New Hampshire voters are projected to turn out in record numbers Tuesday to help choose the nation’s next president, trudging through potential snow flurries to cast ballots in churches and temples, schools and community centers, and scores of antique town halls from Acworth to Woodstock.
Despite Monday’s winter weather blitz in southern New Hampshire, large crowds are expected at the polls Tuesday. The races in the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries have been particularly frenzied and unorthodox, invigorated by celebrity, grass-roots enthusiasm, and old-fashioned politicking.
Forecasters expect Tuesday’s weather to be decidedly New Hampshire: cloudy and cold with a chance of snow. Longtime political operatives dismissed the suggestion that a few flakes would dampen turnout.
“It has snowed here before. We are a hardy lot,” said Thomas Rath, a Republican who served as New Hampshire’s attorney general. “This is one of our most prized political possessions. Snow is not going to keep us away. This is a real civic exercise that everybody is involved in.”
In the campaign’s final push, overflow crowds packed college gymnasiums and high school cafeterias as New Hampshire’s notoriously finicky voters took their last looks at the presidential hopefuls. Candidates made their pitches in diners and town halls, roadside restaurants, and quaint libraries.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner projected that 282,000 ballots would be cast in the Republican primary and 268,000 in the Democratic primary. The combined turnout of 550,000 voters would represent participation by nearly two of every three Granite State voters.
“I expect that the turnout of this presidential primary will break a record of the number of votes cast,” Gardner recently told reporters in his office, according to NBC News. “I thought that in 2008 we might not see anything like that for a while because that was such an incredible turnout, but I think that this one will actually exceed that.”
The 2008 race saw Hillary Clinton come from behind and upset President Obama after his victory in Iowa. Republicans turned out for Senator John McCain, who used the victory as a springboard to the party’s nomination.
Four years ago, Obama ran essentially unopposed for reelection in the Democratic primary. For Republicans, more than 248,000 cast ballots in the New Hampshire primary, a record high that gave Mitt Romney a commanding victory.
Last week in Iowa, a record number of voters attended party caucuses, which saw particularly high participation among Republicans. But even with the high turnout, the caucuses represented the views of a small fraction of the state’s electorate, involving roughly 17 percent of Iowa voters.
Unlike arcane caucuses hosted by political parties, the New Hampshire presidential primaries are elections run by the state.
Results are driven by the participation of a large swath of the state’s voters, not party activists.
“After a year’s worth of polling and jabbering, actual human beings will walk into a booth and take a secret ballot and vote,” said Dayton Duncan, a Democratic activist from Walpole who wrote a 1988 book about the primaries. “It often proves that all the prognostication had some kinks.”
Compelling narratives in the nomination battles in both parties have generated enthusiasm.
New York businessman Donald Trump has been what Duncan described as a “media meteor” for the past six months as he dominated the Republican field in most polls and demanded attention like a television star. But Trump’s surprising second-place finish in Iowa punctured his air of invincibility.
“Everyone is now waiting to see if the meteor falls to the ground,” Duncan said.
Other Republicans have surged in recent polls, particularly Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
A Suffolk University/Boston Globe survey released Friday also found Governor John Kasich of Ohio in third place, followed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz.
A fiery Republican debate Saturday night threatened to again upend what had already been a dynamic race. Rubio stumbled under withering criticism from Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, and the candidates scrambled to seize momentum in the fallout. Rubio faced continued questions Monday about his debate performance, hours before voters began heading to polls.
“There’s a large component of voters who might be willing to vote for their second or even their third choice in order to give the party a candidate they feel could serve as president and has the capacity to beat Hillary Clinton,” said John H. Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor who helped George H.W. Bush win the 1988 primary and served as his White House chief of staff.
“There’s always surprises,’’ Sununu said. “If there’s no surprises, I’ll be surprised.”
For Democrats, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has gone from longshot to campaign phenomenon. Sanders has led most polls since the fall, but the Suffolk University/Boston Globe survey showed former secretary of state Clinton within striking distance.
The Clintons do have a history of staging dramatic comebacks, starting with Bill Clinton’s surprising second-place finish in New Hampshire in 1992, which catapulted him to the nomination.
For both parties, the stages are set.
“It’s hitting on all cylinders in New Hampshire for this one,” Duncan said. “This is an important election.”
Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.