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Independent voters key in N.H. GOP primary

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush talled with N.H. Secretary of State Bill Gardner as he arrived to file his papers to be on the primary ballot.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush talled with N.H. Secretary of State Bill Gardner as he arrived to file his papers to be on the primary ballot.(Jim Cole/AP)

FRANKLIN, N.H. — New Hampshire's large numbers of independent voters have contributed to its reputation as a mercurial swing state.

But their impact may be felt like never before in February's presidential primary, playing a crucial role in choosing the winner from this season's crowded and tumultuous field of Republican candidates.

Unlike in many other states, New Hampshire voters who don't register as Republican or Democrat can participate in either party's primary. Republican officials are predicting that these "undeclared" voters — as many as 90,000 of the 250,000 Republican primary voters next year, according to one campaign's count — will be inclined to pull a ballot for the GOP in the first-in-the-nation primary in large part because that contest is much more heated.

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"There is no doubt that independent voters will decide this primary," said Sarah Crawford Stewart, who ran former Utah governor Jon Huntsman's independent-focused 2012 Republican campaign here. "And now is the time when every campaign begins looking for the unicorn: the truly independent voters that you know are there, but you have no idea where to find them."

Among those campaigning hard for this group is former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose brother, George W. Bush, lost to Senator John McCain in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, largely because undeclared voters swung his way.

McCain charmed those undeclared voters by hosting more than 100 town hall meetings at places like the Franklin VFW in the closing days of that year's primary.

At that same veterans hall along the Winnipesaukee River recently, Jeb Bush rejected the notion that he was looking to target independent voters exclusively. "I want to compete for every vote," he said.

Still, Bush's campaign specifically reached out to registered undeclared voters like Lenore Bourdeau. The 77-year-old prides herself on being an independent voter — "I like to vote the person and not the party," she said — but she often picks a GOP ballot.

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And she had received a mailed invitation to Bush's Franklin town hall meeting.

Bourdeau attended because, she said, she has always liked the Bush family and may vote for Jeb Bush because "he is making sense."

A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll this week suggested that undeclared voters would make up 32 percent of the Republican primary electorate. Their preferences were largely the same as likely Republican voters as a whole.

New York businessman Donald Trump and Governor John Kasich of Ohio topped the list for undeclared voters with 19 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Senator Marco Rubio had the support of 12 percent of undeclared voters and Senator Ted Cruz received the support of 11 percent of the undeclared voters who were polled.

Indeed, undeclared voters could have the most impact in selecting among the more establishment-oriented candidates — like Bush, Kasich, Rubio, or Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. These candidates are investing time and money in identifying independent voters.

The super PAC supporting Kasich now has six field offices, a dozen staffers, and 10 college coordinators in New Hampshire geared toward selling his message to these voters. Kasich has staked out more moderate positions on immigration and taxes in recent debates.

Christie has been aided by viral video of him talking about New Hampshire's heroin epidemic. One independent voter recently stripped off his Bernie Sanders bumper sticker from his car to visit the Christie headquarters after watching the video.

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The Christie campaign says that 69 percent of its town hall attendees are Republican and the rest are undeclared voters — a ratio it has been focused on since the beginning.

"There is no doubt that the independent voters will decide this New Hampshire primary, and I think that campaigns are just beginning to figure out what message they can best use to reach out to them," said Mike Dennehy, the Republican consultant who oversaw McCain's New Hampshire primary wins in 2000 and 2008. "It is becoming increasingly clear that a 5-point win among this group could decide who the winner will be, but this group of voters really hasn't begun to pay attention."

The way campaigns craft a message and talk to moderate voters has changed dramatically this campaign cycle. In the past, campaigns placed New Hampshire voters in one of three buckets: Republican, Democrat, or undeclared. Campaigns would then write off members of the other party, work to win the support of their most likely voters, and then, in the late stages of the race, try to show a more moderate message to appeal to undeclared voters.

With the rise of technology, however, campaigns are able to get much more specific.

Data companies can supply voter history with consumer and social media behavior, allowing campaigns to rate voters on a scale of 0 to 100 on how likely they are to vote for a candidate and why.

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An independent who scores a 67 is as important to a campaign as a Republican who also scores a 67.

But in New Hampshire, all the big data have not replaced voters who want to meet and talk to candidates for president, like 77-year-old Dorothy Knowlton and Dave McKay, a couple from Sanbornton.

Both are registered independents, both plan to vote in the Republican primary, and both are shopping for a candidate. They have attended multiple events in a day to see different candidates near their house.

In an interview, they said they are looking for someone who can manage the country. Among those on their list are Bush, Kasich, and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.

Lately, though, Knowlton said she has been flirting with the idea of voting in the Democratic Party "just to mess things up for them."


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell, or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at bostonglobe.com/groundgame.