As Primary Day Nears, N.H.'s 'Independent' Voters Weigh a Wide Range of Options

Nov 19, 2019

New Hampshire voters have a lot of options in the 2020 presidential primary — not only because of the large field of candidates on the left, but also because President Trump is facing a rare challenge within his own party.

In New Hampshire, the most popular political party is no party at all: Undeclared or “independent” voters make up the biggest chunk of the electorate. And heading into the 2020 presidential primary, they are the voters with the most choices to make — not just what candidate to support, but what party's primary to vote in. As Primary Day nears, both voters and campaigns are trying to take advantage of this freedom.

Mike and Sherry Cotton have spent most of their lives as Republicans, until a few weeks ago, when they decided they’d finally had enough. The president’s rhetoric, his foreign policy decisions, his contributions to the federal deficit. It was getting to be too much.

“Right now, the Republicans are a disgrace,” Mike said, a few minutes after filing paperwork to leave the party. “Actually, our whole system's a disgrace. But the Republicans more so, our president being the number one.”

“I’m not as conservative as I used to be,” Sherry added. “I don’t think things are black and white anymore, like I used to.”

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

Neither Sherry nor Mike voted for Trump in 2016 — in the primary or the general election — and their view of him has only soured since he took office.

“Mistreating somebody because they disagree with you, that’s our biggest problem,” Sherry said, “and our president has a real problem doing that.”

Needless to say, the Cottons know Trump won’t be getting their vote in next year’s elections. But that’s about the only thing they’re sure of; they don’t even know what party’s ballot they’ll pull in the primary. And for now, they’re fine with that.

“I’m going to vote my mind,” Mike said, “and not party line anymore.”

By updating their party registration a few weeks ago, the Cottons joined the most popular political party in New Hampshire: so-called “independent” or “undeclared” voters, who are allowed to vote in any party’s primary on Election Day.

(Read more: What You Need to Know About N.H.'s Party Registration Rules)

At 42 percent of the electorate, independents are the largest voting bloc in the state — but calling them a “bloc” is somewhat misleading. Their vote can split lots of different ways, for lots of different reasons. And heading into the 2020 primary season, their role could be more unpredictable, and more consequential, than ever.

Some undeclared voters, like the Cottons, do truly want to leave their options wide open. But many others still vote like partisans, despite their “independent” label,” consistently voting for Republican or Democratic candidates.

Then there are voters like Eric Gallager, who try to wield New Hampshire’s registration rules more strategically. He’s usually a Democrat, but after sizing up the party’s field, he decided an easier choice would be to vote in the Republican primary.

“There’s a lot of Democratic candidates, and it’s hard to decide,” said Gallager, who lives in Concord. “At least in the Republican primary, it’s an easier choice.”

Earlier this year, Gallager switched to “undeclared” specifically to vote for former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, one of several Republicans challenging Trump in the 2020 primary. Normally, Gallager said he’d want to vote his conscience — to support the Democratic candidate who most aligns with his values. But since no single Democrat is speaking to him, he feels his vote would be more valuable in the Republican race.

“I want to vote against Trump twice if possible,” Gallager added.

Weld's campaign blanketed local news sites with ads asking Democrats to switch party affiliation to vote for him in the 2020 primary.

Voters aren’t the only ones trying to game the system. Some candidates, including Weld, are also trying to win the New Hampshire primary by appealing to voters who are open to switching sides. Last month, his campaign rolled out a series of web ads appealing to Democrats who might want to “vote against Donald Trump sooner rather than later.”

“My strategy is to spend a lot of time here in New Hampshire and other key states,” Weld told NHPR during a recent candidate forum. “There are 20 states that permit crossover voting, where Democrats and independents can take a Republican ballot.”

Another candidate is making a similar play on the opposite side of the aisle. Democratic Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s team recently sent an unconventional call to action to their supporters: “How many Republicans can YOU flip in the next 24 hours?” (In this case, they were trying to get Republicans to update their party registration to undeclared to vote for Gabbard in the Democratic primary.)

“The support that we are getting from people across party lines, who are going past their own partisan interests and who are connecting with my message of putting people ahead of politics, people ahead of profits, actually putting the people first, we’re seeing that support continuing to grow,” Gabbard told reporters after filing to be on the New Hampshire primary ballot.

An email sent by the Gabbard campaign shortly before the deadline to switch party affiliation.

Some of Gabbard’s supporters are also taking matters into their own hands. A few of them have launched a new political action committee, Open Primary Action, designed to build support for Gabbard across party lines. Its first effort was a website that played off of a series of public disputes between Gabbard and members of the Democratic party establishment, suggesting that Republicans could “help stop Hillary Clinton from trying to control American politics” by voting for Gabbard.

And some Republicans, like James Parker, say they like what Gabbard has to offer.

“She’s not part of the corrupt establishment, she’s her own person,” Parker said at a rally for the congresswoman in Concord. “And we just need somebody like that.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Parker switched parties in recent election seasons. Over the years, he’s been a Democrat, a Libertarian and — since Ron Paul ran for president — a Republican. He was planning to switch again.

“I'm still registered Republican,” Parker explained, “but I will need to change my registration within the next month to vote for Tulsi.”

Unfortunately for Parker, the deadline to make that switch was actually last  month, so he might not be able to vote for Gabbard after all. But another voter, Harold McComas, is alreader registered as “undeclared” - which is great, because he’s still a long way from making up his mind for who to vote for.

Like a lot of people, McComas has been overwhelmed with the sheer number of candidates to choose from in the 2020 primary.

“I just keep listening and listening,” McComas said. “I’m not sure who I will vote for. I’m really undecided at this time.”

When McComas thinks about how to use his freedom as an independent voter, he doesn’t think in terms of where his ballot might make the biggest statement, or which party’s primary is more competitive. The stakes are more personal.

“Our medical care is so expensive. It'll just wipe out your whole life savings if something comes up,” McComas said. “And I know that because I lost my wife four years ago. We were married 52 years. So I know how that is.”

In 2016, McComas voted for Trump, but he says there are moments when he regrets that. For 2020, he says his vote could go to a Democrat or a Republican. Despite his misgivings with the president’s track record so far, he hasn’t completely ruled out voting for Trump again.

“I mean, there is a possibility, yes, that I would vote for him again,” McComas said. “But I can't say 100 percent.”

Luckily he — and the rest of New Hampshire’s undeclared voters — still have a few months before the primary to make up their minds.