sanders.
“It’s going to come down to the wire,” he said, preparing to rush home from the Kasich forum to light a fire in the wood stove and watch a televised Democratic debate, taking his role as a first-in-the-nation voter seriously. “I keep going back and forth on which way I’ll be more effective.”
It’s a genuine dilemma, agreed Berkley Latimer, a 68-year-old semiretired teacher, who has found things to like and dislike about Democratic and Republican presidents in the past, calling Bill Clinton “a rascal but . . . a pragmatist” and George H.W. Bush “a very decent man who squandered an incredible opportunity to do good after Gulf War I.”
Latimer, who lives in Concord, favors candidates with experience — “we don’t need any more first-term senators running for president” — and feels some days like he is ready to vote for Clinton. Though he thinks she has “too much baggage,” he believes she would be a more effective president than Sanders, whose anti-Wall Street rhetoric he finds excessive. Other days, he wakes up thinking he will vote on the GOP side for Kasich “because I want to keep him in the race.”
“My ideal is that when we get to the actual election that we have on each side someone who could be a nondamaging president,” he said. “That’s a pretty low bar to set . . . but I’m really caught between it.”
Given that the rest of the nation looks covetously at the role New Hampshire plays in the selection process, independents such as Latimer are a subset here — voters trying to maximize their power in a state with an already outsized voice — whose vote might carry even more weight relative to others.
Though undeclareds make up nearly 44 percent of New Hampshire’s 873,932 registered voters (compared with 26 percent registered Democrat and 30 percent Republican), they share an aversion to labels more than they share a common set of views. They are divided roughly into thirds among those who typically lean Democratic, lean Republican, or are true centrists.
A new Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll of 500 “very likely” Democratic and 500 “very likely” Republican primary voters included 286 who identified as independent/undeclared voters; a sizable majority (three-fifths) planned to vote in the GOP primary this time. And that doesn’t include independents still trying to make up their minds.
At a forum in Derry this week, veterinarian and independent voter Troy Huelle of Auburn said he had been considering Sanders — liking his unvarnished economic message and that he doesn’t seem to be “in someone’s back pocket” — but was now leaning toward the GOP primary, for one reason.
“I’m voting for whoever has the best chance of beating Trump,” said Huelle, 50, who had come out to see Kasich to see whether he would make the best recipient of an anti-Trump vote. A Nebraska native, he’s still adjusting to casting a primary vote that counts; he sometimes sits out the primary as a partisan contest, but he is terrified that Trump, whom he called “an arrogant ass,” could wreak irreparable national and global havoc from the White House.
At the same Kasich forum in Derry, librarian Jona Bostwick said she voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary, but “I don’t feel that connected to her this time.” Her two grown sons are Sanders supporters, but she is leaning toward the Republican ballot, also to cast a vote against hard-right candidates. “Of all the Republicans — I’ve looked at all the debates — Kasich is the only one that I could feel comfortable with,” she said.
Alan West, a 64-year-old psychologist from New London, calls himself a liberal-leaning independent pragmatist. Among all the candidates, he most appreciates Sanders’ message. But even if the Vermont senator’s lead in New Hampshire polls is real — after all, John Kerry made a 20-point swing in two weeks to overtake Howard Dean in 2004 — West questions whether Sanders could ever win the nomination or the White House. And even if he did, West doubts Sanders would be able to get his agenda through Congress.
“So I’d like to support the message, but then on the other hand I really don’t like Trump, and I’d like to see somebody be a viable candidate against Trump — but I don’t want that to be Cruz or Rubio; I don’t like those guys,” he said. Which leaves West mulling a kind of “like affair” with Kasich. “He’s not Mr. Personality, but he does seem like he’s got some pretty sound ideas.”